Why did more people vote for Chavez than for Rosales?

Quico says: Just to pick up on Alek’s lucid postmortem, I’ll add some thoughts of my own.

I think the best way to go about dissecting Rosales’s loss is to divide it up between things he might have done differently, and factors entirely outside his control.

Factors outside Rosales’ control

  1. The Oil Boom: Far and away the biggest reason Chavez won was the government’s control over a nearly limitless revenue-stream. The oil boom allowed Chavez to make his key constituency noticeably better off in the two years before the election. It directly – and illegally – financed Chavez’s campaign, as the EU Monitoring Mission has noted (note: PDF file.) And it allowed the government to stimulate aggregate demand just in time to coincide with the electoral cycle, creating an economic boomlet and the kind of diffuse feel-good factor that keeps incumbents in office. The oil boom structured the campaign in Chavez’s favor, and there was nothing we could’ve done about it.
  2. The Eloquence Gap: It sucks that this matters, but it does. Hugo Chavez is in love with his microphone. Manuel Rosales is locked in a kind of blood feud with his. Insofar as campaigning is all about persuasion, this was a major problem for him.
  3. The Opposition’s Image Problem: After four years of missteps and relentless chavista provocations and attacks, much of the mud slung our way stuck in voters’ minds. To be the opposition’s standard bearer was, as far as many swing voters were concerned, to carry water for a callous, coup-mongering elite. Years of well-financed, repetitive attacks along these lines paid off for the government. Though Rosales might have gone further in distancing himself from the damaged oppo brand, he was basically stuck to it.

To my mind, it’s clear that these three factors – but especially the first one – account for most of Chavez’s lead. These structural facts would have made it difficult for any challenger to beat Chavez. Still, the race could’ve been closer than it turned out to be, if Rosales’s message had been better thought out to appeal to the electoral center.

Things Rosales could’ve done better

  1. Misplaced focus: As Katy points out, Rosales made a quizzical decision to focus overwhelmingly on his opponent’s strongest issue – Social Policy – rather than on Chavez’s major weak points – foreign spending, divisiveness, crime and unemployment. Focus groups showed again and again that swing voters didn’t really understand Mi Negra very well. Once it was explained to them, they tended to like the idea, but also to believe it was unlikely to be implemented. Mi Negra never really neutralized Chavez’s advantage on Social Policy themes – but it did take the spotlight away from issues where Chavez was far more vulnerable.
  2. Too little time: It seems like an eternity now, but it was just three months ago that the opposition was mired in a barren debate about how to choose a single anti-Chavez candidate. That may not have been such a problem if Julio Borges – who is already well-known nationwide – had been chosen. But Rosales, who was mostly unknown outside his home state, just didn’t have enough time to get voters acquainted with him. With less than a month to go, many Focus Group participants outside of Zulia still had only the haziest notions about the guy, what he stood for, who he was. And with only three months to campaign, there wasn’t really enough time to design and test a message that would really work.
  3. NiNi-unfriendly framing: I touched on this one on Monday, and throughout the last year. To win an election you need to control voter’s perceptions of what the choice they are making is about. Rosales tended to tow the standard opposition perception that the election was a choice between Castro-Communism and Democracy. I happen to agree with him, and it’s likely you do as well. But that doesn’t matter, because this framing doesn’t really resonate beyond the oppo’s core middle class vote. The discontented poor voters Rosales needed to convince to make the election close just didn’t respond to this kind of message.
  4. Atrévete: For similar reasons, “dare to” was arguably a counterpreductive slogan. For the same reason you can’t read “don’t think of an elephant” without thinking of an elephant, you can’t read “atrévete” without getting the vague sense that voting against Chávez is risky. This may well have backfired with NiNis, who must have wondered what kind of craziness and instability might follow if Chavez lost. The government seems to have grasped this dynamic much better than Rosales did, and exploited it by holding out the prospect of mayhem if Chavez lost. “Only Chavez can guarantee stability,” remember?
  5. “Mercal used to be called Proal, Mision Robinson used to be Acude.” Rosales’s always cringeworthy line about how misiones are just 4th republic social program re-treads may have been factually accurate, but it was a clear campaign own goal. The line – repeated from his campaign launch straight through to the end – strengthened his symbolic association with the old political system, which was something he needed to go to some lengths to avoid. The choice to staff his campaign with figures from the old Coordinadora Democratica was another needless own-goal in this regard.

It may well be that Chavez just couldn’t be defeated with oil prices where they are these days. The basic dynamic of the petrostate system hasn’t changed since the 1920s: the key to controlling the state is controlling the oil money. The more abundant oil revenue is, the easier it is to keep control of the state. I’ve long argued that this is the central fact of Venezuelan political economy, which is why I was never very hopeful that Chavez could be defeated.

Nevertheless, the race might have been made much tighter, and the reality is that Rosales’ showing was poor. Energetic though his campaign was, Rosales’s subtly misdirected message meant the guy never really broadened his appeal beyond the demographic that was always likely to vote for the opposition, regardless of the candidate. He just didn’t win over anyone, and ended up losing by a margin that makes another recall referendum basically unthinkable.

Hopefully, he will do much better as opposition leader than as opposition candidate. Personally, I think he will.