In Venezuela, an election about the future is haunted by the past

April 3, 2013

Presidential elections will be held in Venezuela on April 14, pitting Hugo Chavez’s vice president and chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, against Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate who lost to Chavez in 2012. At stake: whether Chavez’s legacy will continue after his death.

Most analysts see Maduro as the favorite. Many believe the fear of losing the social and economic gains made during the Chavez years will be the most important motivator for voters if Maduro is elected. Others see Maduro gaining from sympathy votes after Chavez’s death. Still others see the electoral timetable as working against the opposition. A short campaign season — two weeks — could favor the government, which has more resources at its disposal. All these perspectives cite recent polling that puts Maduro at about an 18-point advantage over Capriles (see table below).

Voting intention by polling firm (March 2013)

Maduro Capriles















So it’s a done deal, right? Maduro is the odds-on favorite. Not necessarily. Polls like those cited above can be notoriously unstable before campaigns begin — take the sudden rise of Mitt Romney after the first debate against U.S. President Barack Obama. At the time, many thought Romney had gained the advantage but this was not the case. The polls can often be false positives. II believe it’s best to first look at the underlying political fundamentals before making a call. Do they favor the opposition or government candidate?

In this case, the fundamentals actually favor Capriles. Why? First and foremost, the economy is slowing down. Most economists project a significantly lower GDP growth rate for 2013 than for 2012 (1.9 percent versus 5.2 percent). A slowing economy typically translates into unhappy voters who, in turn, take it out on the government candidate — in this case, Maduro. Second, voter optimism is relatively weak across the board, indicating, at first blush, a closer race than the polls suggest. Specifically, a recent Ipsos poll shows a 7 percent drop in the number of Venezuelans who feel the country is on the right track. Other polling firms show a similar trend (see chart below).


Source: Ipsos Polling 2012-13

Along these same lines, only about 55 percent of Venezuelans approve of the government’s job. These numbers might seem strong, but they are not for a successor candidate. Indeed, based on an Ipsos database of hundreds elections around the world, we find that incumbents, on average, have about a threefold advantage over successors.

Taking into consideration the present approval ratings and the fact that the government candidate is a successor, my own statistical forecasting model puts Maduro’s probability of winning at 51 percent ‑ basically a dead heat (see table below).

Approval rating 55
Incumbent  (Prob of Victory) 98%
Successor (Prob of Victory) 51%

So the pundits are wrong and the election is a toss-up, right? Not so fast.

Many have argued that Chavez’s death will improve Maduro’s chances of victory. Some believe this will occur out of fear of losing gains made during the Chavez years; still others out of sympathy. Silly, right?

Not at all. This possible “Chavez bump” should give us pause. Academic papers and empirical evidence show that deaths, assassinations and other crystallizing events, such as World Cup wins, local sports victories and terrorist attacks, can have a strong positive effect on approval ratings. Remember, approval ratings are important predictors of a government candidate’s chances of winning — in other words, all of this would seem to help Maduro.

So what would a Chavez bump look like?

To get at this, I took about a dozen different events from around the world, from assassinations to natural deaths to terrorists attacks, and looked at the average bump in approval ratings for the affected government. Approval ratings jumped by 11 points, on average, across these events. If we assume that Chavez’s bump will be about the same, this would mean that Maduro’s chances of victory increase from 51 percent to 73 percent (see table below).

Approval rating 55 66
Incumbent  (Prob of Victory) 98% 100%
Successor (Prob of Victory) 51% 73% 

So Maduro is the favorite. Well, not exactly. Recent polling in Venezuela has shown only a marginal sympathy bump, contrary to common wisdom and my own expectations. The Chavez bump seems muted at best.

Ultimately, I believe the upcoming election will probably be more competitive than most expect. I would say Maduro is a slight favorite over Capriles — maybe 60/40 to win, at best.

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