Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Before you vote: Why not to trust the polls

The Israeli elections are over. Kadima has them locked up. Why are we even bothering to vote today?

That's the message Israelis have heard from their media for months now. So my message today is: Don't trust the polls. Anything could still happen.

Here's why.

1. Strategic voting

This year more than most, I get the sense that many Israelis are voting strategically. That is, they plan to cast their ballots not for the party which best represents their views, but for one which will either influence the structure of the Knesset in some direction, or will "send a message" of protest.

Strategic voting effectively relies on the accuracy of the opinion polls. That is, a voter who supports Kadima may assume that Kadima has the election locked up (as Olmert foolishly stated a few weeks ago), and thus feel free to vote for a different party to raise other issues of importance to him. Ironically, Kadima's success in the polls is probably responsible for the recent boost in support for Labor. No one wants to see Amir Peretz as prime minister, but if Olmert is prime minister, many voters (though not me!) would like to see Peretz have significant influence in the coalition.

The problem, of course, is that the strategic voter implicitly assumes that no one else is voting strategically, that all other Kadima supporters (for the sake of this example) will continue to vote Kadima, so he can safely vote Labor without affecting Kadima's victory. This is obviously absurd. If everyone tries to influence Olmert by voting for their second preference party, Kadima won't win in the first place.

It's what scientists call a feedback loop. People decide how to vote based on what yesterday's polls say other people decided. Solving those equations would tax the greatest practitioners of chaos theory.

Strategic voting, I suggest, explains much of Kadima's recent fall in the polls. Once voters take Kadima's victory for granted, more of them feel comfortable switching their votes to other parties. If Kadima slips too far, though, voters will shift back to it. How many will do each? We'll know that only on Wednesday morning.

2. Small parties

This year more than most, several small parties have been hovering near the threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset. Strategic voting and feedback loops are at play here too. Many voters would like to support some small party or other, but they are reluctant to waste their votes on someone who will fail to pass the electoral threshold. If all the supporters of Green Leaf, or the Pensioners, or Baruch Marzel, were to vote for those parties, they would clearly succeed. But the chance of failure deters enough voters that "can't pass the threshold" is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each small party which does or doesn't get in shifts at least 2-3 Knesset seats, possibly affecting the coalition balance.

The big unmentionable in this realm affects the Arab parties. Polls see three Arab parties getting 8-9 seats in total, meaning 2-3 seats per party. This is dangerously close to the threshold (which is higher than last time), and some detailed surveys have indicated that one or even two of them may fail to get in. This could crush the Arab factions to just 3-6 seats, enlarging all the other parties proportionally.

3. Voter turnout

All the indications are that turnout this year will be lower than ever. More and more voters are disillusioned with the parties (I know I am), and many of them apparently do not plan to vote, or will vote for parties guaranteed to fail. This is a new phenomenon in Israel, where until 2001 turnout had consistently been over 80%, effectively including nearly all able-bodied resident adults.

As a result, Israeli pollsters don't have much experience developing a turnout model, that is, a way to forecast who will actually cast a ballot. Turnout is likely to depend on one's political and religious orientation, one's ethnic background, and other unknown factors. The pollsters don't know enough about it to give meaningful results.

4. Undecideds

Another unusual factor this year is the high rate of undecided voters this late in the campaign. Though I've already stated my preference, I still toy with the alternatives and have reconsidered my choice several times over the last few days. (Though so far I've ended up in the same place.)

How will people actually vote? All the pollsters can say is that "the undecideds generally break down like the rest of the population". But will they? No one knows.

5. Kadima, etc.

It's the elephant in the room. Kadima is an unprecedented phenomenon, perhaps in any democracy. A popular prime minister breaks away from his own party a few months before the election and establishes a new one, in cooperation with leading members of the opposition. Then he falls ill and is succeeded by his unloved deputy.

And have we mentioned the rise of Hamas? And the aftershocks of disengagement, which undermined many people's faith in Israeli democracy in general, and the mainstream parties in particular?

Too much has changed in Israeli politics to rely on the usual determinants of voter behavior. Opinion polls ask people what they would do if elections were held today. No one can predict will people actually will do behind the curtain.

6. The polls don't agree

How many seats will Yisrael Beitenu get: 7 or 15? Depends on which poll you believe. Maagar Mochot said 15; Dialogue said 7. (Dahaf and Teleseker said 12.)

Will NU/NRP get 8 or 12? That's a big difference in influence, but just about 3% of the votes.

It's hard to get an accurate forecast of the Knesset, since small changes cause large effects. A typical survey of 500 participants has a sampling error of 4%, or 5 seats in the Knesset. And that's without considering all the other sources of error in election polling. How can small parties be meaningfully forecasted with such tools?

Ultimately, it comes down to the methodologies of the different polling companies. They can be more important than what people actually tell the pollsters.

7. The polls' record is poor

In Israel's last election, in January 2003, you probably remember the polls as being pretty accurate in forecasting a landslide for Sharon and Likud. But how accurate were they really?

In the following chart, the first column of numbers is the result of the 2003 elections (in Knesset seats); the second column is the range of results of opinion polls taken the week before the elections.


