The 2015 Presidential Race in Argentina: A “Change” Election?

This is a guest post by Ezequiel González Ocantos and Luis Schiumerini, University of Oxford

In October 2011 President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner monopolized the Argentine electorate, securing 54% of the popular vote and with it a second term in office. Her victory was in many ways overwhelming: she won in almost all of the country’s municipalities; the distance with the runner up was over 30 per cent; and her allies secured comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress. Yet four years later, in October 2015, Fernández’s faction of the Peronist Party, in power since 2003, suffered a reversal of fortune. Not only did the government’s candidate and governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, fail to win in the first round, but his runner up, Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires and non-Peronist challenger, Mauricio Macri, finished the race dangerously close (36.86 vs. 34.33%). Macri won in 5 provinces, and put into question Peronists’ hegemony over some of their traditional bastions. Most notably, his coalition defeated Peronism in the strategic battle over the governorship of the largest, richer and politically influential province: the Province of Buenos Aires.

These results were unexpected. Kirchnerism had emerged from the primary elections held in August 2015 in relatively good shape, winning almost 40 per cent of the popular vote and defeating Macri’s coalition by nearly a 10 per cent margin.[1] These numbers made Scioli and his followers highly optimistic about their chances of victory in the upcoming October election; they were indeed very close to meeting the requirements of the less demanding of the two Constitutional paths to a first round win.[2] So what happened between August and October 2015? More importantly, what happened between 2011 and 2015 to reduce the odds of Peronist continuity? What are the implications of last Sunday’s election for the future of party politics in Argentina? Who will win the presidency in the November runoff?

The Emergence of Credible Challengers

The last four years of Kirchnerist rule in Argentina were very different from the first eight. After her resounding victory in 2011, President Fernández had to deal with much lower rates of economic growth, much higher levels of inflation, a pronounced devaluation of the currency, a partial default on the country’s foreign debt, and high profile corruption scandals involving the president’s inner circle. In times of economic decline or stagnation, voters asked to make evaluations of incumbent performance are more likely to distance themselves from the President. Moreover, it is in this type of context that corruption scandals are more likely to become a relevant factor in voters’ decision making functions. But as Figure 1 shows, even though voters became increasingly concerned about the economy, trust in Fernández’s government remained stable and at acceptable levels all throughout her second term. Although trust in her administration regressed to the mean after the October 2011 honeymoon, it never plummeted and even recovered in the months prior to Sunday’s election. Given this stability in the government’s popularity, it makes sense to ask why the impetus for change suddenly gained momentum during the first round of the 2015 presidential race.

Figure 1. Trust in Cristina Fernández’s Government (2011-2015)

Fig1Source: Índice de confianza en el gobierno. Universidad Torcuato Di Tella

Voters do not make prospective or retrospective evaluations in a political vacuum. These calculations are only electorally relevant in so far as citizens are able to compare the incumbent with credible challengers. One of the reasons why Fernández obliterated the opposition in 2011 was that the latter lacked credibility, strength and political capital. It remained highly fragmented, fielded tickets with little downward integration (e.g. presidential candidates were not matched with strong gubernatorial ones), and lacked effective leadership. For example, the runner-up in 2011, Hermes Binner, belonged to a party with limited territorial reach, no political infrastructure in the all-important Province of Buenos Aires, few relevant coalition partners, and no parliamentary influence. It is likely that most voters did not even consider not voting for the government, or voting strategically to bolster the chances of one of the many opposition candidates.

The situation in 2015 was quite different. In addition to a continuing deteriorating economic situation, voters were now offered two alternatives to the incumbent, which were credible and counted with effective forms of partisan, territorial, and leadership capital. In this context, prospective and retrospective evaluations acquired a new meaning and electoral significance.

The main non-Peronist challenger was Cambiemos (Let’s Change), a coalition between the historic Radical Party, Macri’s PRO and the Civil Coalition, the latter two formed after the 2001 economic and political crisis. The Radical Party provided a nationwide territorial presence and subnational campaign resources such as militants, surrogates, candidates, and crucially, election monitors. Macri provided the Radical Party with what they lacked, i.e. a leader with a well-known record in office and reputation for managerial competence. Cambiemos was able to field competitive candidates in several gubernatorial and mayoral races, generating the potential for positive coattails up and down the ticket. Although the incentives to coalesce around Macri were obviously bolstered by economic decline and higher —though not high— levels of discontent with the government, in early 2015 it was by no means obvious that a broad opposition coalition would emerge. The fact that several key members of the non-Peronist camp overcame coordination problems, as well as personal and ideological differences to form Cambiemos was a crucial development leading up to a close first round result. The presence of Cambiemos in the ballot made it possible for citizens to express their discontent by voting for a credible alternative, one with governability potential.

