With a week to go before election day, President Daniel Ortega finally appears confident that his seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls will translate into victory on Nov. 6.
A new voter-intention survey suggests Ortega’s lead has widened to a chasmal 40 points, prompting the incumbent to prematurely close his campaign coffer and cancel his final party rally scheduled for last Saturday.
But by keeping a heavy hand on the country’s electoral machinery until the end, Ortega has shown that the lessons learned from his surprise defeat in 1990 have left a lingering mistrust of Nicaraguan voters and pollsters.
The question on everyone’s mind as election day approaches is whether 2011 will be a repeat of 1990, handing Ortega another surprise defeat, or whether there has indeed been a major shift in voter sympathies to favor the Sandinistas’ perennial candidate.
A new M&R Consultants poll leaked last Friday by Sandinista Radio Ya confirms that President Ortega has solidified his frontrunner status with 58 percent of the intended vote, leading top challenger Fabio Gadea by a whopping 43 points.
Gadea’s polling numbers have dropped to 15.5 percent, while tertiary candidate Arnoldo Alemán is polling at 3 percent, according to the M&R poll. Enrique Quiñonez and Roger Guevara are battling for the basement, each with less than half a percentage point of intended voter support.
The poll was allegedly paid for by the opposition daily La Prensa, which has yet to publish the poll’s results. Instead, the hysterically pro-government radio station Radio Ya leaked the poll results to other media outlets Friday afternoon, accusing La Prensa of trying to hide the results due to “lack of respect for its readers.”
The Nicaragua Dispatch asked La Prensa director Eduardo Enriquez for comment, but he did not respond.
The M&R poll is significant because it suggests that Gadea can’t catch Ortega even if he wins all 22.6 percent of the undecided voters—the so-called “hidden votes,” or citizens who won’t reveal who they support, or whether they’ll vote at all.
For political analyst Arturo Cruz, a professor of political science at INCAE, the polling numbers are reflective of shifting voter trends over the last two years. For the first time ever, independent voters are supporting Ortega and showing gratitude for his administration’s ability to “solve problems and satisfy immediate expectations,” Cruz says.
“The numbers are dramatic,” Cruz told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “This is a total realignment.”
The M&R poll numbers, which echo Sandinista polling results, apparently gave Ortega enough confidence to cancel his final campaign rally last weekend. Gadea and Alemán, meanwhile, held their final rallies in front of thousands of supporters, in an effort to show the pollsters are wrong.
Yet even voters who back the opposition candidates in the plaza seem to think Ortega will probably get reelected anyway, according to M&R. When voters were asked who they think has the best chances of winning the elections regardless of their preferred candidate, 88.5 percent answered Ortega.
Equally importantly, the Sandinistas are also leading the voter-intention polls for legislature, with 57 percent. If those numbers hold true on Nov. 6, Ortega could get the supermajority he needs to take total control over all four branches of government.
While polling in Nicaragua has never been a punctilious predictor of election results, Ortega’s support appears to be stronger than ever.
The poll found that 44 percent of Nicaraguans say, “Ortega has had a good administration and deserves reelection,” while only 13.7 percent feel, “Reelection is unconstitutional and we have to reelect another president.”
According to Article 147 of the Constitution, consecutive presidential reelection is illegal.
Regardless of the legality of his reelection bid, many Nicaraguans seem willing to reward Ortega for his efficiency in delivering social aid and meeting the daily needs of the population. Slightly more than 37 percent of the population says they are grateful for government programs to supply roofing materials, 26.4 percent are thankful for government housing programs and 18 percent are thankful for agricultural aid (bono productivo).
Ortega did not do as well on several other indicators. Only 1.8 percent said they were grateful for the president’s ability to generate new jobs, 1.2 percent are grateful for investment in new school infrastructure, and less than 1 percent said they are satisfied with the government’s installation of drinking water in neighborhoods.
And some of the social programs the Sandinista administration boasts about most loudly don’t seem to be resonating too much with the population. Only 8 percent of voters say they like the “Socialist, Christian and Solidarity” monthly bonus for government workers, 0.7 percent are happy with the new busses Ortega brought from Russia, and 0.1 percent said they like the transportation subsidies.
