October 22, 2005

How do NiNis make a living?

Businesses know that it pays to know your market. Rule one of marketing is "know your customers." How old are they? How much money do they make? What's their gender? Where do they live? How educated are they? How do they make a living? How does your product relate to their needs, wants, and fantasies? You need clear answers to these questions before you can put together a sensible marketing strategy.

What I've been trying to say in the last few posts is that the traditional opposition's failure has been a failure of political marketing: they didn't know their customer!

Watching a lot of oppo leaders speak, they didn't seem to have any clear idea of who they were talking to, or should be talking to. They failed to think through carefully the demographic groups they needed to win over and to craft their message accordingly. Not surprisingly, they made all sorts of rookie mistakes. They put out messages that alienated people they needed to attract, that ignored the concerns of those they wanted to represent, that contradicted those they needed to cozy up to, etc. etc. etc.

One reason to think Venezuela de Primera could do better is that they're led by a businessman, and one from a business - mobile telephony - where marketing is everything. Fortunately, Venezuela de Primera has learned some key lessons from the traditional oppo's political marketing failures. And make no mistake: it will take real marketing savvy to put together a message that can attract an electoral majority in the wake of the traditional opposition's implosion.

There's one key bit of political marketing data I don't have, though, and really wander about. We know that roughly half of Venezuela's workers are in the formal economy and half in the informal sector. But how do political attitudes vary between those two groups? What percentage of chavistas have formal work? More importantly, what proportion of NiNis work informally? How do NiNis make a living?

My guess - and this is only a guess - is that NiNis are less likely to have formal work than either chavistas or antichavistas. (If anyone has data about this, I'd love to see it.) If my hunch is right, then marketing to the political center means marketing to the needs of the informal worker. If so, it shouldn't be hard to put together a political message that is specifically geared at the very serious problems of informal workers as such.

Because, when you think about it, informal sector workers have all kinds of problems the government has done very little to address over the last seven years. With no prestaciones, no pensions funding, no sick leave, no vacation leave, no collective bargaining, no health insurance, no help for pre-school education and no workplace health and safety protections, their position is incredibly precarious. The government has done nothing for them on these fronts - largely because it's failed to stimulate formal sector work - and the opposition almost never talks about these themes. The specific needs of informal workers are ripe for the picking, politically speaking.

What's more, as I wrote at mind-numbing length in this essay, some very interesting recent research suggests that putting informal sector workers at the center of a developing country government's concerns could serve as a catalyst for development. So, by making a pitch specifically at the informal sector, you could also be laying down the foundations for success once you get into office.


October 21, 2005

Building a resonant historical narrative...

Well, now that I've convinced everyone that I'm a Venezuela de Primera zealot, I'll take a moment to criticize their message. While I'm wowed by their discipline in targetting the Ni Nis, reading through their website still leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling. And the reason is that, for all their poll-driven message-honing, the result seems weirdly out of context.

Take the rhetoric on their website and substitute the word "Peru" or "Guatemala" for Venezuela and...very little changes. Instantly, you have Peru de Primera, or Guatemala de Primera. Nothing in their message situates them in the very particular circumstances of Venezuela in the last few years. Nothing they say betrays an awareness of the incredibly tumultous times the country has been living. It's like they're arguing in a vacuum.

This explains, I think, why the group hasn't really generated much "buzz."

What their message fails to do is to place the here and now into an emotionally resonant narrative structure, to build a compelling little story that explains the recent past, what's bad about it, and what they would do better.

Chavez is very good at this. In 1998 he sold an immediately appealing little tale that made sense out of people's historical experience. "The country is rich," he said, "but you are poor, and you're poor because the rich don't care about you and stole what is yours. I'll put that right." Very simple, very effective.

Venezuela de Primera doesn't have a synthetic little historical narrative like that. At least, not an explicit one.

I can understand why: it's very hard to build a narrative about the last few years without talking about Chavez or sounding like the traditional opposition. And they know that talking about Chavez and sounding like the traditional opposition are two sure-fire ways of alienating the Ni Nis - an electoral dead-end.

It's a tough one. Still, if they don't want to come accross as the Party of Martians with Good Intentions, they need a resonant historical narrative...

October 20, 2005

Picking Themes that Resonate with Ni Nis

I told you it could take days to go over the ways the traditional opposition screwed up its political communications in the last couple of years. Today, I want to talk about themes - another important topic where the CD made a horrid hash of things. Again, my purpose here is to think through past mistakes so we can learn from them.

