SANTIAGO — Political surveys are widely used in Chile. The media also cover them, which sometimes sways public opinion. Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that politicians and the public alike are skeptical about the credibility and motivations behind these surveys.
Chile is experiencing a tense political atmosphere. The 2019 social crisis was a convergence of numerous issues that culminated in demands that included rewriting the constitution. Now that the country is on the precipice of a referendum to decide exactly that, it appears to be an early spring with political polls blossoming around every turn.
Surveys are beloved political instruments in Chile. They are used, among other things, to measure the government’s approval rating, to predict a candidate’s election chances, and to forecast possible future scenarios.
The latest is from El Mercurio. It posted a survey on Sept. 6, from the Argentinian marketing agency Numen, that shows the referendum’s two options, “Apruebo” (“Approve”) and “Rechazo” (“Rechazo“), are close. According to the poll, 42.3 percent of the people interviewed said they would vote for Apruebo, while 34.6 percent said they supported Rechazo.
— El Mercurio (@ElMercurio_cl) September 6, 2020
These results surprised many, as Chilean surveys had previously reported that the Apruebo option was by far the most supported, and that Rechazo did not even come close.
For example, the latest survey by Activa Research indicated that 89.4 percent of respondents would vote Apruebo, while only 9 percent would vote Rechazo; and an earlier, renowned survey, Data Influye (“Data Influences”), conducted by TúInfluyes (“YouInfluence”) and published in August, showed that 73 percent of the respondents were for Apruebo, while only 13 percent were for Rechazo. These stark differences between the Numen survey and the others raise doubts about the reliability of some political surveys.
After El Mercurio published the Numen survey, many simply dismissed it. Among them, was independent Congressperson Pepe Auth, who tweeted that “the least El Mercurio can do, if they publish a survey with figures contrary to all the others, is to report that (the study) was requested by the Rechazo command.”
Marta Lagos, pollster and founder of Latinobarometro and MORI Chile (both companies that conduct surveys) also criticized the motivations behind the study. “Good advertising strategy from an advertising company … of course, this was done by advertisers, not pollsters,” she tweeted.
The company las Portadas de Tu Vida (“The Cover Pages of Your life”) went further and questioned the role of the media in influencing public opinion and made a thread on Twitter, in which it showed different cover pages from 1988 — the year of the referendum when Pinochet was voted out. Eight cover pages showed the country was going to support Pinochet, but the referendum results showed a very different scenario afterwards.
📰📊🔴 “Prensa y rol en las elecciones: caso encuestas”
Hoy, 6 de septiembre, El Mercurio publica encuesta de empresa argentina “Numen” ¿La habían escuchado?
¿Juegan un rol los medios en influir en la opinión de la ciudadanía?
Hagamos un poco de historia. Abro hilo… 👇 pic.twitter.com/t40hmwSdjV
— LasPortadasDeTuVida📰 (@vidaenportadas) September 6, 2020
Politically-Motivated Surveys “Have the Capacity to Create Realities”
In Chile, since 2012, a law that establishes voluntary voting has been in force. That is why political influences and incentives to make people want to vote have become more relevant in the country’s elections.
The sociologist Daniela Jara, explained the problem with surveys in Chile, in an opinion column published by CIPER. “Most of the surveys are linked to spaces of power and their interests, in one way or another. CADEM, UDD, MORI and CEP are an example. This translates into the circulation, reception, and naturalization of data that produce narratives and imaginaries about the political order and that even have the capacity to create realities or facts.”
International findings further support the proposition that surveys affect elections and voters’ preferences. For example, a study conducted by the University of Michigan analyzed data from the Canadian 1988 election to determine whether polls there influenced voter preferences. The results showed that among the poll watchers, there was a propensity to vote for the party that had more support in the surveys.
A different study conducted by Microsoft Research and Stanford University reached a similar conclusion: after seeing poll results, some voters switch sides to feel accepted and to be part of the winning team.
The latter study noted that it is not only the desire to be on the winning side, but that there are also a great number of voters who are influenced by political polls because of the “informational social influence,” or wanting to learn “from the wisdom of crowds.”
Public opinion can be swayed by surveys, but what also plays a role is how the media presents the information and how much coverage each candidate receives. After the last presidential election of 2017, the investigative journal CIPER published a study by Alberto Hurtado University, in which press professionals were interviewed as to how they reported elections.
The study found that Chilean journalists assigned greater coverage to candidates who scored high in polls. Another result was that 61 percent of those interviewed estimated that news outlets offered wider coverage to candidates who represented the ideologies of the owners of the media.
The Alberto Hurtado findings showed that journalists admitted Sebastián Piñera’s candidacy was the one to define the news agenda of the 2017 electoral campaign — which he ended up winning.
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant