November 24, 2007

Two heuristics that swing elections

Quico says: Political scientists have a dirty little secret. It's not really polite to say it in mixed company, but it's a fact: casting a smart vote is just not worth the effort.

To cast a fully informed vote, a voter would have to conduct an exhaustive search. In the case of the current Constitutional Reform Referendum, this would involve carrying out a full review of the juridical implications of each of the 70-odd articles up to be reformed, and then formulating a fully informed, perfectly rational judgment about it. Even assuming that's possible in principle (which some philosophers will tell you it isn't), it's surely not worth it.

The cost in time and effort is wildly out of proportion to the 'benefit': the negligible chance that your one measly vote will swing the election. Coldly considered casting an informed vote just doesn't make sense.

Note that this isn't an attack on regular people for being ignorant; just the opposite. It's an acknowledgment that, in trying to decide how to vote, ignorance is rational.

So rational voters do what they can to cut the costs of voting. They look for quick and easy solutions to the problem of making a decision. Academic types call them heuristics: rules of thumb designed to save time and effort. Heuristics are, by their nature, not fully rational: the whole reason they exist is to meet the need for shortcuts to full rationality.

A couple of heuristics seem to play a particularly important role in voters' behavior:

1. The nature of the times heuristic: When times are good, you vote for continuity. When times are bad, you vote for change.

2. The identification heuristic: You are more likely to vote for people you identify emotionally with, with people who, you sense, "get you."

It's due to the power of these two heuristics that so many surveys ask those familiar questions: "is the country on the right track or on the wrong track?" and "does X understand the problems of people like you?" Depressingly, those questions seem to predict voting outcomes almost as well as asking people straight out who they plan to vote for.

So how are these two heuristics likely to pan out next Sunday?

1. Sporadic shortages notwithstanding, the times are definitely good. With a massive oil bonanza fueling a 70s style consumption boom, people will tend to vote for continuity. But does that mean voting SI or NO? That's not so clear. Continuity with the government means discontinuity with the constitution, and vice versa.

The Nature of the Times heuristic explains why both campaigns have struggled to define themselves as standard bearers of continuity.

Chávez has implied that voting "No" would introduce a radical discontinuity (musing publicly about quitting his job if the No wins), and using the unambiguously continuista slogan: "SIgue con Chávez".

The opposition has stressed just how radical the proposed changes are (e.g. "it's not a reform, it's a new constitution"), and saying it would be better to start respecting the constitution we already have than to change it. And the "No" side is aided by the fact that it is the "No" side - an advantage when voters want no change.

2. The Identification heuristic has always worked brilliantly for Chávez. He's a charismatic guy, and has long had a knack for convincing regular folks that he's just like them and, like them, totally unlike the fat cat opposition.

But think how long it's been since we've heard him ask "MariPili, ¿a cuánto está el pollo?" With time, Chávez has morphed from garrulous populist to sectarian socialist. Certainly, Chávez in 2007 is a far more ideologically oriented speaker than he was even a year ago.

But here's the rub: it was always Populist Chávez that folks identified with. Socialist Chávez vaguely scares people: he's too strident, too rigid. His speeches are too abstract to tug at the old identification heuristic heartstrings like populist Chávez could. If there's one point that all Venezuelan pollsters agree on, it's that Chávez is popular despite his ideological agenda, not because of it.

For a long time, people were smitten with him because they felt that he cared about their individual, personal problems; so much so that many went to great lengths to write those problems on a slip of paper and put them - literally - in his hands. But the more esoteric and strident his discourse gets, the more detached from the mundane problems of day to day life in a poor country, the less people feel his government is all about their problems.

Chávez doesn't seem wise to these trends. Instead of realizing he's in a tight race and focusing, the guy spent the last month traveling all around the world, picking big fights with everyone in sight, spending all his time worrying about FARC's hostages or an American attack on Iran, and generally not paying any attention at all to "the problems of people like you."

All of which helps explain why polls show a big majority think constitutional reform is about what's in Chávez's interest, not about what's in the people's interests. And why Datanalisis has NiNis trending No by a bone crushing 5-to-1 margin. Which is huge.

Comando Zamora is fighting the last war. The basic flaw in the its "SIgue con Chávez" strategy is that personalizing the campaign, in 2007, means personalizing it around a figure people identify with considerably less than they once did. In fact, it means centering the campaign on a guy people suspect is doing this for his benefit, not theirs.

It's going to be an interesting week.

November 23, 2007

The times they are a'changin'...

Quico says: A couple of months ago, my feeling was that if there was any way for the oppo old guard to blow their survey lead ahead of the constitutional reform referendum, they would find it. So far, my expectations have been confounded by a highly unusual outbreak of oppo good sense. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: the old guard seems to be sitting this one out.

