Public Opinion Woes for Mexico’s President

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Enrique Peña Nieto on election night: “Ganó México, pero no gano México.”

As Brazil’s search for a new president continues, a recent news report from Correio Braziliense reporter Gabriela Walker takes a look at the leadership of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has brokered a series of major policy reforms during his first two years in office but has received little love from public opinion polls. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times has also noted based on a new Pew poll, Peña Nieto finished this summer with well below 50% popular support, Mexico’s current president is ironically both one of the most effective in terms of implementing his agenda and also among the least popular in decades. What explains this? My take, as expressed in the Walker article, is that: “Acontece no México, nos EUA, em todos os lugares. O nível de satisfação da população tem muito a ver com o bolso, com o modo como estão se saindo economicamente.” [Look, mom, I’m speaking Brazilian!] Or as I might say in English, Mexico’s dragging economy—barely more than 1% GDP growth in 2013—is kicking Peña Nieto’s butt. In the coming year, we should expect greater than 3% growth and some improvement in Peña Nieto’s popularity.  

However, as I also mentioned to Ms. Walker for this story, I think there is something a bit peculiar about presidential popularity polls in Mexico, insofar as the country’s three-party-system (or 2.3—2.5 party system, as Manuel Alcántara would say, to be more precise). Mexico’s last two presidents —Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón—both won the presidency with less than half of the electorate’s support, yet both maintained higher than 50% approval ratings throughout their presidencies. This was especially surprising in Calderón’s case because he won a very narrowly contested election in 2006, which some still say he actually lost to Andres Manuel López Obrador (who spent the next six years parading around the country claiming to be Mexico’s “itinerant” president). 

The thing is this: I suspect that there is a bias in Mexican opinion polling that works against Mr. Peña Nieto because he is from the country’s traditional ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, as it is known for its initials in Spanish). Both Fox and Calderón were candidates from the National Action Party, Mexico’s oldest opposition party, which unseated the PRI in 2000. I suspect that the antipathy that supporters of other parties feel toward the PRI is stronger than it is for any other party. If that’s true, then a PRI or a PRD supporter might be willingly to acknowledge (albeit grudgingly) that Fox or Calderón was doing a decent job while in office. However, because of their strong dislike of the PRI, neither a PRD or PAN supporter is willing to give much slack to Peña Nieto.  They say that children are the cruelest of all, but maybe it’s actually the Mexican political opposition. 

This is consistent with an argument made several years ago by Jorge Domínguez and James McCann, who found that Mexican voters cast their ballots in a two step strategic calculus: 1) determine whether or not they support the PRI, 2) if they do not support the PRI, then vote for the alternative that is most likely to beat the PRI. It may be that, as long as the PRI remains so reviled by Mexico’s traditional opposition parties, PRI presidents will suffer from those biases in opinion polls. The hidden silver lining for PRI supporters in all of this is that they actually appear to be “better losers.” That is, PRI supporters are better able to accept that their candidate lost an election and still admit it when they perceive that the winner is doing a good job. We should keep that in mind, because being a “good loser” is one of the most admirable traits of a citizen in a democracy.  It shows acceptance of the rules by which the democratic game is played, even when we don’t always get what we want. Either that, or PRI supporters have such low standards that any winning candidate with a heartbeat passes muster for them, as long as they get a torta at the end of the day. And there is something to be said for that, too.

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