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ISRAEL: Primaries poll-a-palooza

September 18, 2008 |  9:20 am

Thursday's media-mantra was "the Yom Kippur of the pollsters," a local expression for SO-didn't-see-it-coming failures taken from the Israeli Intelligence lapse to foresee 1973's Yom Kippur war.Livni_2

And indeed, Israel's leading pollsters are seeking atonement after being way off base last on last night's primaries for a new leader of Israel's ruling party Kadima.

The separate, independent exit polls were confident that foreign minister Tzipi Livni defeated transportation minister Shaul Mofaz by at least 10%. Livni's people partied, Mofaz sneaked out the back door and dozens of politicians and friends congratulated Livni on her landslide victory. The people had spoken, and clearly. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Livni, who is poised to succeed him in office.

Yeah, the people had spoken alright. But not the truth, evidently. Because halfway through the night, Livni with one foot out the door to deliver a triumphant founding speech, real results began showing the race was too tight to call.

OK, we're wide awake now. Mofaz's dejected supporters came back to life, the reporters had spring in their step, political commentators and plain news junkies stayed up all night. The gap was narrowed down to 2%, deep inside the margin of error. Livni's landslide was turning into a mudslide.

"Wait a minute! Somebody get our pollster," said Esti Perez, the radio anchor. And get him they did, just as he was walking into the house at 3 am.

"I don't know what happened, I have to see the numbers."

"OK, we'll give you a few more minutes."

"No, you don't understand. I'm home, I don't have it on me," said Mano Geva, who conducted the survey for TV channel 1 and Israel Radio.

The final results came in at 5:30. Livni still won, but by the skin of her teeth with a lead of 1.1%, a measly 431 votes.

Not only the exit polls are coming under heat, but also the campaign-time polls that appeared several times a week in different media outlets. Consistently showing a sizable gap favoring Livni, sometimes by as much as 20%, these are now accused of setting the mood as much as reflecting it -- at least.

Minister Meir Sheetrit, the veteran career politician who came in third, felt marginalized throughout the campaign. An articulate, fast talker, Sheetrit believed candidates should share their qualities and experience with voters in debates. But Livni and Mofaz wouldn't agree on a format and the campaign became a poll-driven popularity contest. Frustrated, the candidate urged party members to base their vote on reason and merit, not ratings, and bitterly accused the media of being superficial. The polls had made him an invisible candidate.

The polls stole victory from Mofaz twice, said pollster Yossi Vadana of Shvakim-Panorama public opinion. One was last night, when results showing him far behind Livni were published while people were still voting. This is illegal under the Israel's campaigning laws, but these regard only general and municipal elections and not internal party primaries. "Kosher but stinks" is the appropriate local expression. The other was in fact throughout much of the campaign, when polls and the media kept inflating the Livni balloon while taking the wind of out the sails of contenders Mofaz, Sheetrit and Dichter.

Everyone got spun -- pollsters, candidates and the public, breaking down statistics and splitting hairs.

Vadana said the pollsters needed to stop being susceptible to pressures and spinologists and work on "automatic pilot." Last night and throughout the campaign, he said, many pollsters, forgot to look at the gauges for balance. He included himself in the criticism, although he was the only one who broke ranks with the pack last week and presented what turned out to reflect reality.

There have been dramas before. "Going to bed with (Shimon) Peres and waking up with Bibi (Netanyahu)" is a widely recognized phrase in Israel -- and it has nothing to do with sleeping with politicians.

A classic one-liner from Peres likens polls to perfume. "Nice to smell, deadly poison to drink."

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Livni's supporters reacting to the exit polls in Tel-Aviv, Wednesday evening. Click to enlarge. Credit:Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press.

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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