Four days before the Israeli polls closed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a 35-second video message. It was addressed to conservatives, but anyone could watch the dire warning.
"There exists a very real danger that Tzipi Livni and Buji Herzog will be the next prime ministers of Israel with the suppot of the Arabs," said Netanyahu, referring to the leaders of the Zionist Union party that had passed his Likud in the polls. "Supporters of the national party don't have the privilege of voting for the other parties which are not the Likud."
That video immediately led OnlyTheLikud, a website created for the campaign by the Austin-based firm Harris Media. Some of the voters who saw it abandoned the other conservative splinter parties and helped Likud surge from behind and take at least 30 seats in the new Knesset, better than it was polling in the run-up to the election or in exit interviews with voters. Among the victors in this week's election are Vincent Harris and Michael Duncan, leaders of the firm who took the Likud account and used social media to organize and turn out Netanyahu's vote.
"Israeli elections make our elections look really one-dimensional," said Duncan, in an interview from his temporary base in Tel Aviv. (He'd moved there two months earlier to handle the account.) "You had six parties on the right, drawing support from the same pool. We had to reach out to people who'd been supported Kulanu and Jewish Home. I'll tell you, the only thing similar to that in the United States is a crowded presidential primary."
Funny he should say that. Four months ago, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul hired Harris Media to run the digital operations for his RANDPAC–and, theoretically, for his coming presidential campaign. A month later, Likud hired the same consultants to help reach out to voters in the snap election. While Paul was fending off occasional attacks from American hawks, who view him as insufficiently pro-Israel, and declining to sign on to new AIPAC-backed Iran sanctions, Vincent Harris was Instagramming everything from his run from Tel Aviv to Jaffa to his "digital team" (surrounded by Netanyahu posters) to his tour of Israel's wine country.
More importantly, Harris and Duncan were bringing American tactics to Israel's race, and capitalizing off of Netanyahu's moves. The prime minister's speech to Congress was a major boon for social networking. The video led OnlyTheLikud, and viewers were asked to provide personal data, like WhatsApp contact numbers ("that's huge in Israel"), that the campaign could mobilize them with.
"We really capitalized on the prime minister’s visit to Congress to push back on the narrative that his influence had been damaged," said Duncan. "We were able to use great quotes and content from the United States and Israel, these great quotes from members of Congress who supported Bibi. We used digital to push back entire on that entire, biased narrative, and I think it was extremely effective."
They wouldn't know just how effective until all the votes and data were in. "I'm interested in seeing the turnout in the settlements, in particular," said Duncan.
What Duncan did know was that the Netanyahu splash page had more than 500,000 unique views, in a country of around 5 million voters. The mobilization might have turned out or changed the votes of people who'd told exit pollsters they planned to do something else. "When I saw that the exit polls had it as a 27-27 split between Likud and ZU, I said, 'This will be a blowout,'" said Duncan.
Some critics of Netanyahu's U.S. visit had worried about the things Harris Media was celebrating. In February, Jewish, Democratic Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen announced that he'd skip the speech to Congress because the people's house was "sacrosanct" and not to be used for politics.
"In 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to Congress and then used video clips of that speech in his re-election campaign ad to great advantage," Cohen said at the time. "It is expected Mr. Netanyahu will do the same again."
Harris Media had used the speech, and Netanyahu's TV ad firm had cut a spot with it. In a short Wednesday interview, Cohen said that was a shame.
"I never thought it should have been used," he said. "We have ethics rules about what we consider proper. We're not allowed to use video like that, and while we can't proscribe the activities of leaders in other countries, they should follow these principles."
Asked what the long-term impact of the speech and its politicization might be, Cohen said just one word.
Iowa Representative Steve King, a Republican who'd appealed on Netanyahu to speak to Congress, suggested that the victory could help Rand Paul. "There's strong support for Israel in Iowa," King said. "This certainly isn't going to be a negative."
Harris, who deferred questions about the race to Duncan, spent Wednesday celebrating the win.
Duncan, meanwhile, reiterated that the complicated, ever-shifting arithmetic of an Israeli election had lessons for anyone fighting in an American presidential primary. The Democrats in Iowa, 2004; the Republicans in Iowa, 2012; American elections were littered with candidates who went negative in order to build their numbers, and ended up imploding as a third, untainted candidate surged.
"Knowing that the vulnerability of an opponent isn’t the only calculation you make when attacking is something we don't really deal with in general elections," said Duncan. "But it has a ton of parallel in a presidential primary, when you're telling people who might like several candidates how they can best use their votes."