I've already explained how focusing on Chavez personally worked against the opposition tactically. More broadly, the opposition consistently alienates the political center by focusing on particularistic, nitty-gritty matters, often technical in nature, which baffle even many experts and leave the NiNis totally cold. While Chavez leans on themes that resonate with people's aspirations, the opposition keeps getting bogged down in incomprehensible detail.

There are a million examples of this. In 2001, the opposition spent months arguing that Chavez should be tried for misallocating FIEM funds. Now, personally, I agree what happened with FIEM was a scandal - the guy more or less admitted to a criminal offense in public. Politically, alas, that's beside the point. The explanation of the crime hinged on a detailed understanding of macroeconomic stabilization legislation, budgeting laws and parliamentary procedure, issues most people neither understand or care about. As a matter of law, the accusation was spot on. As a matter of political communications, it was just silly.

At different times, this opposition penchant for droning on at great length about incomprehensible details has latched onto topics as varied as data transmission patterns to and from CNE voting machines, the macroeconomics of central bank reserve management, the doctrine of the "Estado Docente," the aplicability of Benford's Law to elections data, juridical doctrines on the relative competence of different chambers within the Supreme Tribunal, the geological dynamics of heavy crude well management, and many, many others. Say what you will about each case on its own merits, but it was always absurd to expect these sorts of topics to "catch fire" politically.

Meanwhile, Chavez limited his political rhetoric to crisp, clear, emotionally resonant themes that anyone at any level of education could understand. Which of these is smarter politics?

What the traditional opposition failed to see is that the vast majority of voters care about symbols and they care about their day-to-day lives. You can mobilize them with emotionally resonant, symbolically dense discourses - Chavez's specialty - and with messages about their day-to-day problems - the opposition's great wasted opportunity. But you can't mobilize them if they can't understand you.

Tactically, the traditional opposition failed calamitously at the basic, emotive trick any politician needs to pull off to get votes: connecting with voters' aspirations. Connecting, in an emotionally meaningful way, with their hopes for the future, their desires, their fantasies even.

At the very least, voters need to be convinced that those who aspire to lead them understand them in some basic way. That they get it, they sympathize, that they feel their pain, to borrow that awful Clintonian formulation. Chavez is a genius at this sort of thing. The traditional opposition never even tried to compete, retreating instead into arcane debates that made them seem utterly out of touch. Seen in this light, it's not really a surprise we kept getting our butts kicked at the ballot box.

We need to learn from those mistakes. A renewed opposition needs to learn to play the game of aspirational politics. Again, I'll point to Venezuela de Primera as a group that seems to have learned this lesson. On their homepage, you read this little blurb from the current Miss Venezuela:

"Today I'm the happiest woman in the world... With the money I get I will help my family: I want to fix up my mom's room, and my brother's, get rid of the leak in the roof... I don't picture myself driving the BMW I won - it's a great car, but it's too risky to drive it around town. They'll think I'm rich and I don't want to risk my life. I have enough for the basics, and I do need a little car to get around. For sure I want to save, to work hard to make sure my kids can get work. I want my own house, so I can give my kids everything I couldn't have."

It's a simple message, really. Modest, optimistic, realistic and forward looking. It speaks to people's aspirations. Speak consistently, optimistically to these themes in a disciplined way, and maybe you can get people to identify with your message. Drone on and on about some technical detail they can't understand, and they certainly won't.

October 19, 2005

Talking to the NiNis

Another area where the Coordinadora Democratica failed disastrously was in to thinking through its target audience. By and large, the traditional oppo was happy to talk to hardcore antichavistas only. It never really put together a message to attract the political center. It still hasn't.

This is a serious problem. For all the talk about polarization, both hardcore antichavismo and hardcore chavismo have remained minority positions in Venezuela over the last two years. The largest single piece of the political cake has remained the "Ni Nis" - the politically orphaned people who question both Chavez and the opposition. According to survey and focus group data gathered by Hinterlaces, 51% of voters were politically non-alligned in March 2005. In the 20 months preceding that study, the NiNis averaged 47% of the electorate.

According to the study, 30% of the Ni Nis identify with some of Chavez's values, but would welcome new political alternatives. They don't consider themselves chavistas, but they voted against revoking Chavez. Half of NiNis broadly question Chavez, but see a few positive aspects in his discourse and his government. 60% of this group voted to against Chavez in the referendum. The remaining 20% of NiNis oppose the government radically, but don't identify with the traditional opposition. In fact, the one thing that brings NiNis together is that they all reject a traditional opposition they see as a holdover from the despised ancien regime.

