Jeremy Rosner looked ashen. The American pollster, a veteran of the Clinton White House, had just learned that the United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili had lost the country's October 1 parliamentary elections in an upset to the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Rosner, an executive vice president of the D.C.-based consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, is one of the world's most successful political pollsters, having advised leaders ranging from Tony Blair to Israel's Labor Party to Ukrainian Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko. He had been working for Saakashvili since 2007, and his polls for the Georgian leader had always been pinpoint accurate. He is not used to losing, and when he does lose, he expects it.
But standing that evening in the bar of Tbilisi's Marriott Freedom Square, Rosner was visibly shocked. Just two days earlier, he had met me in the lobby of the city's other Marriott hotel, just down the street, to tell me how a UNM victory was all but assured. His internal polls showed it -- one he conducted in August found the UNM leading GD 55 to 33 percent -- as did a series of focus groups across the country. Polls conducted earlier in the year by rival firm Penn Schoen Berland (hired by GD) which showed the opposition in a virtual dead heat with the UNM, he told me, "are fabricated." Regaling me with stories about how Saakashvili is "more like Clinton than anyone I've ever worked with" and "a force of nature," Rosner had reason to be upbeat: A series of polls by non-partisan outlets had shown the UNM with a healthy lead over the opposition. The National Democratic Institute, for instance, found the UNM leading GD by 25 percent. Granted, all these polls had been taken before the September 19 release of undercover videos documenting torture and anal rape in Georgian prisons, shocking images that turned thousands of people -- many of them having nothing to do with Georgian Dream or politics whatsoever -- into the streets. But Rosner was not worried. "I don't know any scandal in the world that's wiped out a 20 point lead," he told me.
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Whether it was the prison scandal, a combination of grievances, or -- as the opposition long alleged -- a widespread unpopularity not accurately accounted for in political polls due to a "climate of fear," Saakashvili's party lost the election, a development that took the international media, Western governments, and the bevy of political consultants hired by both sides by surprise. When I asked Rosner what accounted for the discrepancy between his expectations and the outcome, he repeated to me what he had said two days before: In his decades of politics, he had "never seen a single scandal wipe out a nearly 20 point lead." But while the prison video was almost certainly the decisive factor in turning the election in Ivanishvili's favor, there were other elements at play that largely eluded international observers and most Georgia-watchers.
There were many clues that the UNM would lose much of its support, if not suffer an outright defeat at the polls, one just needed to know where to look. The widely touted National Democratic Institute poll showing a 25 point UNM lead, for instance, found that a plurality of voters (43 percent) either did not know whom they would vote for or refused to answer. In retrospect, this relatively high number ought to have been seen as a boon for the opposition, as undecided voters everywhere tend to be. But much of the other evidence of voter discontent was anecdotal. Spending a Saturday afternoon with some Ivanishvili supporters in Tbilisi, I was told by one that, of her 600 Facebook friends, only two "dared" to post anything in favor of Saakashvili. The seemingly over-confident claims of impending victory from opposition supporters were also somewhat deflated, for me at least, by their wild predictions that the government would use fraud and, failing that, violence, to resist an Ivanishvili victory, all somehow under the watchful eyes of thousands of international election observers, media and Western governments. This excitable and, at times conspiratorial, tone, led me to discount much of what opposition activists were saying.
For their part, government supporters acknowledged that Tbilisi has long been an opposition stronghold. They told journalists to discount the large crowd (estimated as anywhere from 60,000 to an improbable ten times that) that turned up in the city's central Freedom Square for an Ivanishvili rally on the Saturday before the election. But a trip outside the capital demonstrated that the discontent with the government, if not Saakashvili himself, was deep, particularly among the country's poor and long-term unemployed. Though Saakashvili can claim tremendous success in reforming a post-Soviet backwater into a nation with real (albeit, long-term) prospects of joining the European Union, poverty and unemployment have remained consistent problems over his 9 years in power.