Leopoldo Puchi? MIA. Antonio Ledezma? AWOL. Ramos Allup? May or may not have emigrated.

These people are not the public face of the opposition in the run up to December 2nd, and what a difference it makes.

For years, Chavismo invested tons of money and thousands of cadena hours on a concerted effort to drive up the opposition's negatives. They were shooting on an open goal, and they succeeded: tarnishing the opposition "brand" so badly that, by the start of this year, not even 10% of Venezuelans wanted to describe themselves as "opositores." That old guard's image was buried completely by the immense amount of mud slung at it, as well as the ineptitude of its own attempts at a fightback. It reached a point where simply exiting the political scene was the only viable option they had left.

Today, the public face of the opposition is the Student Movement. It may not be fair to put adolescents in this position, or wise. Katy may not like it, student leaders themselves may not want it, but it's not really up to them.

Como dijo el filósofo de cuyo nombre no me quiero acordar, "men make their own history, but not under conditions they choose." Ready or not, history has thrust these kids into the position they're in, and they just have to run with it.

One thing is clear: these chamos have learned the lessons from the failures of the leadership they've replaced. Where the old oppo was maximalist, the Student Movement makes a point of not calling for Chávez to step down before his term is up. Where the old oppo played into the government's hands by personalizing the debate, ceaselessly "Chaveztizing it", the students center their message on civil rights. Whereas the old oppo never saw a red rag it didn't want to charge, the student movement isn't scared to step away from confrontations that can only play to the government's advantage.

Gloriously, they've left Chávez without a credible target, without a reasonably demonizable enemy. His attempts to lump the kids in with the old guard are vaguely pathetic. It's just not credible to slam people who hadn't reached adolescence when Chávez first came to power as "widows of puntofijismo." There's palpable confusion as chavistas realize tried and tested polarization techniques have stopped working somehow.

And so, for the first time in the Chávez era, the government is approaching a vote it seems likely to lose. According to Datanalisis' José Antonio Gil Yépez, Datanalisis, Mercanalisis, Datos and Ivad are all showing the NO side 12 to 16 points ahead, and rising. Crucially, unaligned voters ("NiNis") are trending against the reform by as much as 5 to 1. No chavista proposal can survive a NiNi rout on that scale.

Of course, none of that matters if people don't turn out to vote. The interesting thing is that, as people become increasingly aware that the YES side is way behind, an air of excitement seems to be building about voting. There's a buzz in the air in oppo circles, a feeling that we're facing a whole new ballgame here. And that excitement takes the oxygen out of the abstention movement. Refusing to vote when, deep down, you know you're about to get drubbed is easy: electoral sour grapes mascarading as political strategy. Abstaining when, deep down, you know you're about to win is something else altogether.

We've never been in a situation like this before. This time it's for real: if chavismo wants this election, it's going to have to steal it. And it won't be able to steal it subtly: the gap between the sides is too large for electronic fraud to be concealable, given the existing hot audit procedures. With half the votes being hand counted, everyone (Venezuelan and foreigner, chavista and oppo, civilian and military) is going to be able to tell.

Terra incognita, folks. How will Chávez react? does a semi-delusional narcissist react to a massive, very public ego blow?

Badly, is my guess. Very badly.

November 21, 2007

Lies and Consequences

Lucia says: Two quotes in recent wire stories neatly encapsulate the Chávez strategy for December 2nd.

The first comes from a 32-year old mother of four, interviewed by the Associated Press after she'd waited in line for four hours for milk:

Bastida said she still believes in Chavez and plans to vote in favor of his reforms "so that things will get better." Plus, she said, if "everyone votes 'NO' they're going to take the Megamercal away from us."

The second is a quote from Chávez himself, from a Reuters article about recent polls:

"My message to everyone (on my team) is that we try to translate the very high level of support for the president...into support for the constitutional reform," he said.

"Anyone voting 'No' is voting against Chavez, anyone voting 'Yes' is voting for Chavez," he added.

In other words, Chávez knows that trying to run a campaign on the merits of the reforms is a lost cause.

His pollsters have told him that many of the individual reforms simply do not have majority support.

But that troubles him not in the least. He's willing to change his nation's constitution based on lies ("they're going to take Mercal away") and his current personal popularity -- in other words, to re-write the major political and economic rules of his nation without creating anything resembling a real consensus.

The consequences of a Chávez victory on December 2nd would be felt for many years to come in Venezuela. But let me posit that Chávez himself will lose, if Chávez wins. He's building a revolution on lies and misunderstanding and fear. It's not a healthy foundation.

Also worth a look

Katy says: My apologies for not posting much recently. Quico has a deadline, Lucia is MIA, and I'm tied up with child-care issues and with my hard drive having some sort of nervous breakdown.

