November 30, 2007

Turnout as NiNi psychodrama

Quico says: First, the bare fact, which is now verging on cliché: Sunday's referendum will hinge on turnout. Both the detailed polls that have come out recently bear that out.

My sense is that C21 is closer to the mark than Datanalisis here, simply because they make more of an effort to poll the "hidden 25%": rural voters. So if we can get more than, say, 65% turnout, I think the No will be very hard to beat.

So this one's in the bag, right? I mean, all the abstentionists are falling into line behind the No vote...CNR, AD, even Marta Colomina, for chrissakes. And turnout was 75% last December, so how could it possibly fall below that this time?

Not so fast. Though it's gaining in currency, that analysis badly distorts what the turnout challenge is really all about.

The challenge here is not about motivating the radical opposition. The AD/CNR crowd makes a lot of noise, but they're not a lot of people. According to Datanalisis, last week just 8% of opposition supporters were saying they definitely wouldn't vote, and the opposition in turn makes up just 23.7% of the electorate. So the Escarrá demographic works out to less than 2% of the voting population.

The real challenge is different: getting NiNis to vote.

NiNis make up 44% of the electorate, and as of last week, 40% of them couldn't say for sure whether they would vote or not. So the NiNi-who-may-or-may-not-vote demographic is 17% of the electorate: nearly 10 times more than the comecandela oppo.

The two groups have almost nothing in common. NiNis couldn't care less about electoral conditions or constitutional jurisprudence or what Antonio Ledezma thinks. They are poorer, and much less ideologically minded. A lot of them make a living in the informal sector, the rest in minimum wage work. In the past, they've reliably voted for Chávez, but not for ideological reasons: they don't like his stridency, they don't like the stuff about socialism, but they do like him.

In some ways, NiNi is really a misnomer: basically, they're chavistas. It's just that they're non-ideological chavistas. The whiff of oxymoron that phrase gives off is telling. Time was when it was perfectly OK to be a non-ideological chavista. But as Chávez has morphed more and more from radical populist to doctrinaire socialist, that space has disappeared. These days, Chávez has a new word for people who support him but dissent from the more extremist planks of his ideology: traitors.

So you start to get a sense for their predicament. They've always identified with Chávez. They feel he's done a lot for them. But they really have a bad feeling about this reform. They associate it precisely with the things they don't like about him: his aggressiveness, his sectarianism, his extremism, his threats. They liked it a lot better back when he used to court them with love letters. They don't want to be ungrateful, they don't want to feel like traitors, but more and more, the guy is starting to scare them. It's not that they've moved away from him, it's that he's moved away from them.

That's the psychodrama that will be playing out in hundreds of thousands of homes across Venezuela this weekend. Can I live with myself if I vote against mi comandante? Is that allowed? Does it make me a bad person? Is it possible to square a No vote with my identity, with my overall idea of who I am?

So I'm afraid the referendum's not a done deal after all. There's a real chance that non-ideological chavistas just won't turn out in big enough numbers. Because, as somebody put it to me the other day, "if Caracas has a bad season, you see caraquistas bitching about botched bunts and dropped pop-flys, you don't see them becoming Magallaneros."