Maduro is Improving His Numbers Through Surgically Targeted Public Spending

We spoke with pollster Felix Seijas about what the polls indicate fifty days before the elections

For Félix Seijas, PhD in complex data analysis and director of the polling firm Delphos, fears or social pressures do not particularly affect the results of the surveys in Venezuela: “At no time have we found any sign that people are afraid to frankly answer the questions,” he says. “People are quite sincere when it comes to answering interviews.” In fact, his polls may make some uncomfortable: the population is willing to vote in July, he explains, but Chavismo has been growing in the polls through focalized spending on its bases. And the opposition, although it is increasing and has become cohesive again, still has important challenges: including the little pieces, so crucial when a significant advantage is needed, that the “third way” candidates tear off. 

In the past you said that the opposition’s October primaries reawakened political interest in the population, mobilization, and even new hopes in the electorate for both renewal and political change. Can you elaborate a little on this?

We came from a process in which the real opposition structure, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), collapsed in a quite spectacular way after the attempts of previous years. This led to people becoming political orphans, let’s say. They didn’t have a reference that would direct the destinies of the opposition, and as elections approached people felt that those elections were not going to be competitive. The primary made people feel that there was a certain structure again, a unitary effort. And everything went pretty well. The National Commission of Primaries was full of names of respectable people. The debate that took place at UCAB conveyed good vibes, let’s say. So, the electoral mood and the possibility of fighting in elections was reborn with that process.

And in the previous months we also saw an increase in the willingness to participate in elections, of interest in the 2024 elections.

Precisely because the primaries were like a wildfire, and interest in the elections was quickly ignited again.

You have said repeatedly that the legitimizing element for opposition voters is unity: that is, a candidacy or a platform that encompasses the different opposition forces. The primary managed to recompose the opposition into a single pole, but there is a lot of talk today about how necessary it is for the opposition candidate, in this case Edmundo González Urrutia, to have the endorsement of the winner of the primary –  María Corina Machado. Nowadays, unity also means having the endorsement of whoever won the primaries?

Yes, of course. The primary is precisely what rescued the idea of unity. The primary had a winner. The opposition voter always needed some floor that legitimizes the leadership and this leadership was legitimized by a unitary process that people understand as unitary. María Corina Machado won it, so now she has a very important specific weight within what is called unity.

The only time we have seen something like this is Henrique Capriles, who also won a primary. How is the phenomenon of María Corina different today, in addition to being a woman, from previous candidates and leaders in the opposition, like Capriles, Juan Guaidó, Manuel Rosales?

It is a different context, because of everything we have been experiencing. Chavismo is more worn out today, and defeatable electorally, which did not happen when Capriles was a candidate. In the case of Guaidó, he did not become a candidate. He was the leader at the time of the unitary structure, also legitimized by unitary agreements, which was good. It was his turn to be president of the National Assembly. María Corina is the person who currently symbolizes the possibility of change. That’s what Capriles represented at the time. That’s what Juan [Guaidó] represented at the time. So, from that point of view, there is not much difference. The big difference, again, as you say, is first that she’s a woman and second the context in which we are, where Chavismo is going through a bad time in terms of popular support.

In addition to media censorship. Capriles, at the time had the support of Globovisión, for example.

Of course, and in fact Capriles was the first politician who was censored by all media after the second election he experienced. 

And has María Corina, in terms of popularity, reached the peaks that these candidates reached at the time?

Yes, since she won the primary, and has been transferring them to Edmundo González.

According to Delphos surveys, around 80% of Venezuelans are willing to vote and 70% consider that the electoral route should not be abandoned. At least that was the last thing we heard at the last Ecoanalítica’s Perspectives Forum. Can we expect these results to translate into voter turnout with the same percentages for the opposition if, for example, the government disqualifies Edmundo González or eliminates the opposition cards from the ballot?

They are different problems. Effective participation always ends up being a little lower that the intention reported in the polls. These numbers also express the percentage of people listed in the electoral registry who live in Venezuela: that is, 73%, 75% participation in these numbers would mean 60% of the whole electoral registry, due to the number of people who now live abroad, which will be a mechanical abstention. The issue of eliminating the card or banning Edmundo is more practical. Imagine they eliminate the unity card, for example, about four weeks left before the election, after a whole campaign has been done about which party cards to vote for and who is the candidate. Well, the opposition must then inform the voters that this has happened. The card with the face of Edmundo González will continue to be in the ballot because it can no longer be deleted, and many null votes would go there.

How many null votes?

