Maduro's Advantage is Still Underanalyzed

Just about a month ago, I posted this round-up of the race as I then saw it. As I sit down, from far away, to try to re-evaluate where we are, I find that I can’t really do better than to re-post it. Ultimately, Sunday’s election will boil down to how many “soft chavistas” turn out to vote on Sunday and how many stay at home. And no poll can really tell us that ahead of time.

Count me confused. In the last few weeks, an opinion first formed, then solidified, then reached the status of Permanent Unalterable Truth ™ dizzyingly fast: our position is hopeless. Maduro is going to win. We’re just happy Capriles is going down with a fight.

Now, don’t get me wrong: we may well lose. Datanalisis had Maduro up 46-34 against Capriles as of the first 20 days in February, and that’s a mighty big hole to climb out of in 30 days with almost no money, almost no media access and an opponent awash in both. So, by any reasonable estimation, we’re likely to lose.

And yet…I can’t help but feel we’re jumping the gun here. The consensus around our hopelessness has solidified way too fast, on the basis of way too little evidence.  As I recall, the one sliver of hope we had after October 7th’s drubbing was that, while we might be unelectable against Chávez, against Maduro we have a chance.

Well, here we are five months later, facing Maduro. Where’d our mojo go?

Let’s just remind ourselves that chavismo is, first and foremoest, a personalist movement, one built around a very particular kind of bond between one leader and his followers. And succession is problematic in every personalist regime.

Maduro’s entire approach to the race – the key strategy memo was explosively leaked and published here – is unprecedented, untested and irreduceably risky. Nicolás is trying to get himself elected on hand-me-down charisma from a dead guy. He’s going to extraordinary lengths to align himself with someone who, for definite sure, #NoVolverá. He is, to an extraordinary extend, trying to pretend to be somebody he’s not. And that’s never a comfortable position to campaign from.

Now, is it going to work? The only really honest answer we can give to that question is “maybe.” How could we really know?

What we do know is that virtually every element that led up to Chávez’s landslide in October is either attenuated or gone now.

Economically, the government has much less money to throw around. Scarcity is becoming a no-longer-ignorable problem for ordinary people. Devaluation is already starting to hit ordinary people’s purchasing power. Public spending has already slowed considerably, and the illusion of plenty engineered ahead of last October’s election hasn’t really been extended into the new year.

The ground game is up for grabs at this point. There is no way to know how well the PSUV machine is going to work in Chávez’s absence. Will the patrulleros really turn out with the toque de diana and do their thing? Will the tens of thousands of motorizados turn up to ferry abstention-minded chavistas to their polling stations en masse? Will the broad center of Venezuelan public opinion, which had largely positive feelings about Chávez himself and negative feelings about his entourage, turn up to vote for the Decano del Entorno? How far will the intense grief of the last week have receded by the middle of next month?

And will Maduro, a guy with no experience at all running for executive office, prove to be an even minimally competent campaigner? Could a catastrophic gaffe from an unexperienced candidate undo the image he’s working to build? Could Capriles’s more assertive style beat him in sheer Ape Dominance Hierarchy terms in the eyes of key swing voters? Can Capriles find a way to short-circuit Maduro’s attempt to morph his public image with the dearly departed’s?

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know the answers to any of those questions. We’re really in uncharted territory here. And if, as someone once said, “a week is a long time in politics,” then a month of campaigning in these circumstances is an eternity.