Even within a region justly famous for its magical realism, Venezuela can seem particularly incomprehensible to outsiders. This is a nation of bellicose rhetoric that has not gone to war since its independence, where oil rents are lavished on foreign allies despite obscene domestic poverty, and where fervent baseball fans decked in blue jeans routinely decry the evils of American cultural imperialism. Yet even by Venezuelan standards, the events leading up to the October 7 presidential election have been strange.
First there was the news of President Hugo Chávez's cancer, followed by the reports of his supposedly impending death, which streaked like lightning across international headlines and then seemed to disappear just as quickly. While certainly less vigorous than in previous campaigns, "El Comandante" has remained very much alive, continuing to travel and offering his supporters broadcasts of his trademark multi-hour speeches. Though apparently quite sick with something, the details of his condition and prognosis remain closely guarded state secrets, shrouded in mystery.
And then there's this issue with the polls. Sitting across from me at a small café in downtown Caracas, Carlos Lagorio looks down at his seven-dollar can of Diet Pepsi (inflation and exchange rate controls have driven up import prices) and shrugs. "The truth is," he confesses, "nobody really knows what's going on with the polls. I've never seen this happen."
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Few people understand the intricacies of Venezuelan opinion polls better than Lagorio, who for many years has dedicated himself to designing, interpreting, and collecting political data for municipal and state governments as well as for the two major Venezuelan pollsters, Datanálisis and Consultores 21. With the election less than two weeks away, both groups are reporting vastly different and seemingly irreconcilable political realities. Datanálisis gives a 10-point lead to the incumbent Hugo Chávez, while Consultores 21 assumes a dead heat with a slim 2-point margin favoring the challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. Polls from other sources have produced similar results, rendering the data far more inconsistent than the polling results from other contested elections this year such as those in the United States or Mexico.
As Lagorio points out, the preferences of a large chunk of the Venezuelan electorate are vividly clear. Of the 79 percent of the Venezuelan population who intend to go to the polls on October 7, around 45 percent of them say they're voting for President Chávez. Another 35 percent of intended voters favor Capriles. With some 80 percent accounted for, the disconnect in the data turns primarily on the unaffiliated "ni-ni" (Spanish for "neither one nor the other") and the "indecisos" (i.e., the "undecided") -- two nebulous voting blocks upon whose pervasiveness, intentions, and likely behaviors no two pollsters seem able to agree.