Pity (Some of) the Poor Pollsters: Mexico Prepares to Vote

Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), are angry and dismayed as polls show the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto maintaining a lead over second-place AMLO of six to 18 points. None of this is to say that Peña Nieto deserves to be the front-runner, much less that Mexico would be better off with the authoritarian, corrupt, corporatist PRI back in power, but when I reported the polling consensus in last week’s blog, I received several negative comments from AMLOistas accusing me of betraying the cause of the left—as though recognizing that you are behind is the equivalent of admitting you are wrong. 
Fred Rosen 6/26/2012


Late Monday night, the polling firm Covarrubias and Associates, a firm whose “house effect” (as the NY Times Nate Silver has taught us to say) leans to the left, handicapped next Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico as one in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) Enrique Peña Nieto, a good-looking empty suit with no known political convictions, remains the candidate to beat. In a poll conducted over the past weekend, Covarrubias found that 38% of all respondents were prepared to vote for Peña Nieto, 28% for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and 24% for Josefina Vázquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Covarrubias was commissioned to conduct the poll by the pro-AMLO media outlet, SDPnoticias, whose reporting of the results can be found here.1077 Peña Nieto in Mérida Photo el diario De Peso

The weekend’s Covarrubias findings were in line with the rest of Mexico’s recently published polls, which, a week before the election, show a Peña Nieto lead over second-place AMLO of six to 18 points. None of this is to say that Peña Nieto deserves to be the front-runner, much less that Mexico would be better off with the authoritarian, corrupt, corporatist PRI back in power, but when I reported the polling consensus in last week’s blog, I received several negative comments from AMLOistas accusing me of betraying the cause of the left—as though recognizing that you are behind is the equivalent of admitting you are wrong.

López Obrador has challenged the veracity of the polls, mainly on the basis of the belief that Peña Nieto can either purchase or coerce anything, including poll results. In a Tuesday morning press conference in Guadalajara, AMLO reasserted his belief that he, not Peña Nieto, was ahead in the polls. “We are going to win,” he asserted. “This is not a pose, nor is it to raise our spirits. We have evidence; we conducted a poll over the weekend and we are ahead by three points. This accounts for Peña Nieto’s desperation.” When asked for the source of the polling results, he said, “we ordered it to be carried out; these are our results. I am calm, happy, we will win.”

This past November, the PRD selected its presidential candidate on the basis of the results of two opinion polls conducted by two trusted polling firms, Covarrubias and Associates and a smaller public opinion firm called Nodos. It was, in part, a Covarrubias poll, that is, that led to the nomination of López Obrador as the PRD’s presidential candidate.

Under a pact agreed to and abided by the two principal pre-candidates of the left, López Obrador and Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, the left’s 2012 presidential candidate was determined by polls conducted by Covarrubias and Nodos. The polling design, approved by both AMLO and Ebrard, was meant to measure the electoral strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates. The polling results were accepted quickly by Ebrard (the loser) and by AMLO (the winner).

As I wrote last week, public-opinion polls fail to illuminate the real forces and phenomena behind popular beliefs. Nor do they capture the dynamism of those beliefs. They have generally been pretty good, however, at predicting how (as opposed to why) citizens are going to vote in an election just a few days away. Five days before the election, however, AMLO has denied the validity of the surveys—except the one he himself has commissioned, but whose provenance he won’t reveal.

I wrote that AMLO’s inability to accept bad news or his own personal or political errors has long been part of his image. This characteristic has damaged his credibility in the past. He seems to have taken up the belief that everyone who is not with him (even on the routine and technical issue of interpreting voter preference polls) is mistaken, manipulated, or lying. Not much room for dialogue or self-reflection there. In an otherwise positive campaign that has effectively mobilized people around progressive policies, this inability to admit bad news has not served him well. And it appears that this intolerance and inability to recognize the nuances of political debate has spread to many of his followers.

