2012-04-12 09:00:00

Social Media Impacting Mexican Presidential Contest

MERIDA, Mex. – Social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are upending Mexico’s presidential race. What only months ago had seemed like a foregone conclusion in Mexico – a victory for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), twelve years after being voted out of power in national elections -- is no longer a sure bet.

Last fall, the Spanish newspaper El Pais summed up the conventional wisdom at that time by writing:

“Mexico is preparing for a lengthy campaign that may lead to the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party… The candidate best placed in the starting line, according to all polls, is PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, the young and telegenic governor of the State of Mexico. But his political opponents believe he would also bring about a return of the old regime’s authoritarianism, opacity and corruption that dominated the country for 70 years.”

At the time of the article, Peña was enjoying a 30 percentage-point lead over Josefina Vázquez, the candidate of the ruling National Action Party (PAN). But that was before Vázquez unleashed her social media campaign at the end of 2011. Every month since then (December 2011), Peña’s poll numbers have fallen while Vázquez’s have risen.

By March 2012, just weeks before official campaigns kicked off on April 2, major polls had Vázquez trailing Peña by as little as 7 percentage points -- within striking distance of the margin of error – while others had her trailing by as many as 12 points.

What’s curious is that the aforementioned polls utilized traditional and familiar methodologies, such as phone surveys. But when Vázquez’s popularity is measured by social media -- the number of Tweets, comments on Facebook and hits on Youtube her campaign is generating -- she is surging.

What accounts for the social media buzz around the Vázquez candidacy? The two most significant factors may be demographics and gender.

The PAN smartly emphasized the fact that Vázquez is the first woman ever to be nominated for president by a major party in Mexico. In response, women all over the country, long disillusioned and marginalized by the Mexican political system, are coming forward to support her candidacy. And they need look no further than to South America for proof that the gender ceiling in Latin American politics can be breached. Brazil and Argentina both have elected female presidents.

In addition, the PAN is actively courting younger voters. PAN president Gustavo Madero went so far as to decorate his Twitter account with a photograph of Lady Gaga dressed up in blue, the party’s official color. It created a stir, particularly since the PAN is the most conservative of Mexico’s three major political parties.

Also boding well for Vázquez is that with elections only 10 weeks away – Mexicans will go to the polls on July 1 – more than 30 percent of Mexican voters are still undecided. Political pundits believe Vázquez stands to gain the most from that voter bloc.

Nevertheless, Vázquez faces obstacles on the campaign trail. Foremost on the mind of Mexican voters is the War on Drugs, a six-year campaign that has come to define the PAN presidency of Felipe Calderón. The war has become a quagmire – more than 50,000 lives have been lost -- and has left the Mexican people exhausted.

“Mexico is at a crossroads in terms of dealing with organized crime,” said Pamela K. Starr, an expert on Mexican politics at the University of Southern California, in a recent New York Times article. “It’s quite clear that the government absolutely must confront organized crime, and it’s absolutely clear that the Calderón strategy hasn’t worked.”

Mexican voters will be left to decide whether Calderón’s war against the cartels has been, or will eventually be, worth the tremendous loss of life. The presidential hopes of Vazquez rest largely on which way the majority leans on the issue.

Other obstacles to her success may be tied to the recent economic gains of the populace itself. Now a majority middle class country, Mexican voters are beginning to expect more from their slow-moving government bureaucracies, inefficient justice system and an economy that has for decades been dominated by monopolies.

Mexicans expect more of their leaders, too, and have become disillusioned by the pace of change in a democracy characterized by squabbling political parties. To that end, neither Enrique Peña nor Josefina Vázquez have offered sufficient plans for how they would work with a divided Congress that seems to take pleasure in undermining the agenda of whichever president is in office, regardless of their party affiliation.

Vazquez’s chances, though, have been greatly helped by her main opponent, Enrique Peña, whose mishaps have become fodder for ridicule on social media sites like Twitter, as well as the mainstream media.

During a publicized trip to the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Peña couldn’t name a single book he’s read. It was Mexico’s version of a Sarah Palin moment (who could forget the image of Palin being interviewed by Katie Couric, unable to name one major newspaper that she reads on a regular basis?) that immediately went viral on Youtube and even spurred a popular video parody.

Not helping matters for the PRI, Twitter doesn’t allow for the tilde (~) over the Spanish letter ñ, so Peña’s name is spelled “Pena” throughout social media. In Spanish, “pena” means “shame,” or something that’s embarrassing. The ensuing puns – that it’s a shame an illiterate like “Pena” is running for office – have rained down in a constant stream on social media sites. The jokes have been used to great effect by Vázquez, a former Minister of Education, to emphasize her opponent’s supposed lack of credentials. Meanwhile, Peña supporters have lashed back, dismissing Vázquez as a “Quinceañera Doll,” roughly analogous to calling her a Barbie doll.

This isn’t to say the Vázquez campaign hasn’t committed it’s own social media gaffs. She recently had to fire an aide who continued to tweet “Tlazcala” instead of the correct spelling “Tlaxcala,” one of Mexico’s states. Social media has also served to amplify the spats and infighting between Vázquez and other PAN figures, exposing rifts within the ruling party, which has hurt her polling numbers. The candidate admits that such media coverage has been counterproductive to her campaign.

"I recognize that it is time to redouble efforts," Vazquez said recently. "We have lost time and been distracted by secondary issues."

It’s a brave new world for candidates in Mexico, and while nobody can predict the outcome, one thing is certain. When the televised debates kick off on May 6, the presidential race being billed as “Pretty Boy” vs. “Quinceañera Doll” will be lighting up Mexican social media networks with a new round of tweets, Youtube clips and Facebook comments.