PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) recent surge from third to second place in the polls has generated concerns about him seriously challenging PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) or even winning the election. While it is clear to many that AMLO is not a Mexican Hugo Chavez, the memory of his polarizing rhetoric, populist policy proposals and radical behavior following the 2006 presidential elections raises important questions about his chances and future role in national politics.
New polls released this month reveal that AMLO is still surging, garnering between 20% and 26% support. Whereas during May EPN’s support remained steadily above 40%, the most recent polls show the PRI candidate’s support dwindling to the 35% to 40% range. This means that over the last month or so, the gap between AMLO and EPN has shrunk from over 20 points to as little as 10 points. Meanwhile, PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota (JVM) still hovers around 20% support.
Figure 1: “Evolution of Major Presidential Polls”
Reasons for AMLO’s Rise
Previously, AMLO was dismissed as a third-place contender; he polled around 16% to 18%, failing to improve despite trying to rebrand himself as more inclusive and moving toward the center on some issues. Conversely, JVM was seen as the only feasible competition to the PRI.
AMLO’s fortunes began to change in early May, largely due to the stagnating PAN campaign and his politically adept strategy. AMLO garnered an inordinate amount of media attention by holding daily press conferences in which he made attention-grabbing comments about his opponents.
To a lesser extent, AMLO’s slightly more centrist policy positions have helped him reach out to the business community. While this has not translated into acceptance from business leaders, the softened rhetoric has generated more media exposure and allowed AMLO to distance himself from his polarizing and radical image from 2006. Despite maintaining a negative overall image rating, AMLO’s net image rating has improved significantly compared to the other candidates.
Figure 2: “Presidential Candidates’ Net Image Ratings”
Natural Disenchantment with the PRI Candidate
AMLO’s rise has been made especially interesting by the PRI frontrunner’s concurrent dip in support. The PRI candidate has recently had to face various corruption scandals within his party as well as the vocal student movement (YoSoy132), but his decline may also reflect a natural public exhaustion with his candidacy, given his impressive initial lead.
Effect of the YoSoy132 Student Movement
There seems to be a correlation between AMLO’s recent surge and the growing anti-PRI student movement that originated on May 11th. Although the movement has tried to remain free of party affiliations, it has repeatedly voiced its opposition to EPN as an embodiment of the status quo.
Indeed, support for EPN among youth has declined while it has risen for AMLO. According to an April 17th Consulta Mitfosky poll, EPN garnered 40% support among voters between the ages of 18 and 29 while AMLO only garnered 15% support in this age group. Since then, EPN’s support among this demographic has dropped to 32% while AMLO’s has risen to 24% (June 5th).
Fall of the PAN Helps AMLO the Most
While these factors have all contributed to AMLO’s rise, none is as important as the PAN candidate’s mediocre campaign. JVM’s efforts have lacked a coherent and appealing message. This has provided AMLO with the opportunity to reach more voters and position himself as the main opposition candidate.
How High Can AMLO Fly?
Despite the growing buzz surrounding AMLO’s recent rise, there are several factors that will hinder the PRD candidate’s possibilities on election day. First, although the polls reflect an undeniable increase in AMLO’s position, they do not accurately capture the reality of electoral dynamics. Many people who express preference for a candidate may not even vote on election day.
This is where each party’s national organization and grassroots presence becomes incredibly important. The PRI, which will rely on its decades-old political infrastructure and strong grassroots efforts, will do a much better job than any other party of getting its voters to the polls. Although not as strong or efficient as the PRI, the PAN also has a competitive political infrastructure, certainly more so than the PRD.
Poor National Presence
The PRD has been in a period of decline since the 2006 elections, when it arguably reached the zenith of its power. The PRD currently governs only three of Mexico’s 32 states (Mexico City, Chiapas and Guerrero), whereas it governed six in 2006. Three other states are currently governed by PAN-PRD coalition governors. The PRD is essentially nonexistent in most of northern Mexico and maintains a negligible presence in the industrial corridor comprising the states of Guanajuato, Queretaro, Jalisco and Aguascalientes.
Lack of Internal Support
AMLO’s campaign has notably lacked the support of various important PRD members. Current Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard, who competed against AMLO in the primary, has distanced himself from Lopez Obrador despite being nominated to be part of AMLO’s proposed cabinet. Other PRD officials like Sen. Carlos Navarrete and party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas have played minor roles in AMLO’s campaign.
The lack of party unity around AMLO’s candidacy goes back a long way, but it was accentuated during the party’s nomination process. AMLO won the nomination by essentially threatening the PRD that he would otherwise run as an independent with the support of two smaller parties, the Workers Party (PT) and the Movimiento Ciudadano. This would have split the left and slashed any other PRD candidate’s chances. Many within the party regard AMLO’s thirst for power as the key reason for the party’s decline.
AMLO’s campaign is severely hindered by his party’s poor finances. According to a recent internal report, his campaign has spent roughly 82% of his federally allotted MX$225.7 million budget. This is a lot more than his PAN rival, who has spent only 77.2% of her MX$424.8 million in federal funds. Although the candidates receive additional campaign contributions that may go unreported, the PRD candidate seems to have fewer donors than his adversaries.
The matter is further complicated by the lack of PRD governorships. Although illegal, it is widely understood that governors contribute greatly to their party’s presidential candidates.
Although AMLO has no chance of winning the presidential race, there are a series of risks associated with a second-place finish for the PRD candidate. Despite his recent change in rhetoric, Lopez Obrador remains the same as before. For much of the last five years, he has been one of the most divisive figures in Mexican politics. After rejecting the legitimacy of President Calderon, AMLO initiated an irresponsible opposition movement that helped block or dilute key reform initiatives related to energy, tax and labor.
Although remote, a scenario in which AMLO comes within roughly five points of EPN could lead to post-election protests and controversies similar to those in 2006. Always an adept manipulator, AMLO will argue that the election was rigged or even stolen from him. In fact, he has already he stated he does not trust the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and will only recognize the “voice of the people” on election day.
Even if AMLO cannot reasonably argue that the election was rigged, he will undoubtedly refer to EPN as the candidate imposed by the media and the country’s vested interests.
Finally, with a strong finish AMLO will also try to remain the face and leader of the PRD. This would only hamper the party, which is looking to dissociate from Lopez Obrador and start anew. His recent rise throws a wrench into this plan.
Another risk associated with a strong finish for AMLO is a strong PRD presence in Congress. As congressional elections tend to closely follow presidential trends, the PRD-led coalition could become the second largest force in Congress. The leftist congressional bench has staunchly opposed many needed reforms in the past.
Although it is not so clear whether PRD legislators will align with AMLO’s interests this time around, the candidate is likely to vocally oppose reforms such as energy liberalization, a comprehensive tax reform and labor reform. While he might not have enough support to block reforms, he still could undermine the depth of the legislation.
Thus, the ideal scenario in terms of structural reforms, would be for the PRI to win by the widest margin possible, so as to dissipate any doubts of a legitimate victory.
Barring some watershed event, we reaffirm our view that AMLO cannot win this presidential election. Even if the surge portrayed by various polls is significant, these do not reflect the PRD’s extremely handicapped finances, infrastructure and capacity to mobilize the vote.
Finally, it is important to note that despite AMLO’s recent surge, there is still room for change in electoral dynamics. Because the PAN is more established than the PRD, the PAN candidate could still manage to take second place on election day due to her party’s slightly better finances and national presence.