Interview with Juan Ricardo Pérez-Escamilla, Co-Founder of Oraculus
Juan Ricardo Pérez-Escamilla is the founder and CEO of Central de Inteligencia Política, a consulting group dedicated to improving communication strategies of institutions, candidates, and other axes of Mexican politics. Pérez-Escamilla is also co-founder of Oraculus, a platform that uses a poll-of-polls mechanism to give people free access to information about candidates and their media coverage.
The Politic: In 2016 during the U.S. presidential election, many polls predicted a different result. Not only in the U.S. but all around the world, polls have not coincided with the final results of elections or referendums. However, people still believe in polls, and these can impact directly the decisions citizens take, for example deciding to vote for the candidate in “second place” in order to create a larger opposition. What do you think is the role of polls in a historic election like this?
Juan Ricardo Pérez-Escamilla: People believe in polls, that is a fact. They credit and discredit polls as they suit them. This happens because polls are a reflection of what happens in a very specific moment in the present. It is important to understand that in the case of the United States, the polls did not fail, but it was the probability models that failed to fully address the vote intention. Nonetheless, polls generate perception. For example, due to the widespread coverage of López Obrador in the press, it is more likely for people to perceive him as winner of the election. In fact, there isn’t one poll in Mexico that places him in second place.
When one candidate generates more interest than another, he has a greater chance of winning, take for example López Obrador vs El Bronco. AMLO is predicted to win the election according to the majority of polls, including Oraculus; however, we must acknowledge that a low probability of winning is not equal to zero.
Polls can also track the demography of voters and their vote intentions. For example, in the article Lopezobradurismo 3.0 we see the evolution of AMLO in his three presidential campaigns. Likewise these polls show that he is winning in all categories—including age, gender and scholarship of voters—as well in all the electoral circumscriptions. I dare to say that López Obrador has become a phenomenon throughout Mexico; people no longer fear him, especially due to the low approval ratings of Enrique Peña Nieto and the corruption scandals of the current administration.
As co-founder of Oraculus and Central de Inteligencia Política, what do you believe has been the impact of these new platforms on the Mexican presidential campaigns and the election?
Well, first I would like to explain a bit of why and how Oraculus was born. During the U.S. presidential election, we were amazed with the FiveThirtyEight platform, and we wanted to create a similar platform in Mexico, since there was no actual specialized portal in electoral and political polls. After being born in January 2018, Oraculus has truly been a success; we have already accomplished our mission of being among the most cited platforms by public opinion leaders, both domestically and internationally. There is a lot of interest in the Mexican elections. I believe that this is due to the fact that Mexico is an emerging economy as well as a neighbor to the U.S. Oraculus has already been cited in major newspapers like The Economist, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
As I have mentioned, polls are used as publicity—candidates point at one or another, depending on what they wish to show—and they are replicated by mass media. Since its start, Oraculus has tried to filter all the polls present in major publications in order to take an effective average that illustrates preferences. Of course the algorithms are much more complicated than taking a simple average. We only use polls that meet the requirements of the National Electoral Institute (INE), that have a good reputation within media outlets, and that are conducted door-to-door—which may include canvassing.
The impact of these new platforms is the creation of a more informed body of voters, as well as giving people free access to an entire package of polls, news, and articles related to the politics of our country. We made Oraculus a free platform because we want citizens to be well informed before casting their vote; people have always wanted more information, and now we are providing them verified articles and polls that will make them more aware and informed.
I understand that one of the methods or instruments used both in Oraculus and CIP is the Media Reputation Analysis of Actors (ARMA), which is not only a publicity analysis—rather, it is based on the public reception of the political agenda. What is the real impact of this type of instrument on changes and improvements in political campaigns? And on voter perception?
The ARMA is a part of some new instruments we have created in order to engage better with electoral and political news. The ARMA takes everything that is published in the media and makes a specific analysis depending on the topic. This is a way to measure the impact of media outlets on how different actors are seen, ergo impacting on voter perception. For example, after the scandal of Ricardo Anaya’s industrial ship, voters in Yucatán appear less likely to vote for him.
Perception is powerful, it affects on how citizens look at a certain candidate. However, perception is produced by journalists and opinion-leaders, and most of the time we get lost in what they are saying. Media then plays an extraordinarily important role in Mexico, because it makes us acknowledge what and when things are happening. Depending on how many times an event or a candidate or a proposal is mentioned, we will remember and engage with him [or her]. Finally, something quite interesting is that there is a tendency in which those who appear the most on the media end up aspiring for the biggest positions in office. They may become senators or even governors. Political careers are also built up by the media.