I received several responses to last week’s blog from AMLO supporters, suggesting that I was betraying the cause, playing Peña Nieto’s game and “revealing NACLA’s true colors” (though this blog, of course, reflects my opinions, not necessarily NACLA’s) by reporting on AMLO’s stubborn refusal to recognize any poll he didn’t like. Read last week’s blog followed by all that criticism (all posted by “Anonymous”) here. Here are some excerpts of the negative reaction:

Posted by Anonymous on June 25, 2012 - 12:57

The people in Mexico need the change as soon as possible but the actual governments are doing all they can to remain in power by trading votes for money and goods…. They invested millions buying vote survey agencies to show polls in their favor but the real surveys show different by having AMLO as the front-runner…. NACLA, shame on you and next time do some real research of the truth and reality of Mexico's presidential election.

Posted by Anonymous on June 22, 2012 - 02:23

His courage and sheer will have inspired Mexican students to rise in la Primavera mexicana, but I guess NACLA prefers el mexicano agachado so that NACLA can have a victim to defend and stay in business. Shame on you, NACLA.

Posted by Anonymous on June 20, 2012 - 19:44

…AMLO has his problems, but to assess his reaction to the polls as a personal failure is to assume that polling in Mexico is not influenced by either direct fabrication of the results or indirect manipulation through the media.

Posted by Anonymous on June 20, 2012 - 14:15

Even the international news believes [Peña Nieto] is the front-runner when obviously he isn't. But my question is why the international news also supports Pena Nieto? Do they believe the polls in Mexico?....


If you think about it for a minute, you realize that all these responses are non-sequiturs. Reporting a leader in the polls does not amount to supporting that leader. It is quite true that both the PRI and the PAN have launched a disgracefully dishonest campaign against López Obrador, and that the PRI, at least, has purchased media coverage designed to slander AMLO. As elsewhere—think of power of money in the U.S. elections—this has damaged the slandered victim’s candidacy. The extent of the damage is captured (in some voter surveys more accurately than others) by the polls, including some conducted by quite frankly anti-AMLO pollsters as well as the pro-AMLO Covarrubias.

Despite all this, if I were a Mexican citizen I would cast my vote for AMLO next Sunday. Of the three major candidates, he is the only one with a clearly progressive platform, a genuine commitment to the poor, and an ability to mobilize progressive portions of civil society. He was an effective mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2006, initiating imaginative programs for the poor and partnering with the business community to make real improvements in the city’s infrastructure.

The campaigns of Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota have been equally vacuous. And Peña Nieto (the front-runner, remember?) represents the worst of the old-time PRI. As I blogged a few weeks ago, Jo Tuckman, a reporter for the London-based Guardian has unearthed documents showing that the PRI campaign has purchased favorable coverage from the two major televised-news networks. According to dozens of documents unearthed by Tuckman, and follow-up interviews by other reporters, the Peña Nieto campaign has purchased news coverage and even soap opera themes from the network designed to damage the image of López Obrador. Read that recent blog here.

Tuckman’s reporting suggests that it is not so much that the networks, and the people who control them, have chosen Peña Nieto to do their bidding, as it is that Peña Nieto, and the people who control him, have purchased his way into power. In the bad old days of PRI domination and corruption, people routinely spoke of politics as heavy-handed fraud. Now the subject matter is politics as U.S.-style attack-marketing (think swiftboating). This is the real disgrace. This is where the followers of López Obrador should be focusing their anger—not at the uncomfortable findings of the pollsters.

The playing field may be tilted; the umpires may be purchased; the pollsters are just keeping score. Certainly, a pollster is capable of adding a phantom run here and there when nobody’s looking, but if they all pretty much agree with one another, and if they tell you that you’re three runs down in the bottom of the ninth you’d better pay attention and come to bat. It would do you no good to simply declare—no matter how just your cause—that you have already won the game.



For more from Fred Rosen's blog, "Mexico, Bewildered and Contested," visit nacla.org/blog/mexico-bewildered-contested.

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