The presence of Sergio Massa as a viable second challenger added nuance to what would otherwise have been a polarized election. Massa, Fernandez’s former chief of staff, also cultivated a reputation for managerial competence during his tenure as mayor of Tigre, a highly visible municipality in the the Province of Buenos Aires. Unlike Macri, Massa had the added value of being a Peronist, providing an alternative for his co-partisans disaffected with Kirchnerism. This position allowed Massa to defeat Peronism in the 2013 legislative elections in the strategic Province of Buenos Aires and placed him as a credible Presidential candidate. While Massa’s inability to differentiate himself from Macri and the defection of some key allies to Scioli’s camp weakened his candidacy, he remained an electorally relevant player, polling around 20 per cent. A crucial element in Massa’s bid for the presidency was the support of José Manuel de la Sota, the leader of Peronism in the second largest province, Córdoba.

Campaign Effects and Realignments

This three-way yet weakly polarized scenario opened space both for campaign strategies to shape voter choice and also for preferences to change over the course of the campaign. Given the government’s enduring popularity, and Scioli’s high approval ratings in the Province of Buenos Aires, Macri’s campaign avoided an outright ideological confrontation with left-leaning President Fernández. Instead he focused on occupying the center ground. His rhetoric deemphasized programmatic differences and highlighted instead valence issues such as the need for “another way of doing politics.” Backed by a strong record governing the City of Buenos Aires, the message offered disenchanted voters technocratic competence in the face of bad performance in several key areas of the national administration, and a different, more moderate style of government. Given the centrist strategy adopted by Macri, Massa opted for more polarizing rhetoric. To do so, he moved to the right on security issues and politicized corruption in Fernández’s administration that had become a very visible issue in the public debate.

Scioli had a more difficult terrain to navigate as he both needed to appeal to Kirchneristas and non-Kirchneristas. Support from the Kirchnerista coalition was lukewarm, as Scioli was perceived as too moderate and willing to compromise on key stances held by Fernández. In order to appease these concerns, he accepted the imposition of a Kirchnerist hardliner as a running mate, but also sought to signal that he was his own man. For example, he announced a cabinet dominated by non-Kirchnerists, and used his surrogates to indicate his intention to reach an agreement with holdout creditors. This ambiguity was also apparent in his campaign slogans, which combined non-ideological appeals to values such as ‘hope’ and ‘hard work’, with statements in favor of extending Fernández’s interventionist economic policies. It is likely that this ambiguous strategy backfired, as it cemented Scioli’s electoral ceiling by tying him to the government’s supporters and not bringing new voters to his camp.

When comparing the results of the primaries with those of the first round, it is possible to see that these campaign strategies were accompanied by critical shifts in voter preferences, leading to a greater concentration of opposition voters around Macri. At the end of the day, Scioli lost over two percentage points (36.86%), Macri gained almost 4 (34.33%), and Massa managed to add some decimal points to his non-trivial performance in the primaries (21.34%). These results prevented a first round Scioli victory, ended the momentum behind his candidacy, and transformed Macri into the new favorite.

Figure 2. Macri’s Vote Share at the Section Level. Primary vs. First Round

Fig2Through a complex balancing act, Macri made inroads into two segments of the electorate. First, the pledge not to undo some of Kirchnerism’s most popular statist policies allowed Macri to lure voters who despite being unsatisfied with the performance of the government still support the main pillars of its economic policies. The second source of growth came from voters ideologically opposed to the government, who solved their coordination problem by shifting from Massa to Cambiemos. Both components can be illustrated by looking at changes in vote share across the electoral districts or departments that make up 6 provinces representative of Macri’s overall performance (Figure 2) [3] Observations above the dashed 45-degree line indicate that Macri improved his performance relative to the primaries, while observations below it suggest that his vote share declined.

The case of Córdoba stands out. Home to the second largest electorate in the country, Macri averaged a 15 percent vote share surplus in the province. This allowed him to improve his performance in every single district. Córdoba exemplifies two key components of Macri’s growth. First, this growth came at the expense of Massa, who suffered a net vote share loss in every provincial district.[4] Second, Macri’s success reflects the defection of the rural vote from Massa’s coalition. Ideologically opposed to Kirchnerism, the so-called gringos displayed a text-book example of strategic voting, abandoning Massa for Macri, who had a clearer shot at the presidency. Macri’s success with the rural vote went beyond Córdoba, and extended to provinces such as Santa Fé and Entre Ríos, where Cambiemos lost in the primaries but won in the first round.

