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Following the surprising result of the primary election in Argentina, it is important to examine what we missed, why we failed to capture the electoral trends that led to the surprisingly conclusive win by Alberto Fernández, and what lessons we can draw from this failure. After multiple consultations with pollsters and evaluating all the material we had at hand, we can only best describe this primary election as a black swan event that represents a unique polling failure, both by Argentina’s historical standards and worldwide.
Heading into the presidential primaries, we were confident that Mr. Fernández would win by an acceptable margin of approximately 3%, with risks being more skewed towards a positive than a negative surprise. We considered a margin of 5% to be reversible, given that second preferences of voters for all other candidates showed that President Mauricio Macri could overcome a difference of up to 6% in a hypothetical second round run-off. The average of all polls conducted in Argentina since June 16 showed Mr. Fernández had an advantage of 3.4%, while the average we ran of the five pollsters who had had the best track record in 2015 and 2017 had narrowed from 4.3% in June to 1.8% in July and August. We noted that daily polls tried to track and capture potential changes in electoral trends in the two weeks prior to August 11 and showed both a high degree of polarization and remarkable stability in voter preferences in the last stretch of the campaign. Beyond polling indicators, big data indicators seemed to also suggest that President Macri was closing the gap. In particular, a political analysis firm that used big data tracking to predict President Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil and employed similar methods in Argentina, expected President Macri to lead by 3%. Google Trends analytics also seemed to capture that the ruling party’s social media- savvy strategy was generating much more internet traffic for President Macri compared to the other candidates. Other social mood indicators that typically correlate strongly with voter intentions, such as forward-looking assessments of the economy or job security, also seemed to have staged a consistent improvement since the lows of late 2018.
The result was an extraordinary surprise given all of the above, with Mr. Fernández winning by a 15% margin with over 47% of the vote (4–9% above polling averages) and President Macri gaining 32% (4–8% below polling averages). Voter turnout was not an issue, with turnout at 75%, barely 3% above the primaries held in 2017 and 2015. If anything, a higher turnout was expected to benefit President Macri since those less predisposed to vote were identified by pollsters to be more likely to vote for President Macri. Following lengthy conversations with local pollsters, it was agreed that pollsters failed to capture the support for Kirchnerism which was evidently higher among non-respondents to the polls, who primarily came from lower-middle-class and skilled-working-class segments. They had difficulty reaching these segments outside of Greater Buenos Aires (where they conducted face-to-face interviews) because landlines might underrepresent lower income segments or because prepaid phones do not have addresses. These segments had traditionally voted along the same lines as the middle class segment in all prior elections, but here behaved systematically different and leaned heavily in Mr. Fernández’s favor, possibly in large part because last year’s devaluation created a bigger wedge between these two income segments. All these pollsters had, however, been very accurate with their predictions in the multiple provincial gubernatorial elections that were conducted in the first half of the year, but the lack of dissonance between polling data and the results in some of these smaller provinces may be due to the fact that incumbent governors and their party machinery are much more powerful vote drivers and cut across these income segment differences that were more dominant at the federal level. Finally, looking outside the polling methodology errors, the overall improvement in social mood indicators that gave us added comfort may also be attributable to the fact that both sets of voters were becoming increasingly optimistic for different reasons: Mr. Fernández’s voters because change was coming, and President Macri’s voters because of their belief in policy continuity.
The polling failure in Argentina’s primary elections this year is extraordinary by every imaginable measure, both by Argentina’s historical standards and worldwide. High profile pollsters in Argentina had, by and large, come within the margin of error of past electoral results, most recently in the gubernatorial elections earlier this year as described above. Nothing in their past performance (adjusted for the quality of the pollster) would have predicted such a large miss well outside of the margin of error. Outside of Argentina, public opinion polls have also remained useful tools and indicators of future electoral performance in recent times, despite the fact that response rates to telephone polling have been dropping consistently. Declining response rates do not necessarily compromise accuracy, but can result in higher survey costs and force trade-offs that can compromise overall quality. Last year, pollsters were quite prescient in capturing the electoral trends and results of two of the highest profile elections in EM (Brazil and Mexico). Even established media publications cited that polling misses of 2016 in the USA and UK are not entirely fair or accurate. In the USA, President Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1-2% in losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton (making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012), and he beat his polls by only 2% in the average swing state. Key polling misses in certain individual key states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (where President Trump beat his polls by a larger amount) are what enabled him to turn a national vote loss into an electoral college vote win. In the UK, polling trackers during the Brexit referendum race also showed an extremely close race that ultimately tilted Leave’s way on account of the very high turnout on election day (at 72% it is recorded as the highest in a national vote since 1977) that was particularly prominent in Leave-leaning districts. Given this, we believe that Argentina’s extraordinary polling miss does not in any way suggest polls should be scrapped as potential inputs in future investment decisions.