The impressive victory of Juan Manuel Santos in the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections has left many baffled. Despite his popularity in the polls and the hype in foreign media, the man who would change everything, Antanas Mockus, did not even receive half the votes his opponent did.
Unfairly, Mockus supporters on social media websites and in reaction panels on national news are now crying fraud. I personally assume that Santos benefited to some extent from fraud, but that does not change the fact that he clearly and convincingly came out on top in the first round.
Vote-buying, the illegal promotion of candidates by public officials or plain fraud will only get you a few percent of the votes. It will not generate a nearly landslide victory – only a large group of people who want you to be their president can do that.
What analysts and disappointed Mockus supporters now will have to try to understand is how everyone came to think there was a neck-and-neck race going on when in fact there never was a neck-and-neck race at all.
A few people should really do some serious introspection: the pollsters for being so incredibly wrong about reality, the media for exactly the same reason and me, for being so surprised about the outcome.
Over the past few weeks Colombia Reports has given Mockus a lot of attention, following his incredible results in the polls and a huge support in social media. Based on this, I even wrote a column about the faults of the Santos campaign and how he would have a hard time recovering ground against his green opponent. I feel pretty stupid about that column now.
I don’t really like Santos, but I’ve never become a fan of Mockus either and I was very skeptical about the attention the Green Party candidate received in foreign media over the last few weeks. It wasn’t until polls after showed a stagnation of the supposed “green wave” that U.S. and European media picked up on the alleged phenomenon and started portraying the candidate as the up-and-coming next big thing. In the case of Colombia Reports, we simply followed a clear trend in the polls.
To blame the pollsters for doing a bad job wouldn’t be right. All polls in Colombia were carried out according to internationally accepted rules on statistics. I think the pollsters are as baffled as any of us and are trying to analyze the discrepancy between their predictions and the actual election results in order to recover lost credibility.
I do think Colombian and foreign media should have known better. Newspapers, television stations and websites like Colombia Reports have falsely added fuel to a hype that proved to be nothing but a speculative bubble.
In retrospect I can understand why I got it so wrong. I always checked the methods the polls used and found they conformed to international rules on statistics. Besides, the several polls showed similar tendencies. When looking at online activity you’d see a huge advantage for Mockus. Also, there was not a day going by that I didn’t walk past groups of kids in green T-shirts, indicating that Mockus had grass-roots organization going on off-line as well. The polls, compared to online and street activity, were actually rather conservative in their estimates.
But there is one very important thing that I forgot. For every kid in a green T-shirt I saw a thousand people wearing normal clothing. So really, if all 1001 went to vote, why think that the one green T-shirt will win the majority because it expresses itself more loudly?
And why wasn’t I alarmed by the contradiction between the apparent ongoing support for Uribe and the apparent support for a guy who refused to continue the president’s policy?
What a lot of people – including myself – overlooked is a group whose support Mockus very obviously lacks; the silent majority, made up of the people who do not respond to online articles, wear political T-shirts or have Twitter accounts.
Another thing I overlooked is the distortion that is caused by the difference in behavior between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The progressive, change-seeking part of society will always be more vocal than those who are happy as it is, but that doesn’t make them the majority, no matter how “reasonable” they are. In Colombia’s case it doesn’t even make them a large minority.
Add to this the fact that people’s behavior in opinion polls is different than in the voting booth, generally to prejudiced towards the politically correct. When responding to someone on the phone, people behave differently than when they are alone in a polling station with a pencil and a piece of paper.
I am looking forward to hearing the pollsters’ responses to the election results. Meanwhile, I am taking a mental note: don’t ever be tricked again by the “reason” and “common sense” of the more vocal. They may dominate a discussion, but they do not control the minds of those who remain quiet.