Blessed are the leakers...

…for they bring us the juicy polling reports that don’t show up in the newspapers.

Quico says: Well, a pajarito put a copy of Hinterlaces’s advice to the Rosales Campaign in my inbox. To his credit, Schemel doesn’t quite buy the spin Noticiero Digital is putting on his polling. His basic message? Chavez can’t seem to get over 50%, but Rosales is not managing to win over Ni-Nis. The upshot? One out of every four votes is still up for grabs.

Schemel’s straightforward enough to just report what his poll shows: a bit less than half the people he’s polling say they will vote for Chavez, roundabout 30% say they will vote for Rosales, just under 10% say they know who they’ll vote for but won’t tell a pollster, and something like 15% still haven’t made up their minds.

Much speculation surrounds the 10% or so who “won’t respond.” Much of the dispersion in the polls we’re seeing in the papers seems to arise from different ways of treating these “no contesta” folk. Pollsters who lump them together with “undecideds” show Chavez leading by a lot, pollsters who lump them together with Rosales’s total show Chavez leading by a little. That’s the long and the short of it.

Schemel figures most of them will break for Rosales, which seems like a reasonable supposition. But how many precisely? Nobody really knows how to estimate this – and unlike ND, he doesn’t try.

Then there’s the 15% undecided. Conventional wisdom is that most undecideds end up backing the challenger – it’s called the Incumbent Rule, and it doesn’t always hold. Here’s how US Democratic polling guru Mark Blumenthal explains the dynamic:

The basic idea is that voters make their decisions differently in races involving an incumbent. When newcomers vie to fill an open office, voters tend to compare and contrast the candidates’ qualifications, issues positions and personal characteristics in a relatively straightforward way. Elections featuring an incumbent, on the other hand, are as Molyneux puts it, “fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent.” Voters will first grapple with the record of the incumbent. Only if they decide to “fire” the incumbent do they begin to evaluate whether the challenger is an acceptable alternative.

Voters typically know incumbents well and have strong opinions about their performance. Challengers are less familiar and invariably fall short on straightforward comparisons of experience. Some voters find themselves conflicted — dissatisfied with the incumbent yet also wary of the challenger — and may carry that uncertainty through the final days of the campaign and sometimes right into the voting booth. Among the perpetually conflicted, the attitudes about the incumbent are usually more predictive of these conflicted voters’ final decision than their lingering doubts about the challenger. Thus, in the campaign’s last hours, we tend to see “undecided” voters “break” for the challenger.

That’s the theory. Does it have any empirical support?

In 1989, Nick Panagakis, president of Market Shares Corporation (the firm that polls for the Chicago Tribune) analyzed results from 155 surveys, most from the late 1980s, all conducted during the last week before an election. In a famous article in The Polling Report, Panagakis found that in 82% of the cases, the undecideds “broke” mostly to the challenger.

Who are the undecideds in Venezuela right now? Schemel says they are disproportionately young and female. They are open to persuasion, and worried about the classics – street crime and economic issues (unemployment, poverty, etc.) but also disunity, and what he calls “the breakdown in values.”

At this late stage in the game, Rosales has yet to convince them that Chavez is responsible for the problems they have on these issues, or that he can do better. The key thing here is to differentiate Rosales’s approach from Chavez’s in voters’ minds, to make it clear to them how their values differ and how those different values would translate to different ways of governing. Schemel thinks these differentiations are still kind of fuzzy in the minds of many undecideds: Rosales’s job is to sharpen them.

The other trend Schemel notes is a genuine gap between the enthusiasm on the Rosales side and the apathy in the Chavez camp. This suggests to him the race could come down to turnout, and depressing chavista turnout could be the key. Alongside the damage Chavez does to his own side’s turnout every time his proposals turn hyper-radical, allegations of corruption really demotivate his followers. Expect to see more of them – not so much as a way of winning over new voters, but as a way of keeping chavistas at home on election day.

In the end, not that much has changed. Rosales has consolidated the traditional oppo vote, but he still has to pretty much run the table on the remaining up-for-grabs votes. Assuming the “won’t respond” folk really are all planning to vote for him, he has to win over 2 out of every 3 undecideds in the next two weeks, while trying to keep his supporters enthusiastic and Chavez’s demobilized. That’s hard, but not impossible. The guy has a fortnight to close the deal.

Addendum: It may be that the report this post is based on is dated – the darn thing didn’t have a date on it. However, now that ND is publishing Hinterlaces’s raw data every day, I can post updated 3-day moving averages of the underlying data. The latest slide shows undecideds are dwindling – down to just 6% – and it’s Rosales who’s reaping the gains:

This is still data from a phone poll, which probably undercounts very poor, phoneless people who tend to go for Chavez. But, again, it’s the trend, not the number…