What happened last night

So all the buzz after last night’s debate went to María Corina Machado and Diego Arria, candidates who, paradoxically, are trailing way behind in the polls. It’s no surprise: anyone who’s followed gringo nomination races with any interest could’ve seen it coming. (And I do apologize in advance for borrowing heavily from gringo-inspired tropes in what follows. I’m doing so for a reason.)

‘Mercuns have had enough experience with the dynamics of primary elections for their conventional wisdom to congeal around realizations that Venezuelans only started to come to last night. So I think the hackneyed old clichés of gringo stump reporting count as insightful analysis when applied to last night’s first-in-28-years presidential debate.

Specifically, ‘mercuns know you win a primary by playing to your core base of supporters. But you win a general election by playing to the political center. The trick is to appeal to your primary voters without striking stances so far out of the mainstream that you alienate the median voter.

Venezuela went into last night’s debate with an anomaly: the three most plausible candidates – the Centrist Three – all decided to skip the whole Playing-to-the-Base bit and jumped directly into a General Election style, median voter-centered campaign. That’s why Pablo Pérez and Henrique Capriles so often sounded so much alike – theirs are median voter-centered strategies. Leopoldo López, in his own way, did so too – eschewing the kinds of radical postures the Globo-roots opposition craves in favor of a message geared at seducing Ni Nis.

The problem, of course, is that los rusos también juegan. The kind of positioning PP, HCR and LL went for left them badly exposed on the right. It’s only natural that candidates who’ve struggled in the polls would seek to fill that space, since there are still millions of angry middle class Venezuelans who badly want a candidate to not just win but to stick it to Chávez as well. So it’s no surprise at all that so much of the post-debate buzz went to the Right Wing Two: the two candidates who just can’t afford to ignore the base and jump into General Election mode right away.

Personally, I always thought that María Corina Machado had big potential to rally middle class voters with a discourse that turned up the rhetorical heat on Chávez a notch. Not surprisingly, that was exactly what she set out to do last night, and she did it well.

The problem for her is the other guy – Diego Arria – who stole much of MCM’s fire by simply outflanking her on the right. Now, let’s be clear: Arria is not a plausible candidate, either for the primaries nor for the general election. The point is, he knows that. He’s in this to make a point, to raise a voice, not to win votes. And that frees him to strike the kind of radically anti-Chávez pose (we’re going to send him to The Hague!) that the radical right wing opposition desperately craves.

So Diego Arria is a problem particularly for María Corina Machado. She needed a clear run on the right of the field. But with Diego Arria up there, it’s looking mighty crowded on the right. Trying to out-radical Arria for the right-wing vote is just a losing game for MCM – a kind of rabbit-hole her candidacy could disappear into never to be heard from again. But even if Arria takes up just a quarter or a third of the hard-right vote, that’s probably enough to doom MCM’s chances.

Which brings us back to the Centrist Three. HCR won that battle for the simple reason that he didn’t make any big mistakes. His rhetorical skills are certainly limited, but he deployed what he has reasonably effectively. He stayed ruthlessly on message and never strayed – and when you’re ahead by many many points in the race, you count that as a win.

More puzzling was Pablo Pérez, who had a message that was in many ways indistinguishable from Capriles’s. He too stressed his experience running a big state, he too struck tones of reconciliation and unity and dialogue again and again. Pérez gets a big psychological boost from just his sheer physical size – he’s a big guy with a big presence and considering that we’re all just highly evolved Primates, that kind of primal monkey psychology does play a role. But the fact remains, he’s at least 20-25 points behind in the polls. He needs to distinguish himself from the other guy. He just didn’t do that effectively last night. So I don’t think he did himself any favors there.

Finally there’s LL, whose delivery I found underwhelming or, at least, well below the very high expectations he’d created around his pico de oro. There’s something weirdly abstract, distant about his whole La Mejor Venezuela framing – something too obviously hatched by some advertising exec. Even though his answers were often substantive and very smart – his warning on the pitfalls of a Mexican style drug war and his advocacy of Cash Transfers for Schoolchildren’s moms were special favorites for me – it was easy to get the sense it was a robot delivering the lines. And, again, considering he’s just not the front-runner, he really failed at explaining to us why he’s different than HCR and PP, why we should vote for him and not for them.

We’ve discussed a lot in this blog about the way the opposition’s Unity Fetish makes that kind of differentiation tricky to pull off, especially for the Centrist Three. But that in itself is a dynamic that’s uniquely convenient to HCR – with his most plausible competitors scared to death of attacking him, why shouldn’t the guy just coast?

Which is why, in a tactical sense, I do think he won the debate. Because what we really learned last night is that the Right won’t just automatically congeal around one candidate, and the Center has structural impediments to making a strong case against him. And that leaves him, I think, in a very comfortable place in the race.