A Lesson for Future Mexican Presidential Candidates

Last week I stood by my earlier prediction that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will return to the Mexican Presidency in July’s election, which I believe will be won by Enrique Peña Nieto. This Monday, the Parametria firm published a poll indicating that Peña Nieto has an 18-point lead over the incumbent National Action Party’s (PAN) candidate, Josefina Vásquez Mota. According to the poll, the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is in third place and trails Mota by seven points. Even though she faces a double-digit deficit, Vásquez Mota and the PAN are far from conceding the election. With a little over two months left before the July 1 elections, Vásquez Mota’s campaign has announced that it will begin implementing a new strategy to capture the majority of the 20% of voters that Parametria’s survey showed to be undecided. If the trends indicated by Parametria’s numbers continue to be accurate, Vásquez Mota will need to win virtually all of the undecided voters. If she fails in her presidential bid, the PAN only needs to look back on a campaign that has been flawed from the start.

At the beginning, it was clear to me that the PAN was not united in its support of Vásquez Mota. While she won her party’s primary, many, including me, suspected that the current Mexican President Felipe Calderon (of the PAN) supported a different candidate. Some have named this candidate as former Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero, whose loss in the PAN primary they suspect led to infighting among the PAN. A fractured party will struggle to win any election, but due to some of Calderon’s unpopular policies (e.g., an armed offensive against drug trafficking organizations [DTOs] that has left more than 50,000 dead), lack of unity has proved disastrous. Vásquez Mota must garner the support of her party, but at the same time distance herself from some of her predecessor’s policies. This is a difficult dance that requires many resources and as much organizational structure as possible.

Without full support from her party, Vásquez Mota and her campaign have suffered a variety of embarrassments. Last month, she angered supporters by arriving late to a rally and her supporters left before she even had a chance to speak. Just last week she had to cancel one event due to a protest by laid-off airline workers. Vásquez Mota’s campaign has even had to endure social media embarrassments. One of her communications staff misspelled the name of the Mexican state of Tlaxcala—spelled “Tlazcala” in a Tweet—which borders her home state of Puebla. This is an even more egregious error because Vásquez Mota has previously held the post of Minister of Education. The PAN Chairman, Gustavo Madero, has come to her defense, claiming that the media are unfairly targeting the campaign’s errors and not focusing on her proposed policies for the development of Mexico.

Whether or not the media has unfairly targeted Vásquez Mota is not of my concern, nor should it be her party’s. It seems party members have realized that an 18-point deficit is something to be concerned about, because they unveiled a new team of advisors and campaign strategy this week. Many of the new advisors are members of Calderon’s inner circle, including the aforementioned Ernesto Cordero, who has joined the campaign as a strategist. The PAN’s efforts extend beyond showing that the party has coalesced around Vásquez Mota. One of her campaign aides has said that the campaign will place more emphasis on social media and grass-roots initiatives to improve contact with Mexican citizens.

With the election less than three months away, will a more unified and better-organized campaign prove effective? I believe that it will make a difference, but not 18% of voters worth of difference. Voters will not forget the rookie mistakes made by Vásquez Mota’s campaign. She also faces the daunting task of carrying the PAN banner, while needing to differentiate herself from Calderon’s unpopular war against the DTOs. Vásquez Mota has named a special campaign coordinator to address the concerns and needs of family members of those kidnapped or killed by the DTOs, but, in my opinion, all of this will prove to be too little, too late.

The PRI dominated the Mexican presidency for 71 years, until 2000. As such, they have a superior organizational structure compared to their rivals, the PAN and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRI primary was also more of beauty contest. It was widely known that their eventually nominee would be Enrique Peña Nieto. Therefore, the PRI had a lot more time to structure its general election campaign and refine Peña Nieto’s message. The Vásquez Mota campaign has a lot of ground to make up, and I am glad to see it is making the effort, but realistically, I believe it will succeed. Ironically, this election and the dysfunctional Vásquez Mota campaign should provide lessons for the PAN and PRD if they wish to prevent Mexico from slipping back into a one-party system.

– Max Rava

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