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Dithering in Caracas

When Caracas polling firm Datanálisis made public its latest survey concerning the October 7 presidential election, the results showed Hugo Chávez with a comfortable 13-point lead over challenger Henrique Capriles. The numbers raised more than a few eyebrows. But that wasn’t because the margin was surprising (a margin that other polling firms do not believe ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GettyImages
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GettyImages

When Caracas polling firm Datanálisis made public its latest survey concerning the October 7 presidential election, the results showed Hugo Chávez with a comfortable 13-point lead over challenger Henrique Capriles. The numbers raised more than a few eyebrows. But that wasn't because the margin was surprising (a margin that other polling firms do not believe exists, by the way). It was because of the unusually high number of undecided voters.

According to Datanálisis, a full 23 percent of voters in this hyper-polarized, über-politicized nation remain wishy-washy -- three months before they go to the polls.

The large number of undecided tropical hamlets only three months before a pivotal election is highly unusual. Approaching the 2008 presidential election in the U.S., Quinnipiac University found only 7 percent of U.S. voters did not know who to vote for; and unlike in Venezuela, that election did not feature a well-known incumbent who has been in power since the last century. Similarly, a YouGov/The Sun poll taken at a similar point in time in the UK put the number of undecided voters at 12%.

When Caracas polling firm Datanálisis made public its latest survey concerning the October 7 presidential election, the results showed Hugo Chávez with a comfortable 13-point lead over challenger Henrique Capriles. The numbers raised more than a few eyebrows. But that wasn’t because the margin was surprising (a margin that other polling firms do not believe exists, by the way). It was because of the unusually high number of undecided voters.

According to Datanálisis, a full 23 percent of voters in this hyper-polarized, über-politicized nation remain wishy-washy — three months before they go to the polls.

The large number of undecided tropical hamlets only three months before a pivotal election is highly unusual. Approaching the 2008 presidential election in the U.S., Quinnipiac University found only 7 percent of U.S. voters did not know who to vote for; and unlike in Venezuela, that election did not feature a well-known incumbent who has been in power since the last century. Similarly, a YouGov/The Sun poll taken at a similar point in time in the UK put the number of undecided voters at 12%.

But in Venezuela, large swathes of voters simply don’t know. This is all the more curious when one learns that the same polling firm reported 17% of undecided voters back in March. Apparently, Venezuelans are less decided now than they were six months ago.

Indecision could be explained by a lack of knowledge about the candidates, but this is not the case of voters in Venezuela. Hugo Chávez certainly needs no introduction. He has been president for the last 13 years and is on the airwaves pretty much all the time. His challenger, the current governor of the populous state of Miranda, has been a public figure for the last thirteen years as well, and triumphed in a primary last February where turnout was extremely high. He has also visited 100 cities in the country’s interior in the last 29 days.

Indecision could also be explained by a less-than-enthusiastic campaign. Yet turnout at rallies for both candidates have been massive, and the candidates are both flooding the airwaves.

One could interpret the large number of undecided voters as a sign that the candidates are not offering distinct choices. But while Capriles has pledged to keep Hugo Chávez’s main policies in place, should he win — such as currency controls and the well-regarded social programs — the two men could not be more different in terms of style. One is young and non-confrontational. The other is seriously ill, with cancer, and epitomizes the divide-and-conquer approach to politics.

Perhaps the fact that the large number of undecided voters show up only in some polls suggests that the poll itself is to blame. Political Scientist David Smilde points to the polling question itself. Datanálisis asks who the person would vote for, and provides four alternatives: Chávez, Capriles, Neither, and Don’t Know. Consultores 21, another respected poll that shows the two candidates in a dead heat, asks directly who the person would vote for between Chávez and Capriles. It excludes "No Choice" as an option.

Finally, conventional wisdom suggests some voters may not express their preference for the opposition in a survey, for fear of potential repercussions.

Smilde says this doesn’t hold up, and points instead to sampling issues. According to him, Consultores 21 is polling more opposition voters than Datanálisis. However, this would not explain why Consultores 21 picks up few undecided voters.

As the election winds down, we should expect to see the number of undecided voters decrease in all polls. It will be interesting to see which candidate they decide to support as they make up their minds. Capriles’ chances depend on them opting for him.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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