Am Ehad30-4
Israel BaAliyah23-5
Right/religious bloc6964-69
Left/Arab bloc3334-37

Notice that in most cases the polls underestimated support for the right - substantially in the case of Likud itself - and overestimated support for the left and the Arab parties. None of the polls gave Likud anywhere near 38 seats.

Likud had been slipping in the polls in the runup to the election; that may have induced supporters to vote Likud on Election Day. Kadima's recent slide may also be good for it at in the polling booth. Or it may reflect a genuine drop in support. The opinion polls don't distinguish between these effects.

And let's not mention that Shimon Peres is today the head of the Labor Party, having defeated Amir Peretz as the polls indicated. This came ten years after he was elected prime minister over Binyamin Netanyahu, as the polls indicated.


8. Message: Make your vote count

My point is this: Nothing is over until the votes are cast. Make yours count. Vote for the party you most wish to see represented in the Knesset.

If you give up and throw away your vote, you're letting the pollsters determine the election.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

How to let "chametz" pass your lips

Considering the season and the recent launch of Balashon, I thought I'd finally bite the bullet and address a Frequently Asked Question I've long been evading (unlike the Frequently Unasked Questions I addressed a while back). Judging from the search referrals to this site, a lot of people out there are wondering:

Q: How is the word "chametz" pronounced?

A: If only I knew....

Seriously, though, it depends on one's dialect of Hebrew. Like all languages, and especially 4000-year-old languages, Hebrew has many dialects and accents. This goes back at least to biblical times, and is the origin of the English word shibboleth.

To tell you how to pronounce "chametz" I'd have to know what Hebrew dialect you're speaking. Actually, there are even multiple ways to spell "chametz" using English letters, depending on what aspects of the original Hebrew (חמץ) you're trying to capture best. (See another way to spell "biur chametz" here.)

In fact, among common Hebrew dialects today, the only sound in the word "chametz" that everyone pronounces the same is the "m". The two syllables are even accented differently.

Without further ado, I'll try to describe how to pronounce the word in three different contemporary Hebrew dialects, including two of the most common. Since I'm not a linguist (and, chances are, neither are you), I won't bother with phonemes and pronunciation symbols and other technical jargon. Anyway, I couldn't do it if I tried.

1. Israeli Hebrew
The most common Hebrew dialect today is the one spoken by most Israelis.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ. Taking it one sound at a time:

ch - as in "Bach" - a rough guttural sound like when you clear your throat (but briefly)
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as usual... how else can you pronounce m?
e - as in set, though perhaps with a bit of "ay as in say" mixed in
tz - like the "ts" in "pets"

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how a baseball fan says "the Mets".

2. American Ashkenazi Hebrew
This is the way most American Jews pronounce Hebrew (at least those who haven't adopted the Israeli accent).

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CHA-metz. This is actually a violation of the rules of Hebrew grammar, but it is common for Ashkenazim to change the accenting of Hebrew syllables.

Most of the sounds in the word are the same as for Israeli Hebrew.

ch - as above
a - like the "u" in "hug", or sometimes with more "o" in it, like the "o" in "more"
m - as above
e - a very short, indistinct vowel sound (shewa), like the "e" in "wallets"
tz - as above

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how an American says "summits".

3. Yemenite Hebrew
This is probably the closest contemporary dialect to the way Hebrew was spoken in ancient times. Other Sephardic dialects are similar to the Yemenite dialect in many ways. Even Yemenite Jews who have adopted Modern Israeli Hebrew for everyday speech usually maintain Yemenite pronunciation for prayer.

It's hard to describe some of these sounds to English speakers. I'm also less familiar with it, and I may be wrong on some of the subtleties.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ.

ch - as above, but much softer. Instead of a harsh, grating sound like clearing the throat, it's a gentle rush of air through the back of the throat. Like an "h" with a bit of sandpaper. I can't explain it better than that!
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as above
e - as in set, more or less
tz - like an emphasized "s", with a bit of a hiss. No "t" sound or "z" sound in it at all.

No matter what you do, it isn't similar to the way an American pronounces anything. (An Arab, on the other hand...)

Now, don't get me started on the word "biur"!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tongue twisting

A big J-Blog welcome to Balashon, the "Hebrew language detective" (if you can't tell, that's a double pun in modern Hebrew).

Dave, an amateur linguist, covers a topic close to my heart: the origins of words and phrases in Hebrew and other Jewish tongues. Take a look at his great list of sidebar links! (He could use a blogroll, though. Hint, hint.)

I hope he joins the campaign to save Hebrew's vowels!

Monday, March 20, 2006

A floating voter settles down. Maybe.

In between not blogging, raising a baby, and actually getting things done at work, I've occasionally noticed that Israel is having elections next week.

(Meanwhile, I've usually been reading only Soccer Dad and Hirhurim. Before I continue: Make sure to learn some Nach Yomi for my friend Avraham Norin, may he get well soon.)

I'm still not sure who I'll vote for. Though I'm firmly on the Israeli right, the multiplicity of right-wing parties makes me a floating voter in general elections. Since making aliyah, I voted for the National Union in '99 and the National Religious Party in '03, and there were three or four other parties I considered along the way.

