Netanyahu’s Secret Weapon
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush and most prominently Donald Trump — John McLaughlin, one of the world’s most sought-after campaign pollsters, has helped them all achieve electoral victory. However, newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so close to the margin of defeat that the Likud leader asked the American for an extraordinary, down to the wire, public intervention. — In his interview with DIE WELTWOCHE, McLaughlin reveals the twists and turns of the prime minister’s path to narrow, but ultimate victory. He compares the tactics of Netanyahu and Trump. And looking ahead to the 2020 US presidential elections, he says: “What's really interesting is that Democrats are taking majority unpopular positions.” He adds: “If they keep taking those positions, President Trump will get re-elected decisively.”
Campaign pollsters typically work in anonymous back offices. They brood over numbers, statistics, voter sample sizes, campaign messaging. Most avoid the red hot spotlight while on the campaign trail. But last week, to his surprise, John McLaughlin found himself on camera, side-by-side with the candidate, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The hour was five minutes until high noon. The polling stations were about to open. The once assured re-election of the Likud party leader was faltering. Urgent action was required.
Looking directly into the camera, a solemn Netanyahu addressed the voters. “I want to share with you a shocking result from our pollster John McLaughlin who is also the pollster for Trump,” Netanyahu intoned in Hebrew. He then turned to the American sitting beside him. McLaughlin, notes in hand, grimly warned, “Mr. Prime Minister, right now we are losing the race.” McLaughlin explained to viewers that his latest polls showed that 9% of Likud and right-wing voters believed Netanyahu was going to win. And so, secure in this presumed outcome, they planned to stay at home.
McLaughlin’s on camera appearance confirmed for the first time that one of Trump’s top campaign aides was on the Netanyahu re-election team — speculation about which the prime minister and his party had previously deflected, as Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out.
John McLaughlin, how important was your very unusual last-minute push to mobilize the base?
It was very important because two-thirds of the electorate thought Netanyahu was going to win. If they thought he was going to win, they either stayed at home or they might have voted for another right-wing party. Some of them still did. They vote for lot of other right-wing parties. But the ones who would stay home, those were the ones that could cost us the race. And because of the unique Israeli electoral system, if a party places second, they don’t get to form the government. The first-place party gets to form the government. There is a right-wing bloc that makes up a majority and as of today, as far as I know, they've solidified that bloc where they had 64-65 seats out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
There is a right-wing bloc that makes up the majority of the seats. But if the left of center party, the Blue and White party, had placed first, they would have gotten the first shot at forming the government. If they were to form the government, they would have tried to break up the right-wing bloc by trying to buy off pieces of their coalition.
It was very, very important that Likud place first so that they would get the ability to form the coalition and bring the right-wing parties together. Prime Minister Netanyahu ran a campaign about stopping the left and keeping a right-wing coalition to form the government. It was very, very important that we were able to motivate those voters to come out.
In Israel, on Election Day, it was a beautiful sunny day. Because it's a holiday, a lot of people go to the beach in Tel Aviv. They go out, and they have until 10:00 PM to vote. But the turn-out during the day was lower than it was four years ago. It was very, very important for a lot of these voters to come out, and they did. Fortunately, they did. They recognized how good the prime minister’s record was on security and the economy, and they came out and voted for him.
To me, the reason they voted was because of his good record and because of what he represents. If they had stayed home, we would have lost. We only won by a seat. We only had one Knesset seat over the other left-of-center party. Now, the right has majority over the left. But it would have been very bad if we were placed second.
Was the video your idea?
No. It wasn't. In fact, I was taking a break. I had been working with them all day, and I was taking a dinner break. They called me, and they said, "Come back up here. We need you for something." It wasn't my idea. Granted, I'd read in the poll numbers. Every day, we had poll numbers. They were aware of what was going on, but someone else had the idea. I just read the numbers.
The election was a nail-biter. Why was it so difficult to win? Was it because of the attorney general’s recommendation to seek Netanyahu's indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust?
The prime minister had been ahead in the early polls for some time. It was very consistent he was ahead. Then, six weeks out, two left-of-center parties combined. The Yesh Atid Party (There Is a Future) from Yair Lapid combined with Gantz's Party (Israel Resilience). Lapid had been a former, failed, finance minister under Netanyahu. When he combined his party with Gantz's party, they were then in competition with Likud. Then, five weeks out, the independent attorney general who had received the investigations of police. They started four years ago when I was working for the prime minister in the last campaign, the comptroller threw out these charges. They were nothing. They got blown away.
