On 7 October 2012, Venezuelans showed up to cast their vote for president on Election Day with an unprecedented sign of voter enthusiasm pushing final turnout up over 80%. This race pitted Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the incumbent and long-sitting president, against the 40-year-old opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Just this on its own would provide sufficient suspense for most. This electoral campaign, however, was one of particular drama and uncertainty
First, many believed that after years of Chávez dominance, the opposition and Capriles had a real chance of winning, something unheard of in years past. In 2006 for instance, Chávez beat his opponent Rosales by 26 points: a total victory for ‘Chavismo’, Chávez’s unique brand of populist state capitalism.
Second, Chávez had been diagnosed with cancer. For a time, many speculated that he might not even run; once determined that he would, the chatter migrated to ‘if he wins and has to later step down, who would be able to succeed him’?
Third, just to add a little spice to the ‘telenovela’ unfolding, the polls were all over the place. Some showed a strong double-digit lead for Chávez, while others gave a slight edge to Capriles. Ipsos’ own poll showed a 9-point lead for Chavez.
Ultimately, Chávez won the presidential election for a third time did beating Capriles by a healthy but not dominant 11-point margin (55% vs. 44%). Ultimately, the Venezuelan presidential election taught many lessons but also raised as many issues of its own including:
- Why did Chávez win, when so many thought he would not?
- What explains Capriles’ strong performance?
- Long-term, where does Venezuelan public opinion sit with Chavismo and state-centric economic management?
- What would happen if Chávez was to step down and another election was called? Would Chávez’s successor or the opposition candidate be more likely to win?
- What does the Venezuelan presidential election say about election analysis and polling in general? The polls offered extremely mixed results this year– how does one make sense of things in such a confused, low information environment?
To answer these questions, we draw upon two Ipsos polls one conducted in August and the other in September, as well as other relevant data.
Let us take these issues point by point.
Contrary to the common wisdom of the time, Chávez’s victory should not have come as a great surprise. Yes, the Venezuelan economy is not in great shape and crime has skyrocketed in the last decade. But even so, Chávez was still the odds-on favorite for a few reasons.
First, never bet against incumbents! Our own analysis of hundreds of elections around the world shows that incumbents have an almost three-fold advantage1 over non-incumbents. This together with Chávez’s relatively strong approval ratings (54% in September) put his chances of winning at around 80% according to our statistical forecasting models.
In contrast, a Chávez successor running would have had only had a 30% chance of winning in the same circumstances, a testament to the power of incumbency but also a leading indicator of the opposition’s relative odds if (or when) Chávez does step down.
Second, following his own unique brand of socialism, Chávez finds his strongest popular support among those voters who most benefited from his myriad of targeted anti-cyclical social programs, known generically as ‘Misionesii,’. In essence, such initiatives have served as a buffer or cushion against the vagaries of the economy, giving him an advantage among those groups most affected by them (see graphs below).
In my view, the ‘Bolivarian Missions’ are a concrete example of the importance of targeted social programs in explaining regime stability. Indeed, data from Brazil show a similar impact of Lula’s targeted social program ‘Bolsa Familia” (see graph below). Might such targeted programs explain the stability of other regimes? What about Putin’s reelection in early 2012, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s social outreach program and Morsi’s victory in 2012 or Iran’s Ahmadinejad victory in 2010? Future research is needed to shed further light on this, but the Venezuelan experience is telling.
Despite Chavez’s victory, there is reason to believe Capriles and the opposition is not a ‘one hit wonder’. Chávez, while still with strong popular support, is not invincible. Indeed, Venezuelans had serious criticisms of the government’s performance on jobs, crime, and corruption. Capriles exploited this during the campaign, being able to show a strong leadership alternative, which stressed good management and policy efficiency on topics such as inflation on job creation/the economy. Long-term, these could be winning messages (see upper left hand quadrant below).
Venezuelan public opinion additionally is not some monolith of ‘Chavismo’. Yes, there is strong support for government intervention in the economy, especially when it comes to basic foodstuffs (77% agree that the price of basic foodstuffs should be controlled by the government) and for strong populist leadership (67% believe that a good leader should bend the rules). The Venezuelan DNA is still strongly populist and paternalistic.
At the same time however, Venezuelans also want less government intervention if this means greater jobs creation and economic growth. Surprisingly, they also generally support foreign capital and greater linkages with the global economy, even as their leaders use them as scapegoats. At their core, Venezuelans are pragmatic. They want some state paternalism but in smaller doses. All this suggests a slow thaw in Venezuelan public opinion, making alternatives to Chavismo possible.
Finally, the Venezuelan election is a cautionary tale of the vagaries of polls and the difficulty of electoral analysis in low information environments (i.e. elections with only a few public polls being published). Indeed, the polls in the last week before the election ranged from a clear Chávez win to a Capriles victory by the slightest of margins. Ultimately, this variability underscores the simple rule that no single poll is reliable by itself. Instead, sound election analysis involves triangulation; in essence, the analytic combination of the average of all polls, statistical forecasting models, and the consideration of other indicators like approval ratings and economic confidence. Each of these data put together showed Chávez as the clear favorite.