Only a few days away from the elections, political campaigns have come to an end. In your opinion, what were the hits and misses of the presidential campaigns?
Let’s go candidate by candidate…
Regarding Andrés Manuel López Obrador, his campaign was quite good; however, he had the easiest time due to weakening of both Peña Nieto and the PRI. The scandals and disapproval made his campaign stronger in, almost, an invisible way. The increasing levels of corruption, impunity and selective memory just confirm what AMLO constantly talks about in rallies and debates—the existence of a mafia del poder, the government being as corrupt as ever, etc. The party MORENA is something we have never seen before. In Mexican contemporary history there has not been a political party that has matched its growth over the past four years. I believe there is no actual downside for López Obrador and for MORENA. Worst case scenario, they will win the presidency and four states, and the best case scenario is that they will win the presidency, six states and have a majority in Congress.
Now, talking about Ricardo Anaya, there were two terrible misses during his campaign. The first is the internal rupture in the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) caused by his proclamation as candidate. He forgot about politicians who had been in the ranks of the party for five, ten, twenty, and even forty years. Anaya’s attitude towards the rest of his party only caused separations and disagreements, especially those who aligned with Felipe Calderón [former president of Mexico] and other “rebel” senators. The second miss in his campaign was the actions taken inside the Frente, which is in fact a coalition of party leaders rather than an actual political front. Decisions were made in private and between the leaders and their pals. They handed out the positions and offices to whomever was interested. I dare say, there was a third miss in Anaya’s campaign, which corresponds to the fact that, knowingly about his properties and businesses, he did not present his Ley3de3 [a law by which members of the public sector are obliged to present their patrimonial declaration, tax return, and their contact network]. While having an elephant in the room it was naive of him to think that other candidates would not expose him. Anaya is mad because of the bad use of institutions [made by his counterparts and those who oppose his campaign, in order to expose whatever they could find against him], but he should also be glad that the situation only ended up in a few scandals.
Lastly, since the beginning, José Antonio Meade’s campaign seemed impossible. The group of [politicians aligned] with Peña Nieto took over PRI and took over a candidate who wasn’t formally a member of the party nor a political “fossil.” To have a greater chance of winning, Meade had to move away from PRI, even though he was chosen as their candidate. He also had to move away from President Peña Nieto to avoid people linking him to the different problems of corruption and security; however, he chose to stay near both the party and Peña Nieto. This made everyone identify Meade as part of the problem and of the constant acts of corruption.
I like to describe the campaigns with a very tough criticism by Silva Herzog: this election is like a pregnancy of triplets in which two were born dead.
It is a tough criticism, but I also believe it to be true. Now Juan, what is your perspective about the new government in case MORENA wins, not only the presidency but also a majority in Congress?
Well, first I dare to say that there is not one Mexican that wishes the president any evil. If the president does well, so does the country, and if the country is doing well, society will too. If AMLO wins, he will be the most supported president in history, with [an estimated] 30 million votes (Peña Nieto won with 19 million votes). There are immense expectations about AMLO’s promises to end corruption and what he calls the economic crisis. However, after he takes office, people may realize that there is in fact no economic crisis going on, that insecurity in northern Mexico will not be instantly solved.
Nonetheless, it is unarguable that López Obrador is going to be a very powerful president, especially due to the number of political positions he will offer to local and federal governments. He talks about a fourth revolution and he needs to count on sufficient support to do so. For now we will just have to wait and see how he uses his power. As any powerful president, he can use it for good or bad.
If you could highlight one thing, positive or negative, from this electoral process, what would it be?
That democracy works and that party alternation exists both on the federal and local level. Each time people believe that their votes are valuable and make larger efforts to participate, this translates in a constant effort to make the country a better place. Mexico has advanced and will keep on doing so.
Finally, Juan, what would you say to foreigners who may not be so knowledgeable about Mexican politics and the electoral process?
It is quite important to say that the process has improved throughout time. In ’88 we faced the so called “system failure,” but now, 30 years later, we see a strong and autonomous electoral institute that has proven to work. We cannot deny that there are many challenges, but that’s what life is about, right? Facing whatever challenge comes in store.
I encourage everyone out there to believe in Mexico. To believe in the greatness of our country seen through its gastronomy, its culture, its people. Our country is moving forward.