Mark & Doug's excellent Venezuelan adventure

Katy says: “Exit poll results show major defeat for Chávez” Caracas Chronicles headline, August 17th, 2004, citing a press release from Penn, Schoen & Berland. The long anticipated...

Katy says:

“Exit poll results show major defeat for Chávez”

Caracas Chronicles headline, August 17th, 2004, citing a press release from Penn, Schoen & Berland.

The long anticipated departure of pollster, best-selling author and political guru Mark Penn from Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign brought back some unkind memories. While the gringo press obsesses about the myriad ways Penn screwed up Hillary’s presidential run, we Venezuelans let our minds wander back to his tour of our country between 2004 and 2006, when Penn’s firm played a critical role in launching the opposition into three years of self destruction by our misguided abstention strategy.

Mark Penn is a larger-than-life figure. Having worked – sometimes succesfully, other times not so much – with the Clintons, Al Gore and Tony Blair, he is admired and despised in roughly equal measures in First-World political circles. A formidable intellectect with an even more formidable ego, he’s apparently the kind of person who never doubts himself.

In a keen new piece, New Republic writer Michelle Cottle describes him as:

“rough, arrogant, antisocial, controlling, manipulative, brutally ambitious, and occasionally downright abusive–a hurler of cell phones, pagers, and Chinese food.”

I know that what follows will probably get me an eggroll, hurled straight at my noggin’, but here goes anyway. The story goes like this.

Mr. Penn, along with his partner Doug Schoen, worked with Venezuelan opposition NGO Súmate during the Chávez Recall Referendum of 2004. Their firm advised the opposition in the run-up to the referendum and was supposedly in charge of organizing the all-important exit poll on the day of the vote. The evening of the Referendum, PSB announced that Chávez had been handily defeated, and the rest is history.

That poll was the original bit of evidence that convinced everyone that something was dodgy about the referendum. How could it be dismissed out of hand? It was Bill Clinton’s pollster! To a remarkable extent, the strategy of the opposition in the coming months and years was shaped by what happened that night.

So, what was the real story behind the exit poll? We’ll probably never know, but I can tell you my version of the story, which is shared by Quico and Lucía and has been corroborated by two independent sources close to important opposition players. It goes something like this.

In the months leading up to the Recall Referendum, the polls began to change dramatically. The government had played the clock brilliantly, all the while launching the popular misiones social programs. Opposition elites – with few exceptions – were very slow and/or unwilling to believe Chávez’s rise in the polls. They failed to understand the power of the misiones and Chávez’s message and put their decline in the polls down to a mythical “fear factor” not supported by the evidence.

The opposition’s umbrella group, the Coordinadora Democrática, failed to offer a compelling, competing message. An amalgamation of disparate political groups and NGOs, the Coordinadora failed to act effectively and its leadership was notoriously slow, disorganized and ineffective. All this is common knowledge, right?

Enter Penn, Schoen & Berland. After taking Súmate’s hard-earned money, PSB told them that they simply did not have the time to design the exit poll themselves. Instead, they said Súmate should do it and kindly offered to let Súmate put the PSB stamp of approval on the results.

Súmate, an electoral NGO with no experience in polling, probably did their diligent, engineer-like best. It was probably not enough.

Exit polls are tricky to design and run under the best of circumstances. This was a well-intentioned amateur effort, from start to finish.

In the aftermath, Súmate had a lot of accomplices. There should have been tough questions asked about the reach and scope of the exit poll results. Very rural areas and unsafe urban areas, both Chávez strongholds, appeared curiously under-represented. Amid all the anger over the CNE’s screwed up “hot audit”, it’s remarkable that nobody stopped to audit Sumate’s PSB endorsed exit poll at all.

Nobody that night asked those questions with anything resembling academic rigor. The wider opposition community, including some very smart people, kept their skepticism to themselves and failed to ask the obvious questions about the exit poll. Instead, academic papers were produced at heart-stopping rates using the exit poll as the major data source, treating it like something it was not: a random sample representative of the population at large.

Opposition leaders had been treated to weeks of bad poll numbers preceding the referendum. Some of them were simply unwilling to believe the bad news. Some of them honestly believed, and still do, that the exit poll is accurate. It is not.

This period marked the beginning of the great “fear factor” myth, through which it wasn’t that voters liked the new misiones, it was that they were afraid of pollsters! Most of the opposition leadership, including Coordinadora leader Enrique Mendoza, didn’t buy this. They did understand that Chávez’s numbers were rising steadily in the weeks before the vote. One has to wonder what would have happened if our leadership had adopted a more skeptical approach that night.

The belief that the exit poll had been correct was shared by the international media. Chavista media outlets were incensed that their man’s victory was not being universally recognized. PSB put their reputation on the line with their exit poll, and a lot of people believed it.

The belief that they had uncovered massive fraud thanks to their polls, along with historical ties to major AD figures, paved the way for Doug Schoen to be hired by the Manuel Rosales campaign in 2006. Rosales ran an energetic campaign to unseat Hugo Chávez, yet it failed to show in the vote tallies. Rosales’s defeat was somewhat of a foregone conclusion, given how a majority of the opinion polls released prior to the election predicted it.

Again, there were a couple of outliers. Only one high-profile DC poollster showed the race getting tighter, though. Who ran it? If you guessed PSB, you guessed right.

After going against the tide and predicting a few weeks before the poll that the race was tightening, Schoen was mysteriously replaced by Penn the weekend before the election.

You know what happened next: we got trounced, and Rosales accepted defeat gallantly. But if you went by what Penn and Schoen had predicted, you would believe we were robbed all over again.

For the past few months, Quico, Lucía and I have been talking to some of the people involved, and after confirming the story with different sources, this is what we believed happened: a hack-job of an exit-poll conducted by the opposition itself and rubber-stamped by a prestigious polling firm resulted in a collective belief that differed from reality and led to disastrous political decisions for the opposition in the following years.

You may choose to believe something else, but we call it like we see it. I believe there was some vote tampering the night of the Recall Referendum, but it did not make a difference overall. I also believe the exit poll was garbage.

The impact of releasing an exit poll like that at a time like that cannot be underestimated. Has this been tagged as a Súmate exit poll – which is what it was – rather than a PSB exit poll, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. The fact that it came out at a moment of maximum tension, where it was the only piece of information available, only helped build up the myth.

Social phenomena are sometimes marked by instances where the momentum for change and for the establishment of an idea is unstoppable, a “tipping point” if you will. This concept has been been recently popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Penn, Schoen and Berland’s faulty exit poll may have been our tipping point – the moment when we decided that we were the majority and that anyone who said differently was lying. We’ve been paying the price ever since.