So the traditional opposition has pretty successfully alienated a large political center. The good news is that 69% of the people Hinterlaces interviewed in March ardently wished for a credible alternative to Chavez. They wanted a fresh face, one that isn't fixated on Chavez, with a positive vision for the future, and free from the stench of puntofijismo.

You can see where I'm going with this. If the polling data can be believed, the country is ready and waiting for a group like Venezuela de Primera. Run by a frighteningly bright guy, disciplined in its message, free of cuarta republica dinosaurs, armed with an optimistic message of renewal taylor made to the demands of NiNis, fully conscious of where the traditional opposition went wrong and determined to learn from those mistakes.

They say the definition of crazy is someone who keeps doing the same thing and keeps expecting different results. By that measure, the traditional opposition is certifiably crazy. Roberto Smith, at the very least, is sane.

October 18, 2005

Dios los crea y ellos se juntan...

Need a quick jolt to your blood pressure? Check out this lovely set of photographs of Mugabe and Chavez deep in each other's arms.

Discipline, Optimism, Renewal

It could take a lot of these mini-posts to cover every opposition mistake of the last few years, I know. But it seems worth it. More than its failures, what exasperates the opposition grassroots is that its leadership doesn't seem to learn from those failures. Today, I want to go deeper into the opposition's inability to put together a message that people might want to vote for.

The opposition's main message problem leading up to last year's Recall Referendum was its inability to communicate in a disciplined way. The old Coordinadora Democratica was an absolute gallinero, a loose confederation of politically very diverse groups brought together only by visceral antichavismo. It's not surprising that such a disaggregated coalition could not settle on a limited, deliberately chosen set of key themes and stick to them. The CD members never accepted a single leader, or even a strong central secretariat, with real power to impose some "message discipline."

Not surprisingly, the CD's communications quickly degenerated into an incoherent potpourri of anti-Chavez bile, with spokesmen competing to out-do one another in a game of "quien-es-mas-antichavista". What passed for a "communication strategy" wasn't much more than a string of anti-Chavez rants carried live on Globovision and Union Radio, each stressing different themes in different ways, with no overall coordination. There was no message discipline at all, largely because there was no organization to impose message discipline.

This combination of message indiscipline and Chavez fixation made it impossible for the CD to put forward an optimistic message. This is important. A pile of social science research shows that voters respond much better to optimistic messages. Even after seven years, Chavez's relentless optimism is a big part of his electoral draw. But an opposition held together only by distaste for Chavez could only talk about how bad things would be if Chavez stayed in power. Their message came over as relentlessly negative: a major turnoff for voters.

The final, related failure was the CD's inability to put forward a message of renewal. This was also a function of CD heterogeneity. The perceived imperative for "unity" inside such a varied organization meant melding together the fourth republic dinosauriat with sixth republic reformism. The prominence of ancien regime figures in the CD made it an easy target for government attacks. How on earth do you convince the voters that Henry Ramos Allup is really going to go for a forward-looking reformist government? That Antonio Ledezma is the future?! Those are some tough sells!

If the traditional opposition had had the guts to accept defeat in last year's referendum, it might have launched a serious internal debate about these problems. Instead, they decided to duck behind a fraud claim on evidence that couldn't convince anyone outside the hardcore base. The claim put a stop to any serious consideration of the CD's message problem. The traditional opposition, today, has made exactly zero progress on message discipline, or on forging an optimistic message of renewal.

Again, I can't help but notice that there's only one political group out there that seems to have clearly understood the need to put out an optimistic message of renewal in a disciplined way. I can see no reason to think that anyone else has quite learned the lessons of the CD failure.

October 17, 2005

Antichavismo Without Chavez

The opposition leadership, as we've known it, has failed. On this, we're all more or less agreed. It's failed on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. But, to my mind, the most basic failures have been tactical.

Time and again, opposition leaders have centered political debate on issues that play to Chavez's advantage. I've been writing a lot about the way focusing on CNE works to demobilize the opposition's own base.

But more fundamental still has been our fixation on Chavez the man. It baffles us, angers us, dismays us and infuriates us, but most Venezuelans kinda like Chavez. A good 30% idolize him, another 40% have mixed feelings about him, but only a relatively small minority positively detest him like traditional oppo leaderships do. In poll after poll, Chavez personally gets much higher marks than "the government", "the cabinet", or anything else associated with Chavez.

