Antanas Mockus’s wave of popularity is not slowing down. With few exceptions, most polls show him gaining the greatest share of votes in the first round. More importantly, not a single recent poll shows him losing a second round runoff. If these surveys are to be trusted, everything indicates that the eccentric former mayor of Bogota is going to be the next president of Colombia.
Unfortunately for Mockus, is is far from certain that the polls can be trusted. For one thing, political polling is a relatively new and underdeveloped industry in Colombia. During this election cycle, for the first time in Colombian political history, polls have been released about once a week. Given the relative youth of Colombia’s polling industry, there are naturally many doubts about the surveys’ accuracy. One common criticism is that, despite recent efforts to expand into more remote areas, polls tend to have a strong urban bias and most of them only survey residents of Colombia’s largest cities.
Concerns such as these have led to a robust, if understated, national debate about political polling. Every day, at least one major media outlet publishes either a report or an opinion piece about the issue of the polls’ credibility. But both the arguments for the polls and the arguments against them are not fully convincing. For example, one common argument in defense of the polls is that they were right in the last two elections; in 2002 and 2006, opinion surveys accurately predicted that Alvaro Uribe would win. But this election will obviously be very different from the last two. The race between Juan Manuel Santos and Mockus is quite close, and the Green Party is shaking up Colombia’s political landscape to such an extent that comparing this election to any other is simply impossible.
On the other hand, to dismiss the polls would be silly. Though their methodology differs widely, they have all suggested the same thing: that Mockus has the upper hand over Santos. If the polls were really not credible, their results would differ much more than they do. It seems that at least one factor motivating skepticism about the polls is sheer disbelief about Mockus’s popularity. Many Colombians, including myself, are struggling to understand how this Facebook-driven political phenomenon – who just months ago fared little better than leftist Polo Democratico candidate Gustavo Petro and Cambio Radical candidate German Vargas Lleras at the polls – is on pace to become the first true outsider to win a Colombian Presidential election. In sum, it is simply not clear just how credible the polls are.
A main reason for this is that a large fraction of Mockus supporters are first time voters and it is unclear just how many of them will actually turn out to vote. On the one hand, Mockus’ supporters, especially young ones, tend to be much more vocal and enthusiastic than Santos’. On the other hand, perhaps Mockus’s less visible backers are casual supporters who have jumped on the bandwagon, but may be unlikely to follow through on election day. To make matters even more complicated, the turnout in support of the Green Party may depend partly on polls themselves. If the race appears close, maybe more casual Mockus supporters will be more compelled to cast their ballot.
Perhaps an easier way to gauge polls’ credibility is the candidates’ own behavior.
By that indicator, the polls are not to be trusted. Despite Mockus’s high numbers, his campaign seems increasingly nervous about turnout among first-time voters. Almost daily, Mockus’s Facebook page encourages new voters to understand the country’s electoral procedures and show up at the booths. Another recent message told supporters that the only poll that matters will be on May 30.
In more general terms, Mockus has good reasons to worry that his apparent support is mostly hype and myth. He is strong in areas that have not traditionally mattered much in Colombian politics – debating, public opinion polls, online campaigning, attention from foreign media, and so on – but he is comparatively weak in areas that have been of central importance in previous elections – support among media and political elites, a strong party organization and political infrastructure, campaign resources and name recognition.
This is not to say that Santos should be confident about the upcoming elections, either. On the contrary, Uribe’s would-be heir apparent is even more nervous than Mockus. His poll numbers relative to those of his main rival have been plummeting steadily for weeks and, even if they overestimate Mockus’s actual support, the surveys certainly do not reflect very positively on Santos’s campaign strategy and momentum. Santos’s unexpected decline is one reason why he hired J.J. Rendon, a very successful but infamously ruthless Venezuelan campaign advisor.
In the few weeks left until the elections, many more polls will come out and, unless they suggest a margin of victory for either candidate above fifteen or twenty percentage points, there will be little reason to confidently predict the results in either direction. The country and, increasingly, the world will have to wait until May 30 for any indication of who the next president will be. In the meantime, thanks to this uncertainty, Santos and Mockus will continue to campaign harder than ever.