Wishful Polling: Systematic Bias and Manipulation in Venezuela’s Public Opinion Racket

Rather than giving any indication of the outcome of the recall referendum this August 15th, public opinion polls are reinforcing both camps in their conviction that they will win the referedum. What Venezuela needs are polling standards.

With Venezuela’s campaign to recall or reaffirm Hugo Chávez’ Presidential mandate heating up, opinion polls are coming out on what seems like a daily basis. Yet rather than giving any indication of the outcome of the recall referendum this August 15th, they are reinforcing both camps of their projected victories. According to Venezuelan polling company Consultores 21, for example, support for the recall against President Chávez was 65.8% in March, though they note that it has recently fallen to 54.5%.[i]

In May another Venezuelan polling firm Datanálisis, put support for the recall at 57.4% (a ‘Yes’ vote), and 43.6% against (a ‘No’ vote).[ii] Directly contradicting Consultores 21 and Datanálisis was North American Opinion Research Inc. who recently announced nearly the exact inverse results in a poll they conducted in June: 57% ‘No’ to the recall, 41% ‘Yes’.[iii] Corroborating these figures was Venezuelan polling company Indaga who broke public opinion down at 55% ‘No’, and 42% ‘Yes’.[iv]

In two editorials published a week apart in Venezuela’s largest circulating daily newspaper Ultimas Noticias, Eleazar Díaz Rangel discussed the inconsistent history of polling companies in Venezuela. Rangel (no relation to the Vice-President) notes that in 1968, the first year that polls were conducted for a Presidential election, projections bore no resemblance to the election results. The only company that correctly predicted Copei candidate Rafael Caldera’s victory, was off by over 12%! In what has become something of a trend, another poll—commissioned by Accíon Democrática (AD)—predicted that AD candidate Gonzalo Barrios and Caldera would tie.[v]

According to Rangel, the problem is that the polling industry in Venezuela is completely unregulated. No listing of companies conducting polls in Venezuela exists. Furthermore, “the situation is complicated by the fact that there is no mechanism to regulate quality, resulting in a situation where bogus firms proliferate along with legitimate organizations.”[vi]

While internationally recognized norms for opinion polling exist, they have not been applied in Venezuela. The World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) has guidelines to ensure professionalism and objectivity in opinion polling. According to WAPOR, “Adherence to this code is deemed necessary to maintain confidence that researchers in this field are bound by a set of sound and basic principles based on experience gained over many years of development.”[vii]

Aware of the prevalence of unqualified and uncertified organizations conducting opinion research around the world, the World Association of Opinion and Marketing Research Professionals (ESOMAR), in cooperation with WAPOR, has noted, “Far too often the term opinion poll is misused to describe unscientific and unrepresentative measurements of public opinion. Representativeness means the obtaining of measurements which can be generalised to apply without any statistical bias to the whole population under consideration.”[viii]

Rangel offers a few poignant examples of the inconsistency, and inaccuracy of Venezuela opinion polling, illustrating the degree to which it fails to live up to international standards of opinion research. Above, we saw how distant projections were from the results of Rafael Caldera’s 1968 Presidential victory. But that was the first year Venezuelan polling firms entered the Presidential election market, so perhaps their miscalculations could be excused. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have come very far since then.

In the Presidential elections of 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez (AD) beat Eduardo Fernández (Copei) 54.6% to 41.7%, a margin of about 13% or approximately 1.3 million votes. The US polling firm Gallup correctly predicted Pérez’ victory, but slightly over-calculated his majority giving him 25% over Fernández, or approximately 2.5 million votes![ix]

More recently, in the 2000 Presidential elections the Venezuelan polling firm Mercanálisis published results for the Capital District—an area encompassing Caracas and its environs and accounting for 1.219.696 million registered voters (in 2000), or almost 10% of the population. Mercanálisis predicted that Chávez and his closest competitor Francisco Arías Cárdenas would receive 48% and 46%, respectively—a Chávez victory by a margin of 2%. Unfortunately for Mercanálisis’ track-record, Chávez roundly defeated Cárdenas in the Capital District 61.38% to 33.90%—a margin of 27.5%![x]

Rangel points out that Venezuela’s polling firms have failed to predict the results of the majority of elections in which they conducted surveys. Due to the lack of regulation and universally applied polling standards, it is impossible to distinguish between those companies whose failures reflect an inadequate methodology, and those who actively manipulate results to please the specific political figures, parties, or organizations that sponsor them. The solution, according to Rangel, is for national regulation, preferably by the National Electoral Council (CNE). The transparency, supervision, and nationally applied polling standards that this would entail would certainly raise Venezuelan polling from the depths of inaccuracy and subjectivity in which it has been immured. However, such a solution still depends on the honesty and cooperation of polling firms that have shown themselves to have powerful partisan interests in the past.[xi]

