Monday, May 15, 2006

the importance of polling

Polling is essential in modern elections, and no where is this more the case than in this year's presidential election in Mexico. I am not primarily concerned with the benefits that polling offers to the candidates (always inviting them to tweak the campaign in order to score a few points higher with a certain demographic). I do not believe that most people, Mexican or Northamerican are greatly influenced by polling data: either in terms of for whom to cast the ballot or whether or not it is even worth showing up to the precinct casillas.

Polls are needed to legitimate the election outcomes. In the 2000 election in the U.S., pre-election polls showed a dead heat between G.W. Bush and Al Gore. On election day, the slight plurality for Gore lead many Democrats to consider Bush's Electoral College victory somewhat illegitimate (and made vote tampering charges seem more plausible). But, of course, Mexico is not plagued by the same arcane electoral procedures.

The most essential role of private, professional and academic polling in any fledgeling democracy is to grant legitimacy to the results. A case in point would be the 1988 elections in Mexico (about which I have commented in depth in a previous blog). When the results came out (over a week late), no one took them as a serious, accurate count, but labeled them as PRI vote manipulation.

About the same time, there was a governor's race in Tabasco, and the same charges of fraud were levied by the "loser." He organized (mostly peaceful) protests design to shut down the state government. What amazed most of the observers was the duration and scale of these protests. Why this historical example is most relevant for us today is that the purported winner of that Tabasco governor race was Roberto Madrazo and the tenacious loser was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Last month, Enrique Andrade González reflected on the damage that an AMLO victory would do to Mexico's economy and concluded

"The greatest danger to Mexico's economic, social and political stability is not if López Obrador wins, but if he loses the presidency. The world is expecting AMLO to win, and any different result would be questioned at home and abroad. Plus they are preparing the way to impugn the election results should AMLO lose, so as not to let the next government take office."

My hope is that the polling data just prior to the election will show one candidate winning by at least five percentage points and well beyond the statistical margin or error, and that the election results show that same candidate winning. If the pre-election surveys show a dead heat and Calderon wins by a few thousand votes (even if there is no verifiable incidence of fraud), I have no doubt that AMLO will repeat his poor loser tactics of Tabasco.

It is only the pollsters who can legitimize the next president of Mexico, but vouchsafing that he was elected in an honest election. Despite the excellent work of the Federal Elections Institute IFE over the past few years in the last presidential election and numerous local and state elections in this new century, it is the pollsters who will legitimate IFE, and not the other way around.

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