How to read that C21 poll

So the June Consultores 21 snapshot poll leaked, creating a bit of a commotion among the commentariat. And for good reason: it shows Chavismo heading into September’s parliamentary elections in an extremely tough opinion climate, with comfortable majorities rejecting chavismo’s rhetorical mainstays, its scapegoating attempts, and Chávez himself.

In question after question, it’s a massacre:

  • By 57% to 39%, for instance, respondents think Chávez is more interested in his own personal interest than in the people’s interest.
  • By 57% to 40%, they say he’s personally to blame for the nation’s problems.
  • Just 31% think the government is doing a "good" or "very good" job – down more than 20 points from the high-water mark in the oil-boom year of 2006.  
  • By 63% to 33%, people say the country Chávez wants doesn’t ressemble the country they want. 
  • The generic ballot question for September’s election gives opposition candiates a 51%-34% edge over pro-government candidates among all respondents, and a 52%-42% edge among likely voters.

Now, it’s certainly true that, as Christopher Beam writes in this now almost-famous Slate piece, political polling is systematically misreported. Political writers are political junkies and, by and large, so are their readers. Political junkies desperately want to attribute polling swings to the stuff you see on the news: Chávez made a spectacularly boneheaded speech? His poll ratings are going to collapse! 

Trouble is, poll respondents, by and large, don’t follow the news anywhere near as closely as political junkies think they ought to.

The average voter in Caracas – to say nothing of his counterpart in San Constonifacio del Cochinofrito – pays about as much attention to politics as you pay to, say, Formula 1 racing. Unless you happen to be a massive F1 fan, most of what you know about F1 is gleaned in bits and bobs – a snippet of video here, a name half-overheard on the radio there – punctuated with spikes of slightly raised awareness when somebody clinches the world championship, say, or a spectacular crash video catches your eye

For the most part, though, you’re only very dimly aware of what happens in F1. You probably know somebody, a friend or a relative, who’s really into it, knows all the teams, the drivers, and can bore you silly discussing the finer points of refuelling strategy or whatever it is, but when you run into that person you’re probably careful not to bring up the topic lest you have to spend the next hour and a half of your life hearing details about shit you don’t really care about in the slightest. 

Well, if you’re reading this blog, here’s a bit of news for you: most people see politics the way you see Formula 1, which means that when you hang out with your normal friends and family, you’re the one they’re studiously avoiding bringing up politics around so they don’t have to hear you rant about this stuff for the next hour and a half!

Where this analogy breaks down, of course, is that nobody in the F1 world expects everybody else to share their singular obsession. Nobody who’s into motor racing mindlessly assumes that everyone else is, or should be, and that if they aren’t, that’s a moral failing on their part, an abdication of their obligations as citizens.

The biggest difference, of course, is that to win an F1 world championship, what you have to do is drive faster than everyone else, not win a vote involving millions of people who are only dimly aware of what your sport is about. 

Think about it. I’m sure there was something really dramatic that happened at last weekend’s F1 race. (Where was it again?) I’m sure the F1 world is all abuzz with it. If I had the slightest interest, I could probably find some F1 Blog dissecting it all in exquisite detail.

Personally, though, I didn’t hear about it, and even if I had, I don’t have any frame of reference to allow me to make sense of it.

In fact, the notion of a bunch of F1 junkies sitting around heatedly discussing what the incident is likely to do to their favorite team (or driver’s) poll ratings strikes me as really really bizarre. And yet…that’s how we political junkies treat political polls all the time.

It’s silly.

Day to day politics don’t move polls. Big, macro-social trends and economic cycles drive polls. People, by and large, don’t react to political speeches because they don’t hear them. They judge the political scene, instead, indirectly, through an analysis of their life circumstances. Do I have a job? Do I feel safe walking home at night? When I turn my tap, does water come out of it? Did my cousin Pedro who had to go to the hospital get treated right? Those are the kinds of questions that drive political polling, and the answers to those questions depend on trends that go far beyond the day-to-day speechifying in the morning talk shows and such.

What we see in the C21 poll, from that point of view, is simply the opinion consequences of the end of the Oil Boom and the onset of Stagflation.

It will drive Chávez absolutely batty, but no number of Cadenas is going to help him out of this hole. (Would you be more likely to take an interest in Formula 1 if it was compulsory to show it live on every TV channel and radio station?) 

High crime, economic stagnation, runaway inflation and shortages. That’s the opinion current chavismo has to swim against.

And Chávez just doesn’t have any of the tools it would take to reverse it.