Still, my choice is usually final by a month or two ahead of Election Day. This time, I'm even less sure than usual.

For starters, none of Israel's political parties agrees (at least officially) with my fundamental analysis of our situation: That there are no feasible solutions to our conflict with our Arab neighbors.

  • Kadima (to start with the biggest fish) admits that Israel has no apparent negotiating partner among the Palestinian Arabs. So far so good. But they conclude from this that we should give the Arabs 95% of their perennial demands on us, gratis. Not only will this not solve anything (as even honest leftists agree!), it will only entrench the Arab view that there is no point in talking to us, since we'll ultimately give in if they wait long enough. Does anyone doubt that Sharon's "disengagement" was substantially responsible for the political success of Hamas?

  • There's not much point in discussing Labor and parties to its left. My political and economic sympathies are firmly on the right: I'm pro-settlement, skeptical of territorial compromise, and believe the only prospects for peace are in the very long term, through persistent Israeli military and economic strength and national steadfastness. Need I say more?

  • Likud has some points in its favor. Most of the pro-disengagement gang disengaged to Kadima, leaving the Likud mostly anti. "Mostly", though, still includes a good number of disengagistas. And the "antis" themselves didn't come through in the crunch. Self-declared opponents like Netanyahu, Livnat and Shalom actually voted for the disengagement bill in the Knesset, and backed down on their threat to collectively resign from the government over it. So why should I trust them in the future?

    At least Netanyahu can take some of the credit for Israel's economic recovery; I support his general outlook and most of his specific reforms. But his overall record as a leader of Israel has been mixed.

  • Taking another step to the right, we have the merged National Religious Party / National Union. On the surface, they are close to my position on diplomatic issues, though they don't quite come out and say that there are no real solutions. They are also my natural sectoral home as a nationalist-religious voter. And their candidates are generally decent, well-meaning people, untainted by scandal.

    Unfortunately, they haven't exactly been very successful at promoting their platform in government. They waste inordinate amounts of energy on ideological infighting - aside from the NRP and Moledet, the current merged list includes two separate factions which broke away from the NRP over recent years. They failed to stop or even slow down the disengagement, or even to force a referendum on it.

    Their economic program reeks of Labor socialism - not even a mention of tax cuts. And on one of their flagship issues - the Jewish character of the state - their voice has rarely been heard. Where were they when Shabbat shopping became the rage? The Likud has introduced more Jewish content into the secular schools than the NRP ever dreamed of. And where were they when the Ministry of Religion was dismantled, leaving thousands of mashgichim and burial workers emptyhanded, without anyone clearly responsible for paying their salaries? Oh, yeah - they were in the government, participating in the process.

    For this I should vote NRP/NU?

  • Is Yisrael Beiteinu still a right-wing party? Lieberman these days talks mostly about crime, and rarely mentions his controversial diplomatic statements. He's clearly positioning himself to be a junior coalition partner of Kadima, endorsing whatever diplomatic plan Olmert proposes. And he's adopted a secularist platform to boot. No thanks.

  • Shas and Yahadut Hatorah are purely sectoral parties for the Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi communities. While I have sympathy for some of their goals, they won't stand up for what I believe in. That's just the way it is.

  • Which leaves only the perennial cranks and assorted misfits who insist on founding parties that can't possibly make it into the Knesset. They can't even manage to join forces! The only attraction of such parties is that they afford a protest vote to those who can't bring themselves to support any of the mainstream parties, and who would otherwise stay home. But I'm not interested in wasting my vote - I'd rather help the pragmatic right wing than vote for a hopeless cause.

    Incidentally, I think you'll find that neither of these parties agrees with my no-solution analysis. Both claim to propose solutions to the Israel-Arab conflict. Both are hallucinating. I won't feel comfortable until my leaders are willing to speak the obvious truth. We can't solve our problems by expelling the Arabs, or by negotiating with them, or by supporting a Palestinian state (which won't be established anyway), or by unilaterally redrawing our borders, or by any other practical moves. Not until they change their attitudes towards us. And that's out of our hands.

So, who am I voting for?

My current inclination is towards the Likud. Not because I expect any great results from them. But I'm broadly in agreement with Netanyahu's free-market economic program (I know not all of the Likud supports it); I'm broadly sympathetic with their no-unilateral-concessions platform (I know they might not stick to it); I'm satisfied that they're the only major secular party which is sympathetic to Jewish tradition.

More important, though: The Likud is the only party which can conceivably lead a center-right governing coalition. If the Likud collapses, the political center-right will be leaderless. Kadima is (realistically speaking) center-left; Labor is clearly on the left. No religious party will be forming Israel's government for the foreseeable future. The Likud must be supported if we are ever to expect the right to return to power.

True, Kadima may collapse over the next four years. But I'm not willing to bet the country on that prospect. We need a strong Likud. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am.

You're welcome to try to persuade me otherwise.

Update (23 March): My friend Evie Gordon also makes the case for voting Likud, even more strongly than I do.