To my disappointment – and to the delight of Santos supporters – the Green Wave that swept through Colombian streets as well as domestic and international headlines just one week ago seems to have been mostly hype. Juan Manuel Santos, heir apparent to outgoing president Alvaro Uribe, won in all but one of Colombia’s thirty-two departments and one departmental capital. Even in Bogota, where Green candidate Antanas Mockus served two successful terms as mayor, Santos won by a significant margin. In total, Santos gained about twice as many votes as Mockus.
Perhaps we all should have seen it coming. Uribe, after all, is the most popular politician in recent Colombian history. However exciting Mockus’s proposals and however admirable his track record as mayor of Bogota, he is far too uncharismatic and distant from average Colombians to pose a real threat to the country’s powerful and deeply entrenched political establishment. On Sunday night, as Santos’s victory became certain, my conversations with other Green Party sympathizers did not center on how to move forward from this setback. Rather, our biggest question was how we were all fooled into expecting a close race in the first place.
The media deserves some blame. As an earlier column on this website by Adriaan Alsema points out, journalists are naturally prone to overestimate phenomena that are intriguing and highly visible. The Green Wave drew attention both because of Mockus’s now internationally famous eccentricities and because of the thousands of Green supporters who won the war of enthusiasm on Colombian streets, in public squares and on the web. By contrast, the media was far less aware of Santos supporters, who were not quite as visible or colorful but were ultimately far more numerous.
The media, however, is not the main culprit. True, newspapers and websites were quick to treat Mockus as a strong contender, but this was largely because public opinion polls consistently confirmed that storyline. Time and time again, these surveys showed a neck-and-neck race with Santos, giving the hype surrounding the Green Wave a sense of factual legitimacy. Moreover, the polls also helped turn Mockus’ success into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Upon seeing Mockus’ poll numbers, many Colombians who would otherwise have abstained from voting out of fatigue with traditional politics began to see the Green Party as an unprecedented opportunity to challenge the establishment.
The country’s relatively young polling industry seems well aware that the first round results are a huge blow to its credibility. The gap between poll results and actual voting patterns was simply huge, about twenty percentage points. Recently, some pollsters have attributed that gap to a ban on releasing poll results in the week immediately preceding the first round of voting. They suggest that unreleased poll results from last week did indeed show Santos surging far ahead of Mockus, probably due to the latter’s mediocre performance in televised debates.
This explanation, however, is highly doubtful. Until the polling firms release the results for that week, we will not know the extent to which they reflected Santos’s actual margin of victory, but it is hard to believe that support for Santos would surge so significantly and so suddenly. Even more implausible is the suggestion that Mockus’ debacles in debates and public appearances are the main reason for his disappointing performance in the election. A candidate’s performance in debates has very little impact on his support in the short run, even in countries with a long tradition of televised debates and where debates are more widely viewed – such as the United States. Besides, Mockus did not do badly enough in debates to justify a twenty-point drop in popular support.
In other words, the main explanation for the gap between poll results and actual election results is simply that the pollsters failed miserably. For a number of possible reasons – a selection bias in the polling methodology, a sense among poll respondents that Mockus was the “politically correct” answer, and so on – the surveys grossly overestimated support for the Green Party. Longstanding doubts about the accuracy of the polls and about whether poll results should inform the national political discourse seem to have been on the mark.
It should be noted that Sundays’ vote was not all bad news, even for Greens.
Although he lost, Mockus still managed to gain an impressive following considering Uribe’s popularity and the fact that, a few months ago, the Green Party was a fledgling movement with minimal popular support. Indeed, Mockus has shown a viable path to challenging the political establishment, something that Colombian politics has not seen for decades. A Green victory in the second round may seem almost unattainable, but the party has undoubtedly and perhaps irreversibly changed Colombian politics.
On the other hand, the first round of voting also brought plenty of unsettling lessons. Fraud and voting irregularities, which were rampant in the legislative elections held earlier this year, were again widespread on Sunday. Although Mockus’s rise to prominence made this campaign season more exciting than previous ones, about half of the Colombia’s eligible voters chose not to go to the booths, roughly the same proportion as in 2006 and 2002. Finally, as mentioned above, the country should seriously reconsider the role and methodology of its young polling firms. Public opinion polls are an essential element of a modern-day presidential race, but, in Colombia, they are dangerously imperfect.