How We’re Like Nicaragua in 1990, and How We’re Not

Había un camino

It’s become the stuff of Latin American Legend, and a favorite Caprilista talking point of the last few months: despite trailing badly in most well-regarded polls, Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorros trounced the Sandinistas in the 1990 Presidential Election by 54% to 40%. Lesson: in a highly conflict-ridden and polarized Latin American context, people lie to pollsters about voting intentions.

But how applicable are the lessons of Nicaragua in 1990 to Venezuela in 2012? Well, in this 1994 paper for the American Journal of Political Science, John A. Booth reviews the Nicaraguan experience in detail.

Here are the key factors he identifies for why so many pollsters got it so wrong:

1-Narrowness of Focus. The view that Daniel Ortega was a shoo-in for re-election in 1990 came if you looked at Presidential Voting Intention question in isolation. In fact, the same surveys were strewn with hints that sandinista support was soft. This came out in two ways: a high number of “Undecideds” in the sample, and Presidential Approval and Favorability ratings that were out of whack with the voting intention numbers. Too many people were telling pollsters that they didn’t approve of Ortega’s handling of his job, didn’t like the guy…but intended to vote for him anyway. Interestingly, there was no gap between favorability and approval ratings in polls that showed Chamorro ahead and in those that showed Ortega ahead.

Venezuela Similarity Quotient: Mixed. As discussed ad infinitum in these pages, many Venezuelan surveys really do show oddly high numbers of undecideds. However, Chávez’s approval and favorability numbers have not gone noticeably soft in the last 12 months.

2. Sampling Problems. Booth says, “in the two decades since the last census, the country had undergone two wars, a revolution, natural disasters, massive urbanization, heavy outmigration and sharply accelerated population growth… Not even for the capital, Managua, did up-to-date dwelling unit maps exist.” These data limitations wreaked havoc with pollsters efforts to construct a reliable sample.

Venezuela Similarity Quotient: Low. With as many as 10 national votes in the last decade, Venezuelan pollsters have plenty of experience constructing reliable samples with the data in hand.

3. Sample Comparability. Pollsters in Nicaragua weren’t always straightforward about whether they had polled only Managua, large urban areas or the whole country, all voters, only registered voters or those judged likely to vote.

Venezuela Similarity Quotient: Low. Serious Venezuelan pollsters always report characteristics of their sample, though some go further in polling small-town voters than others. (A C21 strong suit.)

4. Allocation of Undecided Voters. In Nicaragua, “not all the candidate preference results reported in the various polls were based straightforwardly upon respondents declared preferences.” Some pollsters went to town “assigning” undecided voters to one side or another on the basis of follow-up probes to pressure them to declare a leaning, or deleted undecideds from the results as if they did not exist.

Venezuela Similarity Quotient: Undetermined. I’m not sure if Consultores 21 and Varianzas, which show lower undecided tallies than the rest, are doing this.

Booth discusses field experiments by other researchers that suggest just how sensitive voters were to unconscious cues of pollster partiality. Something as subtle as the color of the pen a pollster was using to write down answers could, according to some researchers, be read as a sign of partisanship by respondents and skew responses.

Booth notes that one interpretation is that pollsters that respondents perceived as pro-Chamorro produced more accurate results than pollsters that sought to present themselves as neutral (perhaps because they were suspected to be pro-government). He estimates that 1-in-6 respondents who told neutral-seeming pollsters they would vote for Ortega actually went on to vote for Chamorro.

Interestingly, the best-performing pollster in 1990 was a Venezuelan outfit called DOXA, affiliated with COPEI, that was widely perceived as pro-Opposition in the Nicaraguan context. Some researchers have speculated that the perception of DOXA as a pro-Chamorro pollster was the key to its success. They’re still around, in one form or another, and they think Capriles is winning the battle of the NiNis.

So there’s a bit in that paper for everyone. To me, though, it suggests one key question to ask is whether there’s a systematic gap between IVAD, Datanalisis, Consultores 21 and Varianzas in terms of Chávez’s favorability and approval ratings, as well as his voting intention. So…I’m adding that to my To Do list.

