A month ago, Moshe Feiglin’s libertarian-leaning Zehut (Identity) party was considered a long-shot, at best, in its first Knesset bid since the former Likud MK established the faction in the spring of 2015.
The party, which has run on a uniquely Israeli brand of political fusionism, mixing staunchly nationalist policies vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria with outspoken support for the full legalization of recreational marijuana, was initially perceived as more of an election season curiosity than a viable vehicle for relaunching the political career of Feiglin, the activist-turned-MK who first came into the public eye with his Zo Artzenu protests against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
Only a handful of polls – most by a single polling firm, Maagar Mohot – ever showed Zehut clearing the 3.25% electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset.
Ve’Nahafochu – Everything is turned upside down
In the past couple of weeks, however, everything got flipped upside down. Or, to borrow a Hebrew phrase in the spirit of the upcoming Purim festival, ve’Nahafochu.
Following a gradual climb in the polls which was largely ignored by the press since the party was still below the threshold, Zehut suddenly burst out above the threshold in one, two, then three polls.
Over the course of the last week, Zehut has cleared the threshold in four of the last five polls. And unlike in the past, these surveys were not conducted by the same single firm with a single methodology, but were conducted by five separate companies.
The polls were conducted by TNS, Dialog, Maagar Mohot, Midgam, and Panel Project Hamidgam, with all but Midgam showing Zehut winning four seats in the next Knesset. Midgam’s poll showed the party barely missing the threshold, with 3.1% - just shy of the necessary 3.25%. And that’s a significant improvement over the previous Midgam poll, which gave Zehut just 2%.
Other polls conducted last week also showed Zehut approaching the threshold, with one survey, conducted by Miskar, giving the party a surprising seven mandates.
On the other hand, more established parties currently with Knesset representation have suddenly found themselves in danger of being left out of the next Knesset.
Yisrael Beytenu, the party of former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, has failed to clear the threshold in ten of the fifteen polls released this month, including on survey this week which gave the party just one percent of the vote.
Flash in the pan or the real deal?
But is Zehut’s rise in the polls ephemeral – or will the shift in the party’s fortunes last?
At present, there is just too little data, and a great deal can change between now and election day.
Israeli voters tend to withhold their vote from parties which they feel are at risk of not clearing the electoral threshold. Thus, when a party begins to fall towards the threshold, there is often a movement of supporters away from the faction, towards voters’ second most favored party. Thus when Yisrael Beytenu narrowly failed to clear the threshold in a single poll, voters began to abandon the party in droves.
On the other hand, this effect can also work in reverse, with a sudden surge for parties once they begin to clear the threshold in multiple polls.
If Zehut manages to move upward in the polls over the next week or so, moving past four seats to five and six, the odds will clearly be in their favor to enter the 21st Knesset, given their momentum.
But if the party seems to stagnate at four seats, hitting a low ceiling of support, voters might abandon Zehut at the last minute – as they did the Yahad-Otzma Yehudit joint ticket in 2015 – out of fear the party won’t quite make it in.
Another factor to consider is the party’s heavy reliance on young, first-time voters.
According to the Panel Project HaMidgam poll published Tuesday by Channel 13, Zehut receives a disproportionate amount of support from the 18 to 24-year-old demographic. Within that age cohort, Zehut was the third most popular party, behind the Likud and United Torah Judaism, with 8.6% of the vote – or the equivalent of 10.3 seats, if only that age group were considered.
In other words, the youngest group of voters back Zehut at a rate about two-and-a-half times higher than Zehut’s support among the general population.
While it can be encouraging to win the youth vote, younger voters are actually the least likely to actually turn out on election day.
A 2015 study of voter turnout conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that while there were not significant differences in voter turnout rates among the other age groups, 18 to 22-year-olds were far less likely to vote, and were more than twice as likely not to turnout as every other age group, aside from Israelis over 70. When polled, 14.9% in the 18-22 age group said they did not vote, compared to 7.2% in the 23-49 demographic and 6.9% in the 50-69 demographic.
While the differences in voter turnout among age groups may not be fatal for most parties, a faction which like Zehut relies heavily on the youth vote and is also just narrowly clearing the threshold could easily find itself coming up just short of the threshold on election day because of lower turnout among its base.
That isn’t to say that Zehut’s rise in the polls is not reflective of a real change – it is. But considering that the polls in question only represent a single week in time, and can never be 100% accurate, barely crossing the threshold – even if it is crossed consistently – is no guarantee of success.
That being said, Zehut’s fortunes have most certainly improved, and its odds of making it into the Knesset have gone from a long-shot to something approaching 50-50. If the party can expand beyond four seats in the polls over the next week or so, then it may in fact be a lock.