Updated for polls through 1/19/06. New comments appear at the bottom of this post.
The Kadima party has so far survived Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's very serious second stroke. In five polls taken since Sharon was hospitalized on January 4, Kadima has continued to poll at its previous levels of support. Three of these polls were taken the day after Sharon's stroke, but the latest two were taken 1/8 and 1/9, after the Israeli public had some time to reflect on the implications of Kadima without Sharon.
Israeli press reports of these polls frequently include the expectation that Kadima support will fall in Sharon's absence, as we would expect for a party built around a single person. Pro-Kadima commentators have pointed to the importance of "the program, not the person" but such arguments have been significantly dismissed by polling experts and even Kadima insiders. See, for example, this article in Haaretz on 1/11.
Senior Kadima officials, however, believe that these results still reflect the popular identification with and support for Sharon, and that some of the respondents are transfering their support and affection for the prime minister to his replacement and his party, despite being aware that Sharon will not return to lead it.
Sharon's aides - who are now working with Olmert - believe that these positive results for Kadima and Olmert will not last for long. They do say, however, that if they can avoid missteps and meld Olmert and Sharon into "Sharon's Path," then "chances are good that Kadima will end up as the biggest party after the election, and Olmert will be asked to form the next government."
But PoliticalArithmetik is about data, and so far the polling is not reflecting this expected fall in support. With less than a week since Sharon's illness, and with his life hanging by a slender thread, it is certainly possible that this "transfer of affection" will be short lived and begin to fade as security issues become more important. But for the moment, let's consider the data. The expected fall for Kadima has not yet appeared. More important, no rise in support for Likud has made itself visible in the new polls either. Is it barely possible that an Israeli public in which support for a "two state solution" remains strong, will in fact adopt the party under Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, making Kadima in fact a party of "program, not personality"?
At this time, the campaigns of the parties are on hold, waiting for the outcome of Sharon's hospitalization. That hold cannot last very long, however, with the March 28 election approaching and Kadima in need of formal leadership and a candidate list. Once the parties begin the campaign in earnest, these polls may rapidly change. For now, however, I find the steady support for Kadima both surprising and intriguing.
Update: Polls through 1/11/06
Another new poll out today, for a total of three this week, continues to show stable support for Kadima (and the other parties as well.) Opinion of experts in Israel (where I am right now) seems to be divided. Yesterday I had several conversations with political scientists and other close observers of politics here that supported the view that Kadima's policy (Sharon's policy) has widespread backing and that the Kadima vote may stay because supporters may have trusted Sharon to carry it out, but they think Kadima may as well and there is no good alternative party that would offer the same policy. Today, on the other hand, I encountered some equally distinguished students of Israeli politics and parties who took the opposite view and suggested that the outcome will converge to some rough equality among the top three parties. They too had good reasons to support their prediction.
So I'm going to remain very modest in making any forecasts here. My job is to show you the data and put it in context with other data and with data over time. I certainly don't know what will happen next. But what I do know, and what the data above show quite strongly is that so far support for the parties has not changed in any significant degree. It is a long while until March 28, so the track of the polls across the right half of the figure (the blank part) is the story yet to be written by the parties, leaders and public in Israel. Stay tuned.
Updated for polls through 1/12/06:
The very surprising strength of Kadima remains, and indeed, if anything support for Kadima has risen over the past week. In contrast, Labor continues its decline and Likud seems to be flat.
A surprising development today was that Shinui party essentially fell apart, with it's leader Tommy Lapid threatening to quit the party after the man he called his partner in the party, Avraham Poraz, was denied the number 2 spot on the party list. Following the loss, Poraz and four other current MKs pulled out the primary election and announced they would not be candidates for Kadima (at any spot on the list). Lapid failed to win support for Poraz and left the party convention following the loss.
Shinui is polling at only 3 or 4 seats, a dramatic collapse from the 15 seats it currently holds in the Knesset. As the strongest "secular" party, Shinui's virtual absence from the new Knesset will be felt in whatever coalition negotiations are necessary for the formation of a government. If Kadima does as well as it is currently polling, it would need coaltion partners, and those have come from the religious parties joining Likud in recent years. If Kadima needs the support of one or more small parties, the absence of Kadima makes it more necessary to turn to the religious parties for support.
Updated for polls through 1/18/06:
The collapse of Shinui is the most obvious change in three new polls, conducted 1/18/06, after the Labor primaries but before the 1/19/06 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Shinui, which fractured badly over the selection of its list of candidates, has now reached zero projected seats based on polling. Unless a surprising reversal of fortune occurs, this appears to be the end of the centrist and secular party that was the third largest block in the current Knesset. While Kadima is set to take over some of Shinui's center role, it is unlikely to also adopt the strongly secular views of Shinui.
In the latest polls, Kadima continues a strong performance, with between 37 and 43 seats. The estimated trend for Kadima remains positive since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon' s strokes. (Individual polls differ in the trend for Kadima and other parties, with some seeing decline since the last poll by the same organization, while others find stability or a rise. I am using the trend across all polling to characterize Kadima's standing as still slightly rising, and likewise for other parties.) Meanwhile, labor has continued to decline, though the latest polls are above the trend line. Likud seems to be holding steady in recent polls. The religious Shas party continues to command support for 10 mandates. The Arab parties also continue to hold a total of 8 seats.
The remaining small parties have shown no measurable movement, polling between 3 and 6 seats each.
Terrorist bombings have moved public opinion and electoral support in the past. The bombing in Tel Aviv today (1/19) is the firs since December. All polls in this figure were taken before that event. New data will reveal whether there is an impact on public support for the parties.
Updated with poll on 1/19/06:
In a poll taken the same day as the Tel Aviv bombing, no changes in support for the parties.