In this campaign, there was a lot of pressure from the left and the media which, in Israel, is very left-of-center. There are no right-of-center TV stations. There's no right-of-center mainstream media over there. They've been pressuring the attorney general to indict. He indicted five weeks before the election. That's when we fell behind. A lot of democracies, you're not allowed to do that. In the United States, from Labor Day to election day (about two months) you're not allowed to pronounce a recommendation to indict or anything like that. You do it before then, or you have to wait. But here, five weeks out, we fell behind.
We had to fight to climb back into it, because the other side was throwing a lot of character attacks and a lot of corruption attacks. They ran a very negative campaign against the prime minister. They were really assisted by the left-wing media in Israel. He was able to fight through it based on his record. He has a tremendous record for the people of Israel.
Netanyahu portrayed himself as a great friend of Donald Trump. There were huge billboards with the two in tight handshake saying, "Netanyahu, in a different league." How important was that publicly promoted alliance with the US president?
Four years ago, when I worked for the prime minister's re-election, he had told me that he'd never had an American president who he was able to really work with. There was Bill Clinton who wanted to make concessions that he thought were problematic for the security of Israel. Certainly, President Obama — his recommendation was to go back to '67 borders, divide Jerusalem and allow the Arabs right of return — had created all sorts of security concerns to Israelis. That's why Prime Minister Netanyahu got re-elected. It was a big upset back in 2015.
This time around, in 2016, when I worked on President Trump's campaign and he was able to get elected, the prime minister said to me, "It's going to be great because now I have somebody to work with." Well, they really did work together. They moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, their capital. Every other capital in the world where foreign countries have their embassies IS in the capital. Only in Israel do they get punished, do countries not want them to have their embassies in Jerusalem. The United States said, "It's your capital. That's what we're going to do. We will move the embassy." Donald Trump did it. A lot of other American Presidents promised it, but didn't do it.
Then he certainly recognized the Golan under Israel's sovereignty because with everything going on in the border — with the Iranians up there and the problems in Syria with the war, and Hezbollah in Lebanon — there's no way Israel is ever going to give up the Golan because they need it for security. Most important, probably, for Israel is the United States pulled out of the bad Iran deal which the majority of Americans agreed with Donald Trump.
That was a big issue in the American election where we thought it was a bad deal because they were allowed to keep their nuclear program in place. There were no American inspections. We were sending them a hundred billion dollars or more but Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2015 spoke to our American Congress about that and it was a risk during his re-election.
He was able to win that re-election, but at the same time he was able to persuade American public opinion that, "We need to pull out of that deal. It's a bad deal." That's what Donald Trump did. He pulled out of that deal.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Donald Trump have done a lot for security and trying to keep America and Israel safe from these Islamic radicals. It's a great relationship and it's a very important relationship and a lot of people in America compare Benjamin Netanyahu to Winston Churchill during World War II. Churchill spoke out against Hitler and what he was doing at the time. Now, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking out against what Iran and radical Islam represent for that region and the world. Donald Trump has been a great president in that regard and they have been able to work together which is really important for the world.
You just mentioned several pillars of support from the Trump government for Israel in general. Just before Election Day, Trump was branding the Iranian revolutionary guard as a foreign terrorist organization. How much did Trump deliberately help and support Netanyahu in order for him to win this race?
Well, you just talked about that designation for the Iranian revolutionary guard. I don't think that made much of a difference. The Golan sovereignty, I think that helped. Like I said to you, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal of which Israel's a major target of that program, and Prime Minister Netanyahu sent the Mossad into Iran and they got the plans of their nuclear program. They were all stored in a warehouse. I think that's been really important to the security of Israel. If it's important to the security of Israel, then it's important to the election.
I don't look at it in pure political terms. Certainly, the president and I have talked about this election. We talked about it early in March, and he just wanted to let me know that Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to win. And the prime minister won. That was important for both our countries. Most of all, the Israeli democracy is a very vibrant and a very strong democracy in their votes. You can't take anything for granted among their voters until they actually go and cast their ballots.
