Chile faces the final phase of the most polarized election since the return of democracy with a consensus in the polls that is more fragile than it seems. Until December 4, all the houses gave Gabriel Boric, a leftist candidate, as the winner. But doubts about the polls remain. More than on them or their methods, which proved their effectiveness by correcting that the two candidates would go to the second round, on the possibility of capturing the nuances of a context as uncertain as the current one. This uncertainty is reflected in the enormous variety of margins that the polls give Boric. While some hope for a victory more than assured, others see the distance within the margin of error, indicating that the election is more open than it might appear from only taking into account the holder of who goes first.
An important part of these differences is likely to lie in the most difficult question a pollster can face in a country where voting is not mandatory: How to correctly identify who is going to vote and who is not? We tend to imagine the electorate divided into two halves: one red and one blue. The enormous gap, not only ideological, but also discursive and aesthetic, of visions about morals and ways of life, even, that exists between Boric and José Antonio Kast only reinforces this template to look at reality. But with it we are considerably restricting our field of vision: in these two drawers only convinced voters fit. Here will probably be a vast majority of those who voted for Kast or Boric in the first round. Also a good part (being analytically generous, even a majority) of the votes more clearly listed to one side or the other of the candidates who did not go to the second round. But even including them we would not reach half of the total Chilean electorate.
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Almost 53% of the population decided not to exercise their right to vote. Of those who did, there will be a considerable part (especially among the candidates most different from those who ended up passing the round) who will reconsider whether to do it this December 18. Of those who stayed home in November, some may be compelled to go to the polls, even to prevent the candidate they dislike the most from winning: polarization mobilizes out of rejection rather than worship. We therefore have more than two drawers in which to put citizens: a red one, a blue one, a few with less distinguishable tones, and one more, occupied by a majority, who do not really know what color to paint.
The resulting challenge for pollsters is not limited to classifying voters into two categories, but into many more. And the first, the most difficult, is to decide who will end up in the “did not vote.” The main problem with the American polls in 2016 was not that people lied to pollsters about their vote for Trump, but that pollsters neglected to ask enough people in a certain sociodemographic category (white men with no higher education) who normally vote. little, responds less to the polls, but it was the one that ended up giving the Republican candidate that extra support. Worldwide, the non-response rate to surveys has only grown in recent years, becoming the main technical problem for those who use this method. It is difficult to anticipate how this non-response bias will be distributed among Chilean voters in an unprecedented context, with candidates different from the usual ones, and in the middle of a process of structural change such as the one the country is going through today.
The next phase of the challenge of classifying citizenship in colored boxes comes with declared indecision. The vote estimate given above is based on the pollsters’ own calculation of a probable vote. This is not equivalent to what they collect directly from the sample: usually a certain percentage of people respond with indecision. A crucial part of the demoscopic exercise is assigning that indecision to one or the other candidate. In most cases, this distribution is more or less even: if there are 20% undecided, it is assumed that half and half will go to each candidate. But this does not necessarily have to be the case. In fact, in some countries it is common to assume that certain parties or candidates receive a greater share of the indecision. In Spain, historically, conservative candidates (Popular Party, PP) were underestimated with the direct intention of voting and the estimate assigned them a higher proportion of the voters in doubt. But the change in the party system that the country underwent in the last half decade completely changed these calculations. Similarly, the process of change in Chile could bring news on this front. It is, for now, interesting to see that the distributions of indecision are not equal between pollsters.
Little can be read in these differences, beyond the fact that they exist, and as such they are one more sign of uncertainty, which is enlarged with the temporal factor. Because there is still one more source of doubt. Chilean law establishes a ban on the publication of polls from two weeks before the election. This period of silence, extraordinary in its duration although not in its nature (common in other democracies), covers precisely the moment in which many of the voters decide in which drawer they will end: the red, the blue, or the one that is stay home on election day. Seen backwards, the electoral polls serve to narrate the evolution of the voters, which in Chile seems to have followed a trend favorable to Boric.
Now, what we do not know is whether the trend will continue or change during the last days, especially for that substantial group that has not yet decided its action for the 18th. Gabriel Boric and his followers can certainly think that both the A trend such as the photo at the end of the route favors them: this is indicated by the data. But the unknowns that still remain to be resolved over the next week are voluminous enough to take nothing for sure. Inevitably, your resolution will come out of the light that survey data routinely brings us. Imperfect and intermittent perhaps, but light nonetheless.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.