The latest from Mexico

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MEXICO CITY—The weather in Mexico City is cloudy and chilly, with rain in the evening: not festive weather for an election.

But Mexico is a huge and varied country, and the high is in the 90s in the Yucatán and Monterrey and Acapulco, 80s in Guadalajara and Oaxaca and Veracruz; the Mexico City area, where 20 percent of the nation's people live, is the coldest part of the country.

Interviewing for the last publicly reported polls, which I have reported on previously, was completed June 20. Eliminating one outlier, the polls show the PRD's Andrés Manuel López Obrador at 36 percent, PAN's Felipe Calderón at 34 percent, and PRI's Roberto Madrazo at 26 percent. But opinion could have changed since then. As Roy Campos of the Consulta Mitofsky polling firm points out in this interview in Reforma, the last polls in 2000 showed the PRI's Francisco Labastida up 2 percent, but PAN's Vicente Fox won by 6 percent. He points out also that the results in this year's elections in Costa Rica and Peru were notably different from the last polls announced there. Mexican law prohibits polling after June 20 and requires announcement of those results by June 23—one of the things a nation may do when it has no First Amendment. Fox News Channel announced yesterday that it was ceasing transmission of its programs to Mexico until after the polls close Sunday evening because it might violate Mexico's ban on broadcasting poll results or campaign commercials close to the election. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Mexican law prohibits the broadcast or publication of opinion surveys in the eight days leading up to an election, as well as any campaign activities in the three days before the vote. In a memo to Fox News, government officials said that electoral law also prohibited the discussion of citizens' political preferences and analysis of candidates' weaknesses on the air in the days before the election.

Fox News has asked me to be available for interviews here in Mexico City on Election Day, but they won't be broadcast in Mexico. CNN and the BBC evidently get around this by having different feeds for different countries; Fox has one worldwide feed and doesn't want to censor it to comply with Mexican law.

In any case, opinion can change in the last 10 days. It has happened, apparently, in the United States as well. It is often stated that the polls in the 1948 presidential election were wrong. Actually, they may not have been. The final Gallup Poll that year showed Thomas Dewey ahead of Harry Truman by a 49.5-to-44.5 percent margin (Gallup used to report tenths of a percent, which led readers to believe polls were more precise than in fact they are). The final popular vote was Truman 50 percent and Dewey 46 percent. The Dewey vote was within the error margin of his percentage in the last Gallup Poll; the Truman vote was only slightly outside that margin. The last interviews for that poll were conducted on October 25. Opinion could have shifted that much between then and Election Day—and probably did. In the course of writing my book Our Country, I came across a story that Dewey happened to meet Dr. Gallup during the campaign. He asked why Gallup was stopping polling well before Election Day. Gallup reportedly answered that in his experience voters didn't change their minds in the last days of a presidential election. That experience was based on only three elections—1936, 1940, and 1944—in all of which Franklin Roosevelt was the incumbent president running for re-election. That was not the case, of course, in 1948. A sample size of three is not enough, evidently, for a generalization.

Mexico has a sample size of similar magnitude as it goes into the 2006 election. It has had real competition for the presidency in only three previous elections—1988, 1994, and 2000. There are many who believe that the 1988 election was stolen, though I disagree; while there may have been some manipulation of results, the magnitude of the PRI's Carlos Salinas's victory was too large to be explained by vote fraud, in my opinion. In 1990, the government set up an independent election monitoring agency, IFE, which seems to be well above partisan politics and to be competently run. For 1994 and 2000, the government put into effect systems designed to produce clean elections. Every voter has a high-tech voter ID card, with picture, fingerprint, and hologram, and is required to show it at the polls. (In contrast, some Democrats in the United States make the preposterous claim that it is a violation of civil rights to require a voter to show a picture ID to vote.) Then a fingerprint is taken, and the finger is stained with indelible ink (you can see it on the fingers of the news media people on television on election night). Only very limited absentee voting is allowed, for the first-time year; IFE workers examine each absentee ballot with ultraviolet light and scan bar codes to verify their authenticity. Mexican elections today seem to have much less vote fraud than elections in the United States.

The PRI's Ernest Zedillo won the 1994 election by a wide margin against weak PAN opposition. In 2000, the election was much more seriously contested, and the election of the PAN's Vicente Fox came as a distinct surprise. The polls close at 6 p.m. in Mexico; because of time-zone differences, the last polls in the country close at 8 p.m. Mexico City time. I watched the election returns on Televisa and TV Azteca at the Four Seasons hotel with a friend. The exit poll quick count showed Fox significantly ahead; PRI people came on the air and said they weren't really behind. Then, as I recall, at about 10:45, President Zedillo came on the air and said, "I recognize that Vicente Fox is the next president of Mexico." It was an electrifying moment: Seventy-one years of PRI rule was coming to an end. We went out along the Paseo de la Reforma to the Angel of Independence statue, where a PAN crowd was waiting for Fox to arrive and make a victory statement. Large TV monitors were placed above the circle around the statue; young people were climbing up on it, and the crowd was singing beautiful songs. Then they started jumping up and down in unison to the music, and I could feel the earth move. (The Paseo de la Reforma, I was told later, is built on spongy fill land.) The crowd was yelling, "Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!" (Today! Today! Today!)—a reference to a gaffe Fox had made during the campaign but also a celebration of the fact that today, for the first time in 71 years, for the first day in (by my count) 25,933 days, the people of Mexico had not voted for the ruling party.

I do not expect election night this year to be as exciting. My fear is that the result will be so close that the side adjudged the loser will not accept the results: something like Florida 2000. And I think a López Obrador victory could turn out to be very bad news for the United States and for Mexico, though no one I have talked to seems confident about predicting exactly what a López Obrador government would do. But there are also signs pointing in another direction. Consider this report from the Dallas Morning News, about Internet traffic on the election, which continues even as Mexican media in conformance with Mexican law limit their coverage. The Internet traffic appears to be heavily pro-Calderón, though of course it represents just one segment, and quite possibly an unrepresentative one, of the Mexican electorate.