Recent polling by the CID Gallup firm also suggests that questions of legality and democracy are of secondary concern to most Nicaraguans.
A CID Galllup poll from late September shows 63 percent of the population thinks Nicaragua is heading in the right direction, compared to 71 percent who said Nicaragua was heading in the wrong direction in a CID Gallup poll in May of 2006.
Interpreting the numbers: El Gueguense or voter realignment?
Despite polling strongly, Ortega has cause for ambivalence. As the incumbent candidate in 1990, Ortega was polling 20 points ahead of challenger Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, but lost on election day. In 2001, Ortega was polling well ahead of Enrique Bolaños, but again lost on election day.
In both those occasions, the “hidden votes”— independents who don’t participate fully or honestly in pre-election polling—rallied to defeat the Sandinista candidate on voting day.
Though recent polls suggest many independents now support Ortega, the incumbent candidate knows he must be leery of the so-called “Güegüense factor”— voters who, similar to the folkloric masked figure from Nicaragua’s colonial theatrical masterpiece, hide their true intentions by pretending to support the caudillo in public, but then use their vote to stick it to the man in private.
Indeed, the newest CID Gallup poll used two different methods for surveying voter intention to prove the Güegüense effect is still alive and well. When the polling firm asked voters openly who they will vote for, 52 percent said Ortega, 19 percent said Gadea and 3 percent said Alemán. But when CID Gallup asked voters to take a secret ballot and deposit it through a slot in a locked box, the polling numbers came out differently: 48 percent voted for Ortega, 30 percent for Gadea and 10 percent for Alemán.
Though both methods of polling suggest Ortega would win in the first round on Nov. 6, the opposition is encouraged by the significant bump they get through secret polling methods, which are considered a more accurate predictor of voters’ behavior on election day.
Gadea’s campaign thinks that many state workers who feel obligated to support Ortega in public are privately resentful of the way they’ve been treated by the Sandinista government (government workers are forced to attend long-winded political rallies at all hours on weekends, dragged out to rotundas to wave party flags under the sun, forced to wear Sandinista T-shirts to work, and made to stand in long bank lines each month to pick up their “Christian, Socialist and Solidarity” cash bonuses of $30). The Gadea campaign thinks these individuals, who say “gracias, mi comandante” in public, will pull a Güegüense on election day and secretly vote against Ortega.
Alemán’s campaign, meanwhile, insists there is a “hidden” 8 percent of voters in the countryside who support their candidate but never register in the polls. Those votes will be felt on election day, giving their candidate a significant boost in rural voting stations, according to PLC campaign boss José Antonio Alvarado.
“Our polling shows us gaining steam steadily,” Alvarado told The Nicaragua Dispatch recently. “This campaign is like a locomotive; it takes a while to work itself up to full speed, but it’s impossible to stop once it does.”
Despite their soft math optimism and theories of hidden voters and secret switcharoos, the opposition insists it’s not taking the polls too seriously.
“Polls in Nicaragua have been notoriously wrong over time,” Alemán’s running mate, Francisco Aguirre, told The Nicaragua Dispatch yesterday. “They have often missed the mark by wide margins. With regards to the latest M&R poll, the only way that Daniel can top the 50 percent mark is if there is massive abstention or big-time fraud.”
Aguirre adds, “As for the 3 percent attributed to the PLC, that is just plain nonsense. We had more than that at our final rally on Saturday in Managua!”
Gadea’s campaign chief Eliseo Núñez tells The Nicaragua Dispatch that the polling numbers can be read in many different ways. While he acknowledges that most voters appear to be leaning towards Ortega, he also notes that most voters say they want change and government that will provide jobs.
Núñez says the question voters need to ask themselves when they go to cast their ballots is whether Ortega or Gadea represents the change they are looking for.
Curiously, another international poll released this weekend shows the rest of the hemisphere is having a hard time understanding what’s happening in Nicaragua.
The Chile-based Latinobarometro polling organization, which measures presidential popularity throughout the hemisphere on a scale of one to 10, rates Ortega as the second-least popular president in the Western Hemisphere, polling at the bottom of the pack just above Cuba’s Fidel Castro. U.S. President Barak Obama tops the poll, followed closely by Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff.
Luckily for the Sandinistas, foreigners can’t vote here on Nov. 6.