The Trump Pollster Who Helped Netanyahu Win Reelection

Netanyahu enlisted John McLaughlin to help get right-wingers to vote, using some of the very tactics that helped the prime minister in 2015 and may help Trump in 2020

Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing
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Benjamin Netnayahu and Trump pollster John McLaughlin in last minute election video
Benjamin Netnayahu and Trump pollster John McLaughlin in last minute election video, April 8, 2019Credit: Screen grab / Twitter
Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video on the eve of Tuesday’s election with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pollster John McLaughlin, together sounding the alarm that if Likud and the right-wing base do not turn out in full on Election Day, a “leftist” government will take over Israel.

“Mr. Prime Minister, right now we are losing the race,” McLaughlin tells Netanyahu, in a video to voters that highlights the premier’s last-minute push to mobilize his base. For the first time, it confirms that McLaughlin was one of the tacticians behind the ruling party’s campaign — something Likud had thus far refused to acknowledge.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 21

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McLaughlin, who boasts over 30 years of experience, is CEO of McLaughlin & Associates, and worked as an adviser and pollster for Trump’s 2016 campaign from the primaries through Election Day. McLaughlin has also worked for other candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and dozens of U.S. Republican senators and congressmen.

Before working with Trump, McLaughlin helped Netanyahu on his 2015 campaign, which ended with Netanyahu making a successful yet highly controversial last-minute, get-out-the-vote appeal to his base, claiming that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” McLaughlin later boasted that the move had nothing to do with the final outcome, and told a New York radio station that “most Israeli media polls had Netanyahu and his Likud party losing to the left right up until the Friday [before the election]. Our last poll [on Sunday night], we had Likud at 23 percent of the vote, and that’s what they got.”

Live election updates: Right-wing bloc in clear lead, Netanyahu promises to form government 'swiftly'

Netanyahu has been hammering home the message in recent weeks that the right is in danger of losing control over the government to the centrist Kahol Lavan party, headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s pledge in recent days to annex parts of the West Bank is widely viewed as a campaign ploy to energize his base and to move right-wing votes from smaller parties to Likud. He is both trying to ensure that the right-wing bloc is larger than the center-left bloc, and that his Likud party gets more seats than Kahol Lavan — and it seems McLaughlin has had a hand in crafting this strategy.

This election, sitting side-by-side with McLaughlin on Monday night, Netanyahu said in Hebrew, “I want to share with you a shocking result from our pollster John McLaughin, who is also the pollster for Trump.” McLaughin then told Netanyahu in English that his latest polls show him losing the race because 9 percent of Likud and right-wing voters think Netanyahu is already going to win, so they are staying home.

Netanyahu then summarized what McLaughlin said in Hebrew, and added that “Lapid and Gantz will then be the biggest party and they will be asked to build the coalition and Lapid will be the prime minister [as part of a rotation agreement with Gantz] and he will build a left-wing coalition.”

A shared strategy

However, only a year before he helped Netanyahu win in 2015 and two years before he helped Trump make history, McLaughlin suffered a serious embarrassment, earning him the dubious title of “the GOP’s worst pollster.” In 2014, he worked on Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s campaign and released a poll two weeks before the primary, indicating that Cantor would win by 34 points. Cantor, the most-prominent Jewish Republican at the time, lost by 12 points — shocking the GOP establishment.

McLaughlin polled for Trump in New York, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia and New Mexico, and, despite voicing concerns Trump was not polling well with women, accurately predicted a Trump victory. He accurately tracked Hillary Clinton as having higher disapproval ratings than Trump.

This week, McLaughlin discussed Trump’s 2020 strategy after releasing a new poll that he claims shows a path by which the president can expand his base to independents and “disaffected Democrats.”

The pollster was quoted by the conservative Washington Examiner as predicting that Trump will spend the rest of 2019 improving his job approval numbers, which he claims are “grinding upward,” and then in 2020 will focus on attacking the Democratic nominee to drive up his or her disapproval rating.

This is more or the less the exact same strategy Netanyahu has used.

Netanyahu’s campaign for a fifth term has been conducted on two very different levels, officials and experts tell Haaretz. On one hand, he has worked tirelessly to energize his base by branding the opposition as dangerous and unacceptable, while on the other he has traveled from Washington to Moscow, and hosted world leaders in Jerusalem, to remind Israelis of his effectiveness as a statesman in the diplomatic arena.

Rachel Broyde, head of Likud’s English campaign, told Haaretz that the campaign’s closing message to voters was: “Netanyahu has achieved more in the last decade than any other leader. We have unprecedented international relations, security accomplishments and economic growth.”

Netanyahu leveraged the power of incumbency in much the same way Trump is all-but-certain to do as well, at least according to McLaughlin’s predictions. Netanyahu controlled the narrative, used his megaphone to launch personal attacks and leveraged foreign policy to his advantage —  the same double-pronged approach Trump is using now, according to McLaughlin.

Netanyahu has approached his reelection bid in much the same way Trump will have to do as both leaders are very well-known commodities with a loyal base, but not much room for expanding their voter pool.

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political strategist, notes that Netanyahu went into this election with 25 percent of the country ready to vote for him and 40 percent of the country more or less on his side politically. He has since pulled almost every possible diplomatic trick out of the bag in an effort to drive up his favorability rating with his voters.

Netanyahu even took a victory lap through the White House to meet with Trump as he signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Then, a few days later, the prime minister flew to Moscow to recover the personal belongings and remains of an Israeli soldier lost in Lebanon in 1982.

However, while mastering the world stage (he even got the United Arab Emirates to tacitly accept Trump’s Golan recognition), Netanyahu has branded his main rival, Gantz, as mentally unstable, scared and weak — a page taken right out of the Trump 2016 playbook, in which Clinton’s health, strength and decision-making were regularly criticized.

Even Fox News, where both McLaughlin and Trump are regular features, became a staple of Netanyahu’s reelection campaign. Netanyahu released multiple ads using clips from the channel during the campaign. One ad featured a segment from “Fox & Friends” where the hosts accused the “Israeli deep state” of being behind the corruption allegations Netanyahu is facing. In another clip used by the campaign, Sean Hannity calls Netanyahu “Churchillian.”

McLaughlin has appeared on Fox News discussing the Trump-Russia investigation. While defending Trump against allegations of collusion, he claimed that former President Barack Obama meddled in Israel’s 2015 election by using government funds to boost the anti-Netanyahu group V15 — a long-standing claim by Netanyahu and his supporters. Echoing a similar Netanyahu talking point, McLaughlin also alleged that Obama used taxpayer dollars to help unite Israel’s Arab parties into the merged Joint List (which in this election split into two alliances). Netanyahu also ran an election ad this cycle boasting of having lectured Obama in the Oval Office on the “reality” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Scheindlin told Haaretz that while many of Israel’s major parties are using Israeli-American political consultants, she didn’t see any new innovations or tactics being used in this election. U.S. consultants started to work on Israeli campaigns in the 1990s and, except for microtargeting in getting-out-the-vote operations, tactics have largely stayed the same.

Arthur Finkelstein got this trend rolling in 1996 with his “peace and fear” message and American-style TV ads that helped Netanyahu overcome a 30-point deficit to defeat Shimon Peres in that year’s election and to assume power for the first time.

McLaughlin, however, seems to have evolved in at least one aspect in his approach since the last Israeli election: After Netanyahu’s 2015 reelection, when discussing Obama’s alleged interference the pollster noted: “The Israelis don’t like the fact that the president’s become really partisan with them” — a phenomenon Trump and Netanyahu have all but exacerbated.

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