Ultimately it was the Province of Buenos Aires, home to 40 percent of the electorate, that enabled Macri to translate his growth in the interior of the country into a higher national vote share. Out of the impressive 1,591,268 additional votes that Cambiemos received on Sunday’s first round, 520,870 (33 percent) came from the Province of Buenos Aires. Though not as big a gap as that observed in Córdoba, Figure 2 shows that Macri improved his vote share in most districts across the province.[5]

If Buenos Aires exemplifies how Macri was able to penetrate the metropolitan component of Peronism’s core constituency by winning key municipalities in the Greater Buenos Aires region, the Province of Tucumán illustrates his ability also to damage Peronism in its less developed Northern core. This was perhaps the least anticipated aspect of the dealignment process observed between August and October. Macri’s success in Tucumán is in part explained by the scandal surrounding the gubernatorial election held in September 2015, in which the Kirchnerist incumbent party won by a confortable margin. Allegations of fraud led to a sustained cycle of protest against the provincial executive and to a lower court ruling invalidating the election. These exceptional circumstances are likely to have persuaded opposition voters to coalesce around Macri, a phenomenon not observed in neighboring provinces such as Salta and Jujuy. But the fact that he did so well in the largest of the northeastern Peronist bastions certainly contributed to his nation-wide growth.

Figure 3. Massa’s Vote Share at the Section Level. Primacy vs First Round.

Fig3Turning to Massa, Figure 3 confirms that Macri’s crucial growth in Córdoba is explained by Massa’s debacle. Yet, Massa managed to compensate the losses inflicted by Macri by making inroads in the two core constituencies of Peronism: the urban areas of the Province of Buenos Aires, and the Northern provinces. Indeed, Massa improved his performance in most sections of the province of Buenos Aires. His growth in the northern region was even more impressive. Unlike Macri, who only improved in Tucumán, Massa exhibited a substantial increase in this province as well as in Salta and Jujuy, where he won the race.

Figure 4. Scioli’s Vote Share at the Section Level. Primary vs. First Round.

Fig4Macri and Massa’s growth obviously came at the expense of Scioli (Figure 4). The largest portion of his decline in vote share is accounted for by the results in the Province of Buenos Aires, where both of his challengers made substantial inroads. His reversal of fortune was particularly surprising in the northern provinces where extreme poverty, voters’ reliance on public employment, and other forms of clientelism normally create buffers that shield the incumbent Peronist vote. Interestingly, like Macri, Scioli also improved his performance in Córdoba, but this was not enough to counter losses in other provinces.

Political scientists often distinguish between two causal forces that shape vote choice during electoral campaigns. The so-called fundamentals are the structural variables that shape the preferences of voters regardless of campaign dynamics, such as economic performance, class, region, and partisanship. Campaign effects, on the other hard, include the processes that unravel as a result of the events and strategies deployed during the course of the campaign, and that end up influencing vote choice. The Argentine electoral campaign thus far has shown how fundamentals and campaign effects complement each other. Campaign dynamics meant that many voters were yet to be persuaded by Macri’s message when they cast a ballot in the primary elections. The fundamentals still biased them against the risks entailed by a change in government, opting either for Scioli or for less competitive opposition candidates. Come the first round of the general election, Macri’s move to the center, the increasing doubts about Scioli’s ideological commitment to either Kirchnerism or anti-Kirchnerism, corruption scandals, and a series of events that underscored the deterioration of the economic situation, persuaded many voters to jump ship.

Who will win in November?

Some may argue that, notwithstanding Macri’s successful balancing act, his chances of winning the runoff are slim. In this sense it is important to note that Massa stole votes from both core constituencies of the traditional Peronist coalition: the metropolitan low income voters of the province of Buenos Aires (and other big cities), and the state-dependent voters of the northern provinces. A phrase famously attributed to Perón comes to mind: “For a Peronist there is nothing better than a fellow Peronist.” This would suggest that those voters who left Kirchnerism for Massa will come back to Scioli once the runoff pits him against a non-Peronist like Macri. Meanwhile, Macri has exhausted his growth potential after stealing all the rural conservative voters that Massa had to offer.

Although this is an entirely plausible scenario, there is an alternative one, often overlooked in the post-election analysis. It is possible that the above interpretation of the nature and potential behavior of Massa supporters gives too little credit to voters, too much credit to the strength of Peronist party identification, and unwarrantedly assumes that the average Massa voter is a staunch Peronist. First, Massa’s emergence as a viable challenger in 2013, as well as his recent resilience, was based on the articulation of an anti-Kirchnerist message. This suggests that many of those attracted by this rhetoric are voters who strongly dislike the president, her policies and governing style. It would therefore make sense for them to support Macri in the runoff. And those who are Peronists and therefore might be in principle more reticent to vote for Macri are not obviously bound to vote for Scioli in November. It is unclear that on its own the Peronist identity, whatever its content and meaning, is strong enough to change the minds of these individuals who were initially enticed by Massa’s crisp anti-government message.

