Venezuelans went to the polls Sunday to elect 23 new state governors. According to the polling, opposition candidates aligned with the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) stood to win 13 to 16 of those states. That didn’t happen.
In the midst of the country’s deep economic crisis, soaring crime rates, and constant protests and counterprotests, an opposition sweep would have been unsurprising. But late Sunday night, Venezuela’s election commission announced that the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had achieved a stunning upset, capturing 17 governorships, with one governorship remaining contested.
President Nicolás Maduro quickly accepted the official results and declared victory, while opposition leaders alleged that the results were fraudulent.
Which side is telling the truth? In such a polarized and charged political environment as Venezuela’s, it can be difficult to know. True, there has been little evidence of large-scale election fraud in past Venezuelan elections. And it is reasonable for people to question pre-election polling results published by partisan media with little or no transparency about methods and samples.
But a sweeping government victory in the midst of profound economic and social unrest, after months of widespread protests against the Maduro government, beggars credulity.
Our skepticism mounts when we look at survey data
Our study of Venezuelan public opinion provides additional reason to be skeptical. In late 2016 and early 2017, we fielded a nationally representative survey in Venezuela as part of the 2016/17 round of LAPOP’s AmericasBarometer. This is a regular series of scientific studies of public opinion dating to 2004 and covering 34 countries in the Americas. The AmericasBarometer is a treasure trove of information on citizens’ experiences, evaluations and preferences. All data from the project are freely available on the project’s website.
The survey asked Venezuelans to evaluate Maduro’s performance in office, whether they think he ought to step down via recall, and how they would vote if a presidential election were held that week. The survey used a multistage sampling strategy and sophisticated methods to ensure high data quality — including silent images of interviewers, audio checks and GPS tracking.
The graphs below show how Venezuelan citizens responded to our questions. When asked to evaluate Maduro’s overall performance, a clear majority graded it “bad” or “very bad.” When we asked them how they would vote if an election were held, a majority said they would vote for the opposition.
What’s more, fewer than 1 in 5 Venezuelans told us they would vote for the PSUV, Maduro’s party. And a majority said they would support a recall referendum of Maduro.
Because the AmericasBarometer survey uses a national sample, we do not have representative samples within each state. But the sample design does give us representative samples by region. The map below compares the proportion of Venezuelan respondents to the survey who said they would vote for the PSUV and the proportion who reportedly voted for PSUV candidates Sunday. In all but one region, our survey registered far less support for the PSUV than was reported in the official results from Sunday’s elections.
Governments that perform poorly don’t do well at the polls
Several months have passed since we conducted our survey in Venezuela. It is of course possible that Venezuelan public opinion turned dramatically in favor of the PSUV and Maduro’s administration in the intervening months.
When a government performs poorly, standard theories of voter choice hold that public support for the incumbent’s party declines. Latin America is no exception to this rule. As such, we find it difficult to imagine that millions of Venezuelans flocked to the government’s candidates.
Our analyses suggest that Sunday’s elections were less than free and fair. Reliable survey data show that a majority of Venezuelans were inclined to support the opposition.
So what happened Sunday? It appears that opposition supporters were systematically deterred from the polls — or else their votes were not tallied into the official count.
Noam Lupu is associate professor of political science and associate director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University.
Elizabeth J. Zechmeister is Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of political science and director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University.