November 16, 2008

Is Cojedes Venezuela's Ohio?

Juan Cristobal says: As Venezuela gears up to elect its mayors and governors just days from now, most of us have been frustrated by the absence of clear polling numbers in many of the key races. The information out there is so muddy, it's become difficult to gauge even which of the races we should keep an eye and an ear on.

Some predict a chavista landslide on Sunday; others foresee big wins for the opposition. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if either of these things happened (or both!). Is there any hope for political junkies like ourselves? Do we have no choice but to throw out common sense and trust, ahem, Quinto Día?!

Not at all. When public data is scarce, you can still infer what the private polling looks like by looking at what politicians are doing and, most importantly, where they are going. In the waning weeks of an election, campaigners focus time and resources on a few key races, the "battlegrounds" if you will. It's not by chance that Barack Obama and John McCain spent most of last month in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia. Even if you'd had no access to public polling at all, you could've figured out that those were the states up for grabs just by looking at their travel schedules.

So it's worth puzzling through the places where Chávez is spending his time these days.

The man has been campaigning furiously (both figuratively and literally) for more than a month now. His rhetoric has heightened to a fevered pitch matched only by the staggering indifference his threats have been met with by our side. Chavismo have decided that the only way their guys are going to win is if this campaign is "nationalized". Their game is to turn Sunday's vote into the Nth national referendum on Chávez, into another episode in the epic struggle between revolutionary good and pitiyanqui evil rather than the humdrum affairs about garbage collection and local policing that races for mayor should normally be.

The upshot is that they're going all-out negative, letting Chávez play the role of pitbull, sans the lipstick. Instead of proposals and ideas, the only things spewing from Chávez's mouth in the last few weeks have been threats, hyperbole, baseless accusations and foam - a winning combination for him in more than one election, but also a strategy that can easily backfire. Time will tell if his approach is working this time around.

So where is Chávez going, and is his travel schedule any indication of what is going to happen?

Let's begin with where he's not going. The consensus is that PSUV candidates for Governor are locks in states like Lara, Trujillo and Vargas. Not surprisingly, Chavez has not spent much time in any of these places. Instead, he has been to Carabobo and Cojedes several times. Along with Anzoategui, Yaracuy and Miranda, these states are where his efforts are concentrated. He's also spent some time in Sucre and (today) in Zulia.

The last two are odd choices. Just a few days ago, the President was in Carúpano ordering the military seizure of the airport there. Today he was in Zulia in a rally supporting the flailing campaign for the governorship of the current mayor of Maracaibo, Giancarlo Di Martino.

Conventional wisdom has Zulia and Sucre as safe opposition states, so the fact that Chavez is going there could indicate that a) the polls are tightening; b) Chávez thinks his presence alone can overturn big opposition leads in a short time; c) the President simply sees these states as too important to lose; or d) Chávez is doing all he can to avoid losing by double digits. An alternate, slightly unnerving possibility is that his advisers are just too scared to tell the Big Man the awful truth about how bad things really are out there.

Carabobo and Miranda are both very important states that are leaning opposition. In Carabobo chavistas are facing a divided ticket, with the President repeatedly declaring the incumbent Governor a traitor and sending him to the "dumpster," and the inimitable chavista candidate, Mario Silva, apparently getting no traction there. As I was preparing this post, for example, I noticed that Silva's webpage had gotten a mere 5 hits today - and it's 11 pm!

The opposition, in turn, is running a single candidate, the popular former governor Henrique Salas Feo. Salas, a two-term Governor until 2004, has tons of name recognition and plenty of cash to campaign. He also has the benefit of running in a state where few have any love for the chavista governor and where Chávez is running a far-left VTV shock-jock with huge negatives among independent voters and very tenuous connections to the place he aspires to govern.

As for Miranda, both Consultores 21 and Datos point to a clear Capriles victory. A loss for Chávez's long time right-hand man, incumbent governor Diosdado Cabello, would be psychologically devastating for chavismo and trash Godgiven's hopes of succeeding Chávez in 2013. Chávez is gamely doing all he can to reverse this, even mentioning Capriles by name (only to trash him, of course), something he had never done before.

Anzoátegui, Cojedes and Yaracuy are curious cases. In Anzoátegui, the opposition is running two candidates, and most pollsters predict this has hurt their chances in favor of incumbent chavista governor Tarek William Saab, one of the more moderate chavistas out there (if there is such a thing). But Chávez has been spending a lot of time there, no doubt predicting a late-hatching unity pact among opposition candidates Marcano and HRH Rausseo. In Yaracuy, another state where the incumbent Governor has proven to be a calamity of quasi-biblical proportions, the opposition is counting on the brother of a persecuted popular former Governor.

In Cojedes, the outgoing chavista Governor Yánez Rangel is knee-deep in Maleta-gate, severely damaging the chavista brand in the state. The opposition, on the other hand, is running the popular former Governor, AD's Alberto Galindez, pictured at the top. This is yet another state where Chávez is campaigning hard for his candidate, Teodoro Bolívar, who judging by this ad, has nothing to say other than he's very, very red.

A win for Galindez, like a win for the dissident chavista mayor of Barinas city in Chávez's home state of Barinas, would be very damaging for the government. It would break the narrative that the opposition can only win in big cities. By showing they can win in the Chávez stronghold of the Llanos, the opposition will have earned huge bragging rights. Call it the start of the Parapara fightback. Coupled with what is looking like a hugely symbolic win for the opposition in Venezuela's biggest slum, Petare, winning Cojedes and Barinas would seal a very good night for our side.

Chávez is taking a big risk in this election. By involving himself so deeply in local races over which he has limited control, he has set himself up to take the political hit if things don't go well for his side.

Normally, lousy returns from swing states like Carabobo, Miranda, Anzoategui, Cojedes and Barinas could be put down to local factors. But having invested himself so heavily in his crappy candidates, Chávez has forfeited all plausible deniability if people like Mario Silva and Jesse Chacón go down.

So stay tuned, and whatever you do, go vote!