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Venezuela: numbers without fear

Douglas Schoen interviewed by Roger Santodomingo

21.11.06 | Douglas Schoen, a partner with Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, with offices in New York and Washington, has worked for various political leaders, among them Bill Clinton, Ehud Olmert, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Leonel Fernández. In Venezuela he was hired by a group of businessmen whose identity Schoen does not reveal, “because they have authorized me to talk about my findings as to electoral trends in this country, but not about them.” In 2004, Schoen directed an exit poll that gave the lead to the opposition by 59% in the referendum that sought to remove Hugo Chávez from office. He still maintains that there were “more problems with the vote than with the public opinion survey.” Schoen gave us his opinion about the Hinterlaces tracking that we publish daily and the interpretation we give to it, most of all taking into account the fear factor.

RS: Is the fear factor really a factor to be taken into account or is it an urban legend that is there serving to reject the results of the opinion polls?

DS: We believe that the fear factor is a true force. We do everything to minimize it. This is distorting all the polls conducted by honest Venezuelan researchers. We guarantee to people their anonymity when we interview them. We interview people on the street. We give out a paper form that people fill out secretly and then deposit in a box that is behind the pollsters back.

RS: Is the 6% advantage that you give Chávez over Rosales the result of an interpretation based on trends and the fear factor? Or is it based on raw data?

DS: Well, those are the raw data; that is the reason I state that the elections are going to be very close.

RS: What was your sampling and how do you process your data?

DS: We conducted a poll with one thousand voters between Monday the 6th and Friday the 10th of last week. We selected them at random based on 260 points throughout Venezuela.

RS: In your opinion, is the country uniform?

DS: Not entirely, but we did find that aside from a grueling competition, half of the population maintains a positive perception of the government of President Chávez and the other half judges him negatively. About 50% of the population believes that the country is going in the right direction and the other 50% believes that it has taken the wrong path.

RS: A country divided

DS: That is how it is. A country evenly divided for and against the so-called revolution. But Manuel Rosales has gained 7 points since our last poll in September, when we found that he was 13 points behind. Chávez, on the other hand, is dropping, although very slowly, because in our last measure he was at 50% and today he is at 48%.

RS: What can you tell us about this fear factor and the so-called spiral of silence?

DS: Well, you will see that it is very difficult to measure. But I would say that it is not probable that the opinion polls are underestimating the vote against Chávez. We are convinced that everyone who is going to vote for Chávez will say so openly. But it is certainly possible that part of those in favor of Rosales will not say so out of fear. If that is the case, all opinion polls will underestimate the vote for the challenging candidate.

RS: You have not specified the proportion affected by the fear factor; therefore we will have to find out on Election Day.

DS: In a prior inquiry we estimated that between 5% and 10% of the voters showed some tendency toward fear. But it is very difficult to translate a tendency toward fear with absolute certainty. Applying statistical filters in order to translate a tendency toward fear into intention to vote, when the competition is so close, can move the whole scenario from one direction to the other. That is what is happening with your tracking.

RS: You have worked for 30 years in the world of public opinion polls. In how many elections have you participated?

DS: Yes, three decades and some 600 elections.

RS:  Is it true that this is an atypical process? Or have you run into similar cases?

DS: No doubt it is unusual. Nevertheless, I observed the elections in Serbia in the year 2000, when Milosevic was defeated. There was a feeling that he was invulnerable, that he could not lose. He was a dictator feared by many and he was defeated.

RS: Did you conduct any polls concerning voter intention then?

DS: Yes, and the tendencies showed a very close election, but the people kept saying that Milosevic would win. Take the example of Nicaragua in 1990. Mrs. Chamorro then defeated an almighty Daniel Ortega; even when Ortega appeared to be way ahead of Chamorro, she won.

RS: Why did that happen? Weren’t you conducting the polls correctly?

DS: We did not take into account fear in a cliental society, where people were in fear of the consequences resulting from their vote, especially what would happen to them if they voted against the Sandinistas.

RS: Does Venezuela remind you of Serbia and Nicaragua?

DS: The situations are similar, yes. Look, it is very difficult to state who is going to win before the votes are counted. But my intuition is that Chávez’s vote is being overestimated and that overall Rosales’ is being underestimated. Having said that, all of the statistics from our survey indicate that the contest will be very close.

RS: Some poll takers maintain that the message sent out by Rosales is not being well received. For example, that the Mi Negra card is a populist program and he has not succeeded in taking a stance on an issue such as, for example, being the champion against criminal activity.

DS: What we are seeing is that those who know about Mi Negra like it. They consider it an attractive message. Furthermore, among those who approve of Mi Negra, 70% are voting for Rosales. Therefore I do not believe that the message is mistaken, but rather that it has not come across sufficiently. I believe that if the undecided listen to Rosales’s message and compare him to Chávez, they are going to move in the direction of Rosales.

RS: What did you find out about abstention?

DS: It is difficult to measure it. I cannot offer a prediction about those who might not be voting.

RS: What we have here is a case of data polluting the atmosphere.  Polls are giving opposite results that serve to confuse the electorate, or to forewarn them as to their reliability. It is what we are calling the war of the public opinion polls. Do you believe this has a real effect on people?

DS: I have not measured that. But I believe it is healthy for a democracy to have as many honest measures as possible. I would encourage, and expect there to be, many exit polls on Election Day, so that the will of the Venezuelan people will be reflected in the elections.

RS: What do you think about Noticiero Digital’s telephone tracking?

DS: I believe that telephone tracking, in general, is very useful for marketing research. In the political market it might give indications of people’s spirits, of their attitude toward what happens everyday, and detect what they like and what it is that bothers them. But I realize that it must be difficult to take into account the opinion of that 20% of the population that has no telephones. Thus you need to provide a statistical balance in order to adjust your measure and to compensate for this, especially in a stratified election. If they were to find a formula for avoiding this bias, tracking would be very accurate, but I realize it is difficult.

RS: What is of concern to the people, and what is it that bothers them?

DS: What concerns them the most is crime, high prices, that their income from oil be kept in the country and not be taken abroad, the deterioration of their quality of life, factors that have made this a more dangerous society.

RS: What would you recommend to the candidates?

DS: A poll taker must not make any recommendations to the candidates. I only show them what I have found.

RS: What probability is there of the undecided stepping forth and exercising their option 15 days hence?

DS: Most will. I think that those who do not maintain a position are more likely to vote for Rosales than for Chávez. They know Chávez. If they remain undecided, what they are saying is, “I don’t like this life I am living. I want to find out more about the other options.”

RS: Why doesn’t Rosales convince them?

DS: I don’t know. I think it is a lack of information. I am thinking of what I told you earlier about Mi Negra. They are not well enough informed.

RS: Could it be that they do not like what they know?

DS: That happens, but most of them are lacking information.

Translation W.K.

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