How might a tactically savvy opposition respond to this polling trend? You'd think it would try to refocus debate away from Chavez the man and towards his government's incompetence. But this hasn't happened. Oppo leaders' visceral horror at his caudillismo and autocratic zeal prevents is. They stubbornly keep Chavez personally at the center of debate. With remarkable singleness of purpose, they work to keep debate centered on the one aspect of Chavismo that's most popular with the electorate at large.

Not surprisingly, it hasn't exactly worked. So maybe it's worth trying something different. Maybe the smart way to go about this is to put together an anti-government discourse that scrupulously avoids even mentioning Chavez.


These guys don't think so...

The Luckiest Autocrat in the World

When the history of this mess comes to be written, Chavez will go down as the luckiest autocrat the world has ever seen. Most autocrats have to go through all kinds of trouble to purge their adversaries from the state, they have to resort to all kinds of draconian repression to demobilize them. But not Chavez. Lucky guy, he faces the Amazing Self-Purging, Self-Demobilizing opposition.

Need to get dissidents out of the military?! It's no problem, they'll pick out a nice square in the East of town and camp out there, where everyone can see them! Need to get your opponents out of the main state owned oil company? Never worry, they'll do it themselves! Need to demobilize their supporters so you can keep on having elections without having to worry that they'll vote against you? Just leave it to their leaders...they'll cry fraud and take themselves out of the game!

Asi cualquiera...

Baffling Contradiction Chronicles

Not two weeks ago, Chavez brought the first summit of the fledgeling "South American Community" to the brink of failure because he objected to plans to advance integration on the basis of the existing Regional Trade Agreements, Mercosur and the Andean Community. Chavez called them failed neoliberal experiments and said those institutions need to disappear.

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez announced Venezuelan will join the failed neoliberal experiment known as Mercosur.


It's not just that Chavez is ideologically opposed to these trade pacts, it's also that the Chavez government has a dismal record of non-implementation of the one agreement it is a part of - CAN.

Quien los entiende?

October 16, 2005

The mother of all own-goals

A thought experiment. (I like these.) Imagine that, magically, the current CNE board disappears tomorrow and is replaced with one of such unimpeachable honesty and utter impartiality that no question remains about the fairness of the Dec. 4th elections.

What would happen?

I think it's obvious that chavismo would win anyway, and win big. The polling data is pretty straightforward: the oppo today is down to it's 20-25% hardcore constituency. The 40% in that free-floating, politically homeless middle known as Ni-Nis are even more disdainful of the oppo leadership than they are of a government they don't much like. The stench of adeco-style reaction and batequebrado oppositionism hangs heavily over the Unity Slate the opposition has put forward for Dec. 4th. At any rate, the oppo candidates have in no way articulated any sort of rationale for people to vote for them.

When you get down to it, the whole debate about CNE is a red-herring. Chavismo would win on Dec. 4th even if the hermanitas de la caridad ran the vote.

How come?

Well, in the days following last year's Recall Referendum I expressed some guarded optimism that the cataclysm we'd been through might serve as a springboard for renewal. It might allow us to get rid of some political deadwood, it might give rise to an honest debate about what had gone wrong, why we had failed to create a discourse that could attract most Venezuelans, what we should do differently in future, etc. etc. etc.

That renewal has not materialized. The deadwood still shows up on TV screens every day to "speak for" the opposition. We still haven't gone through a serious, difficult, honest debate about how the RR campaign went off the rails so badly. We still don't have a discourse that'll enthuse most Venezuelans. And we sure aren't doing anything differently from what we did then.

And why is that?

Because that whole difficult process was shortcircuited by the opposition's insistence that we actually won the RR, and were cheated out of it. A discourse which, even if it's factually true - and having gone over the evidence in detail, I'm not convinced - has been a tactical disaster. It has demobilized antichavismo to an incredible extent. It has locked a failed leadership in place. It has excempted antichavismo, as a movement, from any sort of serious soul-searching about our shortcomings and any serious effort at improvement. It has locked our supporters into a deep dispair that serves only the government.

No electoral fraud imaginable could've done so much to solidify Chavez's position. As an own-goal, it dwarfs April 12th, Plaza Altamira and the paro combined. It is what Chavez and JVR must have dreamed of in their craziest flights of imagination: an opposition that thoroughly demotivates and demobilizes itself, on the basis of a claim nobody outside the country believes, resulting in utter paralysis and guaranteed political irrelevance.

No, my friends, Jorge Rodriguez isn't smart enough to have dreamed up a plan this cunning. A strategy this devastating is something only the opposition could've done to itself.