December 1, 2007

What if voting fever breaks out in NiNi Village?

Quico says: It's a scenario that scares us slightly. We haven't really dared to consider it, even. Maybe we think we'll jinx it. So let me assure you that I'm knocking on wood vigorously as I suggest to you that the No could win by a lot. Ten points, say...even 15. It's not the most likely scenario, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility either. Some of the polling data suggests processes are underway that could make it happen. Why?

Yesterday I wrote about the psychodrama now playing out in NiNi homes throughout Venezuela. I think of NiNis as people who like Chávez a lot more than they like his ideology. This time around, many of them are genuinely conflicted. They don't like this reform at all, but can they really bring themselves to cast a vote against Chávez?

Until a couple of months ago, most were leaning towards just staying home on election day. That's why the early polls showed the No side winning among All Respondents but losing among Likely Voters. Now it seems like everybody and their cat wants to vote. What happened?

Here's one way to think about it. In part, NiNis base their decision about whether to vote or not on cues they get from their social environment: friends, neighbors, family.

There's safety in numbers. Nobody wants to be the only one to oppose Chávez, so if you don't know anyone else who is planning on voting No, chances are you won't turn out to vote on Sunday even if you really don't like the reform. But if you know just one person who is planning to vote No, the chances you'll vote are a bit higher. If you know two people, they're higher still...and so forth.

So picture yourself in NiNi Village. In this village, everyone feels some loyalty towards Chávez, but everyone dislikes the reform. Back in September, only a handful of the villagers were brave enough to say they would vote No tomorrow:

But then a funny thing happens: for some idiosyncratic reason (something he heard on the radio, say, or being hit on the head by a falling flower pot), just one non-voting NiNi changes his mind and tells his friends "you know what, this reform sucks: I'm going to go vote No."

Suddenly, somebody in NiNi Village knows two people who are planning to go vote no.

In fact, several people in NiNi Village now have "a couple of friends who are going to vote No." This lowers the psychological discomfort associated with voting against Chávez considerably, because suddenly "voting No is something people like me do." After all, your cousin Ernesto is going to do it, and that guy at the hardware store, too.
Others, of course, still plan to abstain...

But, by this point, the guy who is still planning to abstain is surrounded. You can just see that little yellow dot thinking, "sheesh, voting is the new rock'n'roll...seems like everyone I know is planning to vote No...Ernesto, Marilyn, that guy from the hardware store...Pepe from down the street..."

Remember, he already doesn't like the reform, so all he needs is "permission" from his social circle to act on a pre-existing desire. And, if he decides to vote, that means yet more of the people in his social circle are going to start feeling ok about voting. Eventually, NiNi village reaches a tipping point, where peer pressure starts to build in favor of voting No, not against it.

It's a self-reinforcing process...the more people there are who say they will vote, the more comfortable it is for others to join them.

Eventually, people who had been socially isolated in their intention to vote find themselves getting connected to the surge...

And helping turn yet others...

If this process goes on long enough, it's easy to see what will happen in the end:

(And, as you've probably guessed by now, you can describe what's happened within the no-longer-abstentionist comecandela opposition in a similar way.)

What's neat about this model is that the whole process can start just due to one chance event. That one guy's decision to turn go vote, in the second slide, is enough to set in motion a contagion effect that can shift the entire population's intentions. In that sense, Chávez's "voting No is voting against me" line is an attempt at prophylaxis against the contagion effect: a last ditch effort to raise NiNis' psychological discomfort with voting against him, even though more and more of their friends and relatives are getting over it.

Is there any evidence that voting fever is reaching pandemic proportions among NiNis? Polling results definitely suggest it. Self-reported willingness to vote has been rising in just about every poll for the last three months. In the last week of October, 50% of respondents were telling Hinterlaces they were "certain" to vote. This week, that number's up to 80%.

Another indication: people often form their perceptions about which side "is winning" by observing people in their social circle (this is the "of course there was fraud, everyone I know voted for Rosales and CNE says he lost!" syndrome). So consider this: in the middle of September, 37% of Hinterlaces poll respondents thought the No side was winning, 42% that the Sí was winning. By this week, 48% think the No is winning, 34% the Sí.

So while I wouldn't be so rash as to predict it, I do think there's a real possibility that NiNi Village is going to turn out in force. And if that's the case, the result will not be close.