U.S. Strategist's Formula for Lapid’s Stunning Success: The Candidate, the Message, and the Internet

Mark Mellman, the U.S. political consultant with deep ties to Israel, tells Haaretz that Lapid is 'sweet and smart' and very easy to work with. Politically speaking, he adds, Israel is not as unique as it likes to think.

From the moment they were introduced, political strategist Mark Mellman knew that Yair Lapid would be an extraordinarily successful political candidate. “He is incredibly hard working, incredibly smart, and he has an intuitive feel for middle class Israelis. And he was also a superstar.”

“So when you put all those things together, the possibilities were evident from the get-go,” Mellman told Haaretz this week.

Mellman ascribes Lapid’s stunning success in last Tuesday’s Israeli election to the candidate’s personality and traits - and to the campaign’s decision to focus, almost exclusively, on the single message of looking out for the interests of the middle class.

”One of the key lessons of campaigning,” he says, “is that you have to focus, and that was our focus. Talking about other issues tended to dilute that focus. Talking about the Palestinians and the peace process may not have been detrimental, but it wasn’t helpful either. And when you’re starting from scratch, you have to gain votes, not just not lose them.”

Mellman, 57, is President and CEO of The Mellman Group and is considered one of America’s leading political consultants. He lives in Washington DC, where he belongs to the Orthodox synagogue Kesher Israel, in which former Senator Joe Lieberman also prays. He describes himself as coming from “a strong Zionist household”: His great grandfather was a religious Zionist leader in the U.S. and his mother was a national leader of Hadassah. Mellman was also heavily involved in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

On a professional level, he is identified, first and foremost, with the Democratic Party. He has worked with many Democratic candidates, at the presidential, senatorial, gubernatorial and mayoral levels. He was John Kerry’s main consultant in the 2004 presidential race and may thus soon become the person best acquainted with the foreign ministers of both the U.S. and Israel, if Lapid is given that portfolio.

Mellman, who continues to advise Lapid even after the votes have been counted, says that talk of his cabinet appointment is “premature”. When asked if by becoming foreign minister Lapid won’t be perceived as reneging on his campaign pledge to focus on domestic issues, Mellman prefers not to comment, though he does volunteer that “The ministry of foreign affairs is in part an economic position in developing the relationships with other countries in the world in terms of trade and industry that are important to Israel’s exports and to Israel’s export-led economy.”

Which, technically speaking, isn’t completely true in Israel, because it is the ministry of industry and trade that is charged with fostering Israel’s foreign trade. More importantly, it’s doubtful whether such reasoning will dispel the criticism that is bound to be leveled at Lapid if he becomes foreign minister.

Mellman discounts the current conventional wisdom in Israel that harsh Likud attacks at the end of the campaign drove voters who had intended to vote for Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi into Lapid’s outstretched arms.

“People didn’t hear our message until very late,” he says. “Most of our Internet advertising was in the last ten days, and the obviously very limited seven minutes of television broadcast time that we had also came in the very last two weeks of the campaign. A lot of people just heard the message at the close and I think that’s why you saw the numbers move pretty dramatically near the end.”

Mellman, who has received several awards and citations for his innovative and effective of the Internet and new technologies in U.S. political campaigns, ascribes some of Lapid’s phenomenal success to the decision to invest a major part of its resources on the Web.

“We had limited money that we could spend, and we had to decide between Internet advertising and billboard advertising. We chose Internet, which a lot of people thought was a mistake, but turned out not to be. We had only seven minutes of television time, so the only place we could spend our money effectively was on the Internet.”

And was Lapid an easy candidate work with? He is a “smart and sweet guy”, Mellman says, “but in the end, most candidates take advice from consultants, and then make their own decisions.”

Mellman success belies claims that American consultants are like “fish out of water in Israel”, an argument bolstered in the past week by the lackluster electoral results secured by Likud Beiteinu, which was advised by U.S. consultant Arthur Finkelstein, and of Labor, which had Stanley Greenberg in its campaign.

“We’re used to going places that we may not know well and learning about them in ways that are politically relevant,” Mellman says. “You have to get well acquainted - that’s part of the research process. You don’t have to start out knowing the country well, but if you don’t know the country well by the end of the campaign, then you’re not going to be very successful."

“In any case", he adds, "Israel is not a completely foreign country for me. My sister lives there, some of my best friends live there, and I visit there often. It’s definitely not as foreign as Albania, where I’ve also worked."

Q. But people in Israel think that we are unique

A. What would be truly unique is if someone said “no were not unique, we're like everybody else.” Saying you are unique is not unique. I worked in Chicago, where people on the South Side say: don’t think we’re like the North Side, and don’t think that anything you know from the North is relevant to the South side. But whether you’re working in Hawaii or in California or in New York or in Venezuela or in Albania or in Israel - there are differences, of course, but there are also similarities, and to be able to understand the similarities and the differences is an important part of the job.

Q. So what are the differences in in campaigning between Israel and the U.S.?

First and foremost the restrictions on advertising and money. In America now there are billion dollar campaigns, while for Lapid’s Yesh Atid we had NIS 15 million - far less, even on a per capita basis. In America you can do lots of television that you book weeks and months in advance, here we had seven minutes in a time slot allocated to us.

And there is a big strategic difference between a two party system and a multiparty system. In a two party system, when you go negative on your opponent only two things can happen and both of them are good: either people vote for you or decide not to vote at all. In a multiparty system, however, you can drive them to vote for someone else altogether.”

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Reuters