Netanyahu was losing the week before. From the time of the attorney general's recommendation to indict, we were losing until maybe a week out. And he was in the United States at the AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) Conference and Hamas fired rockets at Israel, and we fell behind a little bit because the Israeli public thought he should've had a stronger response. What he did was he actually brought his troops down to the southern border to make sure that whatever response they would do, it would be important to keep the people of Israel safe. And then we started rising up again in the polls. But we were losing on Wednesday and Thursday before the election. It wasn't until Sunday that we drew even. Monday we were even, and then we pulled ahead on Election Day by a seat.
Netanyahu controlled the narrative during the campaign. He used his megaphone to launch personal attacks and leverage foreign policy to his advantage. How much of this pattern do you see being useful for Donald Trump for his re-election campaign that is starting at any moment?
Well, the Democrats in the United States have already launched the attacks on President Trump. But you pointed out Netanyahu. He was being attacked. Character attacks throughout. They were attacking him on corruption, on charges that truly, in certain cases, were not even found to be relevant, and some were thrown out by the attorney general. The other three were recommended, and the left was running a campaign of character destruction against the prime minister on those issues. For anyone to say he was running a negative campaign, you're not looking at the other side at all. The other side was really running the negative campaign.
He was able to get his message out on security and on the economy of Israel, and the actual attacks that Prime Minister Netanyahu's campaign or Likud campaign might've made was on the fact that our opponent, Gantz, completely supported the Iran deal; on the fact that they would make certain concessions to the Palestinians; on the fact that they weren't as good economically for Israel. Those were the issues.
The character attacks and a really negative attack came from the other side. And, by the way, if you want to go into the United States, the Democrats are having the derangement primary in the United States where it's totally all anti-Trump every day. With no proof of any wrongdoing, they are basically going after his private, personal income taxes for his business.
The attacks on the president — the Mueller report on the Russian collusion — there's nothing there. Two years of federal investigations, tens of millions of dollars, and there's been no proof of collusion. Now they're finding the collusion was on the other side with the Democrats — that it was a phony opposition research document produced by the Clinton campaign and the Democrats that caused a federal judge to issue wiretaps and surveillance on the Trump campaign during the campaign. Basically, the Democratic administration, Barack Obama, spied on our campaign while it was going on.
There's going to be enormous revelations in the United States about what really happened, because in a free and liberal democracy you don't want the idea that the government can spy on your campaign and can basically subvert it.
What we have in America is freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of association, and if you're able to subvert those rights during campaign, that can be the end of democracy. There's going to be some very interesting investigations that happen this year.
You have been highly successful. You've won so many races, of course, most prominently the Trump race. You've just released a new poll that you claim shows a path by which the US president can expand his base to independents and “disaffected Democrats.” Can you explain how this could work out in the upcoming US presidential elections?
Well, first of all, I've been fortunate that I've worked for good candidates in Prime Minister Netanyahu and in President Trump. And I've worked for a lot of very good Republicans in Congress and in the Senate of the United States. So, you're as good as the people you work for. Sometimes God lets the good guys win, as we say in the United States.
As far as the upcoming election goes, what's really interesting is that Democrats are taking majority unpopular positions. As of today, you have 19 Democrats running for the presidential nomination. It's going to go up into the 20s, and they are taking positions that are so anti-Trump that the majority of Americans disagree with them. Americans disagree with them on government control of healthcare, government control of the economy, government control of income — all of these things are Socialism.
I think the Democrats in the United States are trending towards Socialism. The majority of Americans oppose Socialism, two to one. Only the Democrats agree with it, five to three. If they keep taking those positions, President Trump will get re-elected decisively because we won't recognize the Democratic party that we have in 2020 from the Democratic party that used to exist in the United States, which was a pretty mainstream party.
This is becoming a really radical party that doesn't represent the majority of Americans. In the tradition of George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis, they're going to get crushed if they keep going down this path.
If Bernie Sanders, who the president affectionately calls "Crazy Bernie”, if he gets nominated, Donald Trump will crush him. He probably won't be the nominee. But some younger version of him who is inspired by Socialism or government control may be the nominee, and the majority of Americans will reject that candidate. It's going to be very lively and worth watching this year.
McLaughlin has over 30 years of experience as a pollster. He 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 candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and dozens of U.S. Republican senators and congressmen.
In January 2017 he was on a panel organized by DIE WELTWOCHE in Zürich, Switzerland, explaining the Swiss audience how he helped Trump to win the elections.