[Hat Tip: Capablanca]

28 thoughts on “How We’re Like Nicaragua in 1990, and How We’re Not

  1. FT,

    I agree with you here but poll result variability is awfully high.

    Click to access sagarzazu_Vzla2012_encuestas2.pdf

    Even among “serious” pollsters. So either some of the pollsters are not very well calibrated or Venezuela is hard to measure.

    Indeed Nicaragua’s situation is not the same, nor Venezuela’s is common. These are very complex system and the odds of being replicated are minimal. But something funny is happening and ANYTHING can happen. This is not wishful thinking, it is based on the fact that the data is murky and the outcome is completely unpredictable. Chavez can win, but also Capriles and it is possible that Capriles does so by a land slide. At this point there is no use of looking at polls.

    One must do 2 things at this point. Go vote, and help whenever possible. Being a witness, helping with logistics or doing the quick counts.


  2. I was an official international observer at that Nicaraguan election. i entered the country two weeks before election day, and left the day after. It certainly is possible that Venezuelan pollsters, today, do a better job than was possible in the (relatively) disorganized Nicaragua of 1990.
    However, the sense of certain Sandinista victory at that time did not come primarily from the polling, which everyone knew to be fairly unsophisticated. Rather, it was public display ofmsupport for the revolution that seemed most convincing. Those wearing Sandinista t-shirts with the legend “Todo sera mejor: Daniel Presidente!” outnumbered opposition t-shirts by five to one. Daniel’s pro-Sandinista caps were the most common headgear to be seen, and buildings both private and public were adorned with pro-Daniel posters. TV was totally dominated by Sandinista information and advertising. (There was one channel which could be seen throughout the country). interviews on the street–I identified myself as an international observer with no political ties–yielded a large preponderance of pro-Daniel supporters everywhere.

    When Violetta Chamorro ended up with a landslide victory, one thing was clear to all of the observers: a large proportion of the population was pretending to support the Revolution, until the day came when they could reject it without running a risk to themselves. It seems to me, observing Venezuela from far away, that this dynamic is at play there, too.


        • Yes. Capriles has an impressive ground game. I am hearing a level of excitement from venezuelans that says a win is imminent. Bubble? No way. People are done with this regime. Chavez has *esto es lo que hay*. Lo que hay can be converted into a nice, red dish-rag after use.


  3. Sometimes I get optimistic and hope we can pull a Nicaragua, then I remember that Ortega is now again President and I think about the huge road ahead even if we manage to pull it off.


  4. There are a few similarities in the sense that the socialist revolution was never ed completed because of corruption of the bureaucracy and like the Boli-bourgeoisie in Venezuela there were segments who held back that path but in Venezuela but the big difference we have a grassroots and a militant rank and file who want to go beyond capitalist bourgeois politics and democracy to real socialism.

    Down with the corruption in the bureaucracy and the Boli-bourgeoisie.

    Defeat the counterrevolution!
    Expropriate the oligarchy!
    Power to the workers and peasants!
    Carry out the Revolution to the end!


  5. Interesting post. Too bad JSTOR is virtually inaccessible from Venezuela (unless you work at the BCV – I know of no other institution that is affiliated).


    • I’ll email the article to whoever wants it and can’t access it. Shout me an email: edur288 arrova (arroba?) gmail punto com

      Free the digital humanities!


  6. My wife is Nicaraguan and I spent about 5 years there working and living. Nicas, in my wife’s words, don’t like having to go on record about their voting intentions – especially in a climate where it’s not clear what the personal ramifications of your decision will mean before the vote is actually cast. Ortega has always maintained control of street gangs that are more than willing to go rough you up in you state your intention of voting for the opposition. Then he washes his hands – “those were thugs; I know nothing about it.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Venezuelans are doing something similar. If I were living in Venezuela today I don’t think I’d be too loud about my voting preferences – family first, and it’s not worth getting anybody hurt over.


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