How Netanyahu’s U.S.-Based Digital Gurus Helped Him Pull Out a Surprise Victory

By
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech next to his wife Sara as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections late on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu claimed victory in elections as exit polls put him neck-and-neck with center-left rivals after a late fight-back in his bid for a third straight term. Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

While much has been made of the boldface names of American politics consulting in Israel’s general election, the party of triumphant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also owes some of his success to Austin, Texas–based Harris Interactive and its management of his online campaign and voter-data accumulation.

The firm, whose founder Vincent Harris rose to prominence by helping a dark horse named Ted Cruz defeat the Establishment pick for the GOP Senate nomination in 2012, is known for creative and unorthodox ways to advance political messages and reach new voters. The firm’s 28-year-old vice-president Michael Duncan explained how its digital tactics translated to its first non-American campaign. 

Define yourself clearly against your opponents … “The majority of Israelis supported the prime minister’s speech to Congress on the issue of stopping Iran. The bump we got of two seats after the speech validates that. President Obama wasn’t a target of the campaign, but the idea that only Netanyahu could stand before the world and have them listen, and that only Netanyahu would do what’s in the best interest of Israel first and not capitulate to pressure from the international community — those were the issues in which he drew contrast with his opponents.”

… and use the internet to make sure everybody sees it. “We set up splash pages to direct people in Hebrew and English to our livestream of the speech. That way we made sure the voters of Israel watched the speech on our site so we could capture their data. Then we cookie’d their browsers so we could chase them around the internet to remarket to them. We also had an English version so we could reach out to the English-speaking community in Israel, but also to have something public-facing for the supporters in America who were defending Netanyahu online. We used search-engine and display ads to drive users to watch the speech on our pages. We reposted positive comments from elected officials, retweeted comments on Twitter. If you look back on the 48 hours around that speech, the engagement rates were just absolutely insane. If you looked at my Instagram page, you can see a live feed of geolocated tweets around the speech. It just broke the internet.”

On message.

Only attack the opponents whose supporters might go to you … In the Israeli political system, “you’ve got over ten political parties running … You’ve got all of these parties across the ideological spectrum that have different bases of support, have overlapping issue sets, have different alliances, and all of that informs a strategy that’s much more nuanced than the politics in the United States … There were times when we were being attacked simultaneously from the left, from the center-left, and also from the right. You had to be very careful with how you were communicating with the persuadable subsets of the population. Just because an opponent might be vulnerable on an issue, you might not attack them, because if they shed support, it might not go to you. Probably the best example is Prime Minister Netanyahu and [Kulanu Party leader Moshe] Kahlon. Kahlon is a natural center-right candidate, and he was formerly of the Likud. Also in his issue set were socioeconomic issues and housing prices, things like that, so we had to walk the line of addressing the needs of his coalition while also reinforcing our message of security.”

… and use Facebook to micro-target those persuadable voters. “There isn’t an organized national voter registration list like there is in the United States. But the campaign did have data on people it knew were Likud members, and also people who we knew had the propensity to vote for right-of-center parties. We used a lot of third-party data targeting our ads. You want to hit Kahlon supporters, who are center-right, with a specific ad on [Netanyahu’s] achievements. We did that by gathering data from the backend of Facebook about those individuals and other individuals who look like them, and then we targeted them with 15-second or 30-second video ads in their news feeds.”

Reinforce your message until the last minute on social media … “All the polling stops the Friday before the election. And that was when we crystallized this election as a choice between left and right. That’s what brought us over the top … Our message online was very simple. It was, ‘It’s us or them.’ ‘Only the Likud can prevent a leftist government.’ ‘Unless we close the gap between Labor and Likud, there will be a leftist government, and the right cannot afford to fracture itself among these smaller parties.’ We called on these voters in the other parties. As we went up, their support eroded. The voters on the right, unlike any other time, really recognized the threat of a leftist government coming back to power in Israel. We had a direct-to-camera web video on the site, and we drove all our traffic there, where the prime minister made his case directly to your face that if you don’t come out to vote on Tuesday, there will be a leftist government in Israel.”

 … and use popular smartphone apps to drive turnout. “We had a big focus on mobile because smartphone penetration in Israel is even higher than it is the U.S. We did a lot — after we gathered that mobile data. A big thing in Israel is WhatsApp. Everyone uses it over here. We were able to gather all of these mobile numbers and feed that data to the field team. We actually had a system that could blast WhatsApp people and get them to the polls. The mobile traffic numbers we were dealing with here were insane.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How Netanyahu’s Digital Gurus Helped Him Win