"Were NY Pollsters Just Playing a Joke on Chavez?" That was the typically cheeky headline on an item about the Venezuela election in The Hotline political digest (nationaljournal.com) this week. The item quoted a press release from the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Assoc. saying, "Exit Poll Results Show Major Defeat for Chavez." The release, dated 7:30 p.m., said, "With Venezuela's voting set to end at 8 p.m. EST according to election officials, final exit poll results from Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, an independent New York-based polling firm, show a major victory for the 'Yes' movement, defeating Chavez in the Venezuela presidential recall referendum." The poll showed 59 percent in favor of recalling Chavez, 41 percent against.
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The next morning, Chavez was declared the winner by an almost exact opposite margin. "About 58 percent said 'no' to a recall, while 42 percent said 'yes,'" wrote the Washington Post.
The Hotline was evidently having a little fun twitting a polling firm. But was the result as clear as theyand official election observer Jimmy Carterthought? There is good reason to believe it was not. In fact, it's something of a scandal that American news media have been taking the official vote count in Venezuela at face value. There is very good reason to believe that the exit poll had the result right, and that Chavez's election officialsand Carter and the American mediagot it wrong.
Let us look at the reasons.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has been running an authoritarian regime. By various means he has taken control of the legislature, the courts, the armed services and the police. His thugs have been intimidating and even killing the regime's opponents. The literature on this is voluminous, but consider these reports from the Wall Street Journal: www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110005494 and www.opinionjournal.com/wsj/?id=110005478. Chavez is an ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro and an enemy of the United States, and he has shown no commitment to democratic principles. He sought to block the referendum by extralegal means and, having failed at that, resorted to intimidation to win it. There is no reason to believe that he would stop at election fraud.
One weapon against such fraud is the exit poll. As Doug Schoen of Penn Schoen points out, his firm has conducted exit polls in Mexico and, just a few days ago, in the Dominican Republic, which produced results very close to the election results. His partner Mark Penn points out that the firm conducted two previous exit polls in Venezuela, both of which were on the mark. Warren Mitofsky's firm, Mitofsky International, has produced exit polls with similar results in Mexico and Russia. Mitofsky recalls that in 1994, Mexican President Carlos Salinas, seeking credibility with foreign investors for that year's Mexican elections, asked him for advice on what to do. Allow independent exit polls, Mitofsky advised, sponsored by the media, and allow the results to be announced soon after the voting. Mitofsky's exit poll results, announced soon after the polls closed, did in fact come close to the official results, as did another Mitofsky poll in 2000. More important, they provided independent confirmation of the fairness of the count.