In the meantime, have fun in the comments section, and check out this uncommonly lucid interview with Causa R Secretary General Alfredo Ramos.

November 19, 2007

Worth a look

Quico says: Reporters Without Borders' letter to President Sarkozy on the eve of his meeting with Chávez is here.

The Economist's quite positive take on the student movement is here.

The BBC's story on Spain's hit ring tone of the season is here.

Chávez the Inevitable

[Quico says: About a year ago, we had a funny little incident in the comments section. Readers accused me of using a Sockpuppet by the name of "Lucía" to back up my opinions! Of course, Lucía wasn't an alter ego at all, just a reader who happened to agree with Katy and me most of the time. She's a stylish writer as well, and I'm very glad to say she's agreed to contribute to the site sporadically, starting with:]

Lucía says: Have you noticed how many of the foreign journalists covering Venezuela are treating a Chávez victory on December 2nd as a foregone conclusion? They’re not predicting trouble at the polls, or government fraud, or even a close race – they’re simply saying more people will vote YES than NO.

Polls showing most Venezuelans do not support the reforms have not dented this conventional wisdom, repeated in article after article, even a bit.

This is not about bias. The student movement and the Baduel defection, for instance, have received generous coverage from these same reporters.

So what’s happening here? I have a couple of ideas:

Journalists Use the Last Election as a Template for the Next One. Not entirely unreasonably, how the last election played out influences how the next one is covered. In the last election, foreign journalists saw massive rallies staged against Chávez. The opposition was mobilized and united behind Rosales. And the opposition lost.

And this made sense, too. Double-digit economic growth + billions in social spending + massively outspending your opponent -- politicians don’t tend to lose with this formula. Petrocrats worldwide are basking in strong approval ratings and consolidating power, and Chávez is no exception.

Journalists look at the current campaign and see that many of the disadvantages faced by the opposition last time around are still in place – or have gotten worse. The Venezuelan economy grew at an impressive clip in the third quarter of 2007. Billions more are being poured into misiones (with new misiones created, it seems, every time Chávez thinks up a dead ideologue he wants to honor). The opposition will again be absurdly outspent in the campaign.

If anything, the opposition's position is even worse this time around. No RCTV. Even harsher restrictions on advertising space. And an abstention problem in their own camp.

Too Many Bad Polls.
Another reason journalists are skeptical about a possible No victory is that the primary evidence one could be brewing comes from the polls. And as everyone who follows Venezuelan politics knows, polls have been a major source of controversy over the last few years. There are, in fact, ways to tell good polls from bad (the composition of the sample [hint: make sure rural Venezuela is represented] and the track record of the pollster are good places to start), but most journalists aren’t going to sift through piles of data and ask tough questions about methodology. They’re going to do what makes sense when facing a deadline: they’ll print some survey results, discard most, and treat all with a healthy dose of skepticism.

And with Venezuela’s recent history littered with polls off by ten or more points, it’s hard to argue that the skepticism isn’t warranted.

The Opposition.
The opposition is not, for the most part, press-savvy. To be sure, opposition leaders can be counted on to provide a quote or two to fill out an article. But opposition leaders don’t regularly cultivate foreign journalists, or share news-breaking material, or do much at all to try to combat the notion that they’re the gang who can’t shoot straight. Which is too bad. Because while some opposition figures are nothing more than Globovisión windbags, others could offer a valuable perspective, and access to grassroots sources. (You don’t think courting the foreign press is important? The Venezuelan government does: they spend your money on some very fancy lobby and PR firms.)

So that’s how many journalists genuinely view this election – some interesting developments, but still an impossible climb for the opposition.

But could the conventional wisdom be wrong?


This December is not last December. Standing in line for milk makes voters cranky. And Chávez is not on the ballot. This is important, because some moderate Chavistas may be willing to vote against the reforms even though they’re not entirely ready to give up on him yet. Chávez’s support outside his hard-core base is due to the misiones. But moderate Chavistas are very wary of extreme Chavismo: they don’t like the divisive rhetoric, the Fidel and Mahmoud love affairs, the spending abroad, the RCTV license cancellation, the violence against the students, the insults to the church. And they don’t like many of the reform proposals, either. The very vocal defections of Baduel and Podemos may underline what they themselves are feeling – this revolution is getting out of control.

We may have reached a tipping point for this key segment of voters.

If so, I hope reporters pick up on it and start writing about it.

Because what they write matters. If, in the final days before the vote, the LatAm cognoscenti around the world believe a Chávez victory is inevitable, there will be little scrutiny of the electoral process or outcome. But if the conventional wisdom shifts, and the “NO” momentum is acknowledged, we could be looking at a whole new ball game.