Figure 5 presents public opinion data collected by the Argentine Panel Election Study in July 2015. Of those who expressed support for Massa, 31% evaluated Fernández’s administration poorly or very poorly, and 33% thought it was neither good nor bad. This distribution is not very different from that observed among Macri supporters. Although somewhat dated, these figures suggest that Cambiemos has potential for growth among those who voted for Massa in the first round.

Figure 5. Evaluations of Fernandez’s Administration Among Macri and Massa’s Voters

Fig5Source: Argentina Panel Election Study 2015, First Wave.

There is also the issue of valence. On the one hand, the substantial and uniform growth of Macri in the most populated provinces suggests that being a credible, competent manager matters to voters. Moreover, Macri has also benefited from a valence shock by virtue of winning the narrative about the outcome of the first round and showing that he can credibly beat Kirchnerism. Cambiemos may have narrowly lost the war, but so far it has won the peace. This is not only due to Macri’s unexpected performance, but also to the fact that his coalition won the governorship of the Province of Buenos Aires, the quintessential Peronist bastion. In this context, it wouldn’t be surprising if non-Macri voters updated their valence evaluations after observing that many of their compatriots have already done so in favor of Cambiemos. This is true even for Scioli supporters. It is reasonable to assume that Scioli’s non-trivial 36.86% of the vote is not solely made up of hardcore Kirchnerists, but also includes voters who supported him because of his moderation and his experience governing the largest province in the country. It wouldn’t be surprising if a non-negligible portion of these voters were to re-think their vote ahead of the November ballot.

Given these two plausible scenarios, the outcome of the runoff remains uncertain. But regardless of who wins in November, the 2015 electoral cycle could have far reaching political consequences. In particular, it has enabled non-Peronist parties to make unexpected inroads into Peronist stongholds. Although Peronists still control most of the provinces and enjoy a considerable advantage in both chambers of Congress, their territorial grip over the most populous areas of the country is not as firm as it used to be in the years following the 2001 debacle, which led to profound imbalances between Peronists and non-Peronists. In 2015 the Radicals won two important governorships, a myriad of provincial capitals and many small municipalities. Similarly, Macri’s PRO, initially a highly personalistic party circumscribed to the City of Buenos Aires, will now control the two most visible and resourceful subnational executives, i.e. the Province and City of Buenos Aires. PRO candidates were also extremely close to winning the governorships of large provinces such as Santa Fé and Entre Ríos, further consolidating the party’s potential for territorial expansion and institutionalization. If Macri wins the presidency it is likely that this trend will continue, with important implications for the structure of Argentina’s party system. Because of these developments, this may well have been the last election of a political cycle dominated by the legacies of the 2001 crisis.

[1] According to Argentina’s electoral law, all candidates must participate in a primary, even if they face no internal competition. The party as a whole must surpass a vote share threshold in order to be allowed to compete in the Presidential race. In August 2015 Scioli participated in an uncontested primary, whereas the other two main presidential hopefuls, Macri and the leader of the anti-Kirchnerist faction of the Peronist Party, Sergio Massa, competed against their respective challengers to secure the nomination.

[2] Victory can be achieved by winning 40% of the vote with a 10% margin of victory, or by wining 45% of the vote, regardless of the margin of victory.

[3] Departamentos are aggregate electoral precincts comparable to US counties. Though in some provinces they overlap with municipal boundaries, in others they do not serve any administrative or institutional purpose. Here we use the words sections and districts interchangeably.

[4] In the primaries Massa competed against Córdoba’s incumbent governor, José M. De la Sota. In August their combined vote share in Córdoba was larger than that of Cambiemos and Scioli..

[5] Because Buenos Aires also exhibited a uniform increase in turnout, these vote share increases at the district level led to net increases in the national vote share.

The authors want to thank Andy Tow (http://www.andytow.com/), Pablo Celayes (@PCelayes), and Andréz Vázquez (@avdata99) for their generous help getting departamento level electoral results.

Ezequiel Gonzalez Ocantos (Ph.D. Notre Dame, 2012) is Associate Professor in the Qualitative Study of Comparative Political Institutions in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow in Nuffield College. His research focuses on the determinants of judicial behavior in cases of state repression. In particular, he studies how the diffusion of international legal ideas by local activists changes the way judges and prosecutors in Latin America perceive these cases and the legal viability of ruling against impunity. His book manuscript “Shifting Legal Visions: Judicial Change and Human Rights Trials in Latin America” is currently under advanced contract with Cambridge University Press. His work on this and other topics has appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Politics and Comparative Political Studies and The International Journal of Human Rights. Gonzalez Ocantos received APSA’s 2013 Edward S. Corwin Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the field of Public Law.

Luis Schiumerini is a Post-doctoral Prize Research Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, and received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 2015. His book project examines the causes of incumbency advantage and disadvantage in developing democracies. In other research, he studies preferences for redistribution and mass protests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *