Student Grant Reports - Trip to Chile

Eli Rau, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science

I traveled to Chile from October 13-24, 2018 to conduct a series of interviews with politicians and their advisors. All interviewees competed (or advised a candidate) for the lower house of the legislature in the November 2017 election. The interviews were focused on campaign strategy, both in the 2017 election and in previous elections as applicable. I conducted a total of ten interviews with members of six different political parties. The party affiliation and position of each interviewee is listed in Table 1.

I conducted four interviews with members of RN, the party of current president Sebasti´an Pin˜era.    I  also  interviewed  two  members  of  UDI  and  one  member  of  Ev´opoli.    RN  and UDI  are  traditional  center-right  parties  that  competed  together  with  Ev´opoli  (founded  in 2012) in the Chile Vamos coalition. I also interviewed one member of the Communist party (competing with the center-left coalition for the second time, after competing alone for the first two decades of post-Pinochet democracy). Finally, I interviewed members of two parties competing in the new Frente Amplio coalition: RD (founded 2012) and the Humanist party (a traditional party of the center-left).

The goal of these interviews was to better understand campaign strategy in Chile under the new proportional system (instituted in 2017) versus the old binomial electoral system (in place from 1989–2013). These interviews will inform a formal model of political competition in open-list electoral systems. They also add to a broader theory of how electoral institutions, operating through parties’ campaign strategies, affect popular participation and attitudes towards parties.

The interviews yielded three main observations. First, candidates were more likely to cooperate with their list-mates under the new electoral system, though they were still likely to compete with their list-mates when there was no clear front-runner. Second, parties generally did not expend any effort on mobilizing new voters, choosing instead to focus exclusively on persuading regular voters to support them over other similar candidates. Third, the exceptions to these observations (candidates that focused on mobilizing new voters or were very cooperative with their list-mates) came from either new parties or older parties that have only recently become competitive.

Under the old binomial system, every district was a two-member district. In order to win both seats in a district, a coalition needed to double the vote share of its competitor (winning approximately 67% of the total vote). This was a rare occurrence, so candidates knew that the only path to victory was to out-perform one’s list-mate. In conversations about the binomial system, respondents repeatedly stressed that the only way to win was to take down one’s list-mate, including by tearing up their campaign signs, burning their campaign materials, or spreading rumors of corruption or criminal activity.

Under the new system, districts range from three to eight seats. Candidates competing under this more traditional proportional system still have incentives to compete with copar- tisans (the system is still open-list), but one can more feasibly cooperate with copartisans. Respondents noted that intra-coalition competition was less intense in the 2017 campaign, but it was still one of the primary forms of competition. Copartisans continued to attack each other in hopes of reaching the top of the list. This intra-party competition was especially prominent in cases where the party had no clear frontrunner in the district. By contrast, in cases where one candidate was certain to out-perform all others in the party by a large margin, candidates were much more likely to cooperate with each other, working to improve the list’s overall performance rather than trying to move up on the list. Candidates in these races cooperated by campaigning together with the party symbol or by assigning territories to each candidate on the list, in order to ensure that the party covered as much ground as possible in large districts. This pattern of cooperation is consistent with the predictions of the formal model.

It is worth noting that the Communist Party (PC) was an exception to this rule. Re- gardless of list dynamics, PC candidates cooperated with copartisans. Rather than running individualistic campaigns with the ultimate goal of getting oneself into office, candidates from the PC prioritized the party’s overall performance. This makes sense in the context of the PC’s history over the past three decades. Until 2013, the center-left coalition (Con- certaci´on)  shut  the  PC  out  of  their  electoral  lists.   Because  the  PC  could  not  compete  in a broad coalition, the party was largely uncompetitive. The PC did not win a single seat in either house of the legislature until 2009, despite competing in every election since 1993. Thus, we should expect that politicians who care more about winning office than advancing a broad ideological project would compete in other parties where they had stronger electoral odds. And those that remained with the PC for decades would be those who care most about the party’s success and are willing to cooperate with their copartisan competitors, even at the cost of individual success on the ballot.

Another dimension of campaign strategy involves voter targeting—what kinds of people do candidates reach out to or shape their messaging around? In general, respondents indi- cated that they do not try to mobilize citizens who haven’t voted in the past. When thinking about where they can win additional votes, candidates focus all of their attention on the approximately 40% of Chileans who regularly vote and try to find voters who may support them. Multiple candidates said that they go “where the voters are.” One candidate observed that this is a nearly universal approach and that it means that those who haven’t voted in the past are generally ignored in the process of policy formation. Their policy preferences do not factor in to candidates’ decisions about their platforms and positions.

I argue that this pattern is a lingering effect of the old electoral system. The binomial system imposed extreme stability on the political system, making seat shares largely insen- sitive to changes in vote shares. Thus, there was little incentive to invest in mobilization efforts. Moreover, under the old system of compulsory voting and voluntary registration (in place through 2010), candidates would need to mobilize voters long before the election, because the “turnout” decision was made at the time of registration, not the time of the election. The common decision not to mobilize new potential voters reflects a lag in strategic updating by parties. The parties developed skills and strategies over the first three decades of democracy that were optimized to the original electoral system, and are still learning under the new system.

Some support for this interpretation comes from the single exception observed: the Ev´opoli  member  interviewed  said  that  the  party  did  try  to  mobilize  new  voters.   Ev´opoli is one of the newest parties, founded in 2012. This party, in contrast to most others in the sample, did not spend decades developing strategies under the old electoral system. The respondent indicated that the most experienced members of the campaign teams had only six years of experience. The party was not made up of people with long careers in politics who wished to move to a different party. It was made up of people who were new to the political scene right around the time that the electoral system was changing, and it was at this time that they developed their campaign tactics.