In an article published in NarcoNews Bulletin last year, Justin Delacour noted some of the more profound barriers to responsible polling in Venezuela. At root is widespread partisanship among pollsters. He notes the President of Datanálisis’ declaration to the LATimes that the only solution to Venezuela’s current political impasse is for Chávez to be killed.[xii]

More recently, a key analyst at Datanálisis, Luis León, was listed as an advisor to the US-based Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in a recent grant application to the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The CIPE, along with the Venezuela-based Center for the Dissemination of Economic Information (CEDICE), were key contributors to the Venezuelan opposition umbrella-group Coordinadora Democratica’s (Democratic Coordinator) recent plan for a post-Chávez Venezuela “Plan Consensus Country,” released last Friday.[xiii]

León’s partisanship has not always remained hidden in classified NED documents, however: at a recent Datanálisis press conference León declared, “Chavez isn’t completely out of the game, but he’s in trouble.” “If the vote happens legally,” he continued, “Chavez should lose.”[xiv] This is a striking statement coming from an allegedly professional pollster in light of the fact, mentioned above, that there have been myriad polls predicting both possible outcomes in the upcoming recall election. Also, judging from Datanálisis’ track-record in predicting election results, León’s confidence is even less credible.

Certainly some form of national regulation and supervision is necessary. If, as Rangel suggests, some polling firms have in fact been fudging their reports to please their sponsors, they could in theory be held accountable to a national authority. However, the reality is that even without intentional manipulation, there is ample opportunity for polling firms to get the results they desire. Furthermore, if public opinion polls continue to be cited by each side to give the appearance that they have the momentum, the motivation to produce sponsor-friendly reports will remain.

Even without direct manipulation, polling firms still define their sample group, and phrase and present the questions. Unfortunately, for even the brightest of Venezuelan poll-related futures, no amount of regulation or supervision can take that away from them.

[i] Alex Kennedy, “Venezuela’s Chavez Gains in Poll Ahead of August Vote (Update 2),” www.bloomberg.com, http://quote.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000086&sid=aE0jcNiXPM2E&refer=latin_america (July 7, 2004).

[ii] Peter Wilson, “Venezuela’s Chavez would lose Recall Vote, Poll Finds (Update 1),” bloomberg.com, http://quote.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000086&sid=aKNvYA3oDmVM&refer=latin_america (June 23, 2004).

[iii] “Investigación de ‘North American Opinion Research’ indica que Chávez sería ratificado con 57% a favor,” elobservador online, http://elobservador.rctv.net/Noticias/VerNoticia.aspx?NoticiaId=158555&Tipo=14 (3 July, 2004).

[iv] Martín Sanchez, “Venezuela’s President has 57% Support Ahead of Recall, New Poll Says,” venezuelanalysis.com, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news.php?newsno=1304  (July 3, 2004).

[v] “I: Historias de las Encuestas,” Ultimas Noticias, www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve, also available at: www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=15&t=6489 (4 July, 2004).

[vi] Eleazar Díaz Rangel, “II: Éxitos y Fracasos de las Encuestas,” Ultimas Noticias, www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve, also available at: www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=15&t=6677 (11 July, 2004).

[vii] “Code of Professional Ethics and Practices: Introduction,” World Association of Public Opinion Research, www.unl.edu/wapor/ethics.html.

[viii] “ESOMAR/WAPOR Guide to Opinion Polls including the ESOMAR International code of Practice for the Publication of Opinion Poll Results: 3. Representativeness of Opinion Polls” World Association of Opinion and Marketing Research Professionals (ESOMAR)/World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR), www.esomar.org (1998, reprinted in 2003).

[ix] Rangel, “II: Éxitos…”

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Justin Delacour, “Can you Believe Venezuela’s Pollsters?” NarcoNews Bulletin, www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=45&ItemID=2985 (6 February, 2003).

[xiii] Martín Sanchez, “Venezuela’s Opposition Plan Promises Return to Free Market and Elimination of Referenda,” venezuelanalysis.com, www.venezuelanalysis.com/news.php?newsno=1308 (13 July, 2004).

[xiv] Peter Wilson, “Venezuela’s Chavez would lose Recall Vote, Poll Finds (Update 1),” bloomberg.com, http://quote.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000086&sid=aKNvYA3oDmVM&refer=latin_america (June 23, 2004).