After weeks of making steady and surprising gains in public opinion polls, Antanas Mockus seems to be losing voter support at an alarming rate. According to the most recent surveys, not only has Partido de la U candidate Juan Manuel Santos regained the lead in the first round of voting, but his predicted margin in that round has rapidly grown to about five percentage points. More importantly, some polls show that Santos would beat Mockus in the run-off round, albeit by only about one percentage point.
What explains this reversal of fortune? One plausible explanation is that Santos’ recent efforts to re-energize his campaign have begun to pay off. After starting the race overconfident and somewhat passive, the Partido de la U candidate restructured his campaign when Mockus’ popularity began to skyrocket over a month ago. For example, he hired two highly successful campaign experts: Ravi Singh, a so-called “election guru” who helped manage Barack Obama’s online mobilization efforts, and JJ Rendon, a ruthless Venezuelan spin doctor known for running dirty but extremely effective smear campaigns.
Just as Santos is re-energizing his campaign, Mockus is beginning to make silly strategic mistakes. The most visible of these blunders is a recent public spat with the Colombian left. Unsurprisingly, one of the Santos campaign’s lines of attack against Mockus has been to explicitly and implicitly associate him with the country’s relatively unpopular leftist parties. A simple declaration from Mockus ruling out a first-round alliance with the left would probably have sufficed to ward off these attacks. Nevertheless, the Green Party candidate went much further and stumbled into a distracting row with the country’s largest leftist party, the Polo Democratico Alternativo.
Last week, Mockus said that the Polo’s presidential candidate, Gustavo Petro, held beliefs that justified violence. The comments would have been harsh even if they came from Santos, but they were even more shocking coming from Mockus, a centrist politician who is promising to restore decency to Colombian politics. Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla who has spent much of the past twenty years in the Senate and House of Representatives, took the comment very personally, as did much of his party. Seemingly unaware of his mistake, Mockus rubbed salt in the Polo’s wounds last Thursday, when he said that Petro’s success in the party’s primaries signaled the Polo’s clear departure from the FARC. In other words, he appeared to imply that before Petro’s election, the party had links of some sort with the widely detested guerrilla group. Since then, several Polo leaders, including Petro, have denounced Mockus’ comments.
To his credit, Mockus made some efforts to back off from these statements. He recently praised Petro and some of his ideas, especially his emphasis on social justice, and admitted that his earlier comments “could have hurt more than intended.” Unfortunately for Mockus, he is right. Not only were his comments excessive, but much of the damage could be irreparable. In the run-off round of voting, he will likely need the support of leftists, who are unlikely to vote for Santos. Nevertheless, many Pole supporters may ultimately be unwilling to forgive Mockus for his offenses.
The threat of a reinvigorated Santos campaign has cornered Mockus into other distracting blunders. For example, he flip-flopped on the possibility of extraditing Santos to Ecuador for his role in a bombing on a FARC camp in the neighboring country’s territory during his time as defense minister. The Green Party candidate initially seemed open to the idea, but later declared himself to be against it after looking into some legal technicalities.
Mockus’ explanations of his religious beliefs have been similarly inconsistent. In prior public statements, the Green Party candidate has said that his academic background in mathematics and philosophy made him skeptical about the existence of God. In recent weeks, however, he has insisted that he, like the vast majority of Colombians, is Catholic and believes that the Catholic faith is essential to restoring morality to Colombian politics. Undoubtedly, Mockus is struggling to compete with the religious credentials of Santos, a devout Catholic who also has the support of the country’s relatively small but politically active Evangelical community.
In short, whether the polls are entirely accurate or not, Santos now seems to be in control of the race. Mockus, meanwhile, is exactly where his opponent was just a few weeks ago, making headlines as much for negative reasons as for positive ones. The Partido de la U has regained momentum during the final week of the campaign and a race that was already uncertain is now completely up in the air.