Well, the less information is transmitted about what happened, the more null votes can go around.

We are 55 days away from the elections and most polls show a significant gap between González and Maduro, more or less at 50% for Edmundo and 30% for Maduro. Does Delphos point to that same panorama?

Our numbers are also around that. Chavismo has a ceiling of 30%, which will be hard to overcome. But the question a year ago was: will Maduro go up or not? Then it was at 18%, he is now around 26%, 27%. If they reach their ceiling, they will have done part of the work: the rest is to lower the opposition vote, through electoral engineering, discouraging the opposition voter, convincing people that it is not worth voting. So the opposition also must do the work of encouraging people and keeping that spirit high.

How has Chavismo managed to raise its percentages if public spending has been so reduced in recent months? 

Because they know that they have a ceiling of 30%. It is their soft part that was demobilized, with which there was an important disconnection. Practically half of Chavismo. And they have been doing very focused work. It is not an umbrella campaign. It is not a general campaign. It is not a widespread public expense. They are attacking precisely those they need to attack: for example, evangelicals. People wonder why they do so much work with evangelicals. It turns out that evangelicals are 25% of the Chavista vote and are one of the most discouraged part. That is to say, they have been doing very punctual, fair, focused work, where they have to do it.

At the Ecoanalítica Perspectives Forum, you said that more than 20% of hard Chavismo believes that a change is necessary, and in soft Chavismo, the percentage was up to 71%. What does a change represent for Chavismo? Is it the same as for opposition voters? Because there is also a significant percentage, more or less 15% of critical Chavismo, who were highly willing to participate in the primaries.

Yes, in fact many chavistas participated, we measured that. A small percentage of soft Chavismo, and voted for María Corina, too. But of course, for the Chavista there is also a more or less broad spectrum of how they visualize a change. Within hard Chavismo, change means within Chavismo itself with Maduro at the helm, that they have to change policies, they have to be more effective. For others it may be a change of person, but within Chavismo itself. In soft Chavismo there may also be these visions, but it is also very willing to consider other options if they appear. The issue is that the options outside of Chavismo do not convince them yet.

Considering that there seems to be polarization again in the electoral environment, how much leverage do “third way” candidates like el Conde del Guácharo or Antonio Ecarri have?

When people feel there is a chance for change, people who self-identify as opositores typically increase, and hardcore opositores increase as well. That is happening right now. It is a consequence of the primary, which brought back the idea that there can be a change, this time through voting. One can say the candidacies outside of these two poles are small because of their numbers, but they are relevant in a context in which the opposition needs a very large advantage in order to ensure a victory. All options [other than the two poles] can reach 8-9% added together: a lot when others need it.

It can define the election. Also, for years PSUV has had the highest approval as an individual party, but some recent surveys place Vente in that position. Considering the rise of María Corina Machado, especially in the regions, is Delphos aiming for the same?

No, what has happened is that Vente has risen, of course, in mentions as an opposition party. At this moment it is the first opposition party. But it is not very far from the traditional ones like Acción Democrática, which always came second. Primero Justicia is always nearby. But as an individual party PSUV is still leading by a significant margin. PSUV still has 20-22% of people who say they sympathize with the with the party. Vente has 9-10%

Polls show that Maduro’s popularity and the perception of the country’s situation improved as the economy grew in late 2021 and much of 2022 through early 2023, when it fell in the same way the economy fell. How much the current mood is impacting the popularity of the government and of Machado, the candidate of discontent?

At that time what this did was reactivate soft Chavismo a little. Then in 2023, this falls again. But Chavismo has managed to reconnect again with soft Chavismo. Its numbers are improving. But this time they are not doing it in a general way as we talked about a while ago. If you talk to economists, well, economists say that yes, spending has indeed increased public spending, it just didn’t increase in a global and disorderly manner, but rather it is being very, very focused. So yes, it is through the economy that they are reconnecting with their people.

Many politicians or activists have said that a victory for Chavismo on July 28th will mean another wave of migration for the region. What do the surveys show about that? Do people intend to emigrate if Nicolás Maduro wins the presidency again, does he claim victory?

Right now, about 20% of Venezuelans say they intend to leave the country. Of those who say they want to leave, of that 20%, approximately 60-65% say that they would end up leaving if Nicolás Maduro’s victory is achieved. And that 20% would increase if that victory is achieved. This may go from simply being a wish to people doing really the procedures. But that number already tells you something. We have measured if this decision intensifies or decreases depending on the electoral result and there is an important correlation of people who say that if Chavismo wins they will end up leaving. 

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.