Eppur si muove?

by Henry Farrell on April 10, 2006

So it looks as though the Italian right has done “rather better”:http://news.ft.com/cms/s/ca24d172-c8aa-11da-b642-0000779e2340.html than the pundits (myself included) were predicting. Funnily enough, the exit polls, which predicted a substantial victory for the left, “were badly off-target”:http://www.repubblica.it/2006/04/sezioni/politica/elezioni-2006-7/altalena-dati/altalena-dati.html. With 60,794 out of 60,828 polling districts declaring, the left seems to have won the Camera by a margin of 25,000-40,000 votes, and is likely to win the Senate by a hair, once the votes from expatriates come in (see “here”:http://www.repubblica.it/speciale/2006/elezioni/senato/index.html for a nice flash animation of where those expatriate votes are going). The right is “calling for a recount”:http://www.repubblica.it/2006/04/sezioni/politica/elezioni-2006-7/unione-dichiara-vittoria/unione-dichiara-vittoria.html, but probably more because it wants to destabilize the left than because it thinks it’s likely to change the results. Under Italy’s new electoral system, even a knife-edge victory in the Camera should provide the left with a working majority, but it’s unlikely to get much done, because the Senate is just as powerful, and the coalition’s room for manoeuvre there is likely to be narrow indeed.

As all the pundits are lamenting, this means stalemate in the short run. Neither side is likely to give in – each thinks it has won. The left think that they’ve pulled off a victory, albeit one that’s far closer than they had hoped for, under circumstances where the broadcast media and the electoral rules were blatantly rigged against them. The right think that they’ve managed to stem the red tide, and deserve to hold onto power – they’ll be prolonging the agony as long as they can. Neither will concede easily.

We’re also likely to see increased pressures towards fragmentation in each coalition. Neither group of parties was precisely happy before the election. Prodi’s neck was already being measured for the chopping block, just as in the 1990’s when he was kicked upstairs to the EU Presidency thanks to the machinations of d’Alema and Cossiga. I suspect that he’s soon going to succumb to the siren call of academe (rector of some university perhaps) or of private sector opportunities. Rifondazione Comunista, a grim lot even as semi-reformed Stalinists go, are going to start getting restive, and the various opportunistic chancers among the left parties are likely to start feeling their oats. But Berlusconi isn’t much more secure than Prodi is – the Northern League has been getting increasingly truculent and may well calculate that under new circumstances it’s better off outside pissing in. On the one hand, Berlusconi can claim that he clawed back the result to a draw through the virulent ramping up of rhetoric in the last couple of weeks. On the other, he’s becoming increasingly radioactive. Even Confindustria – as right wing and self-interested a claque of capitalists as you’re likely to find – has made it clear that he’s a liability and an embarrassment.

Predictions as to what’s likely to happen over the next few months? My best guesses, in decreasing order of probability would be (1) A shaky left coalition that will hold out for a few months to a year. (2) failure to create a stable government, leading to new elections followed by a short lived right wing government under Berlusconi (I suspect that the left has taken its best shot in this round), which then collapses in on itself, creating a new crisis (3) new elections, but with no clear result, leading to stalemate and a caretaker government of technocrats appointed by the president, (4) breakdown of the opposing coalitions, and a return to the opera buffa of strange bedfellows coalition governments that were typical of Italy up to the early 1990s, with Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia likely being excluded. But really, your guess is probably as good as mine at this stage – it’s all up in the air.

Update: revisions made following discovery of new info on _La Repubblica_ after first draft was posted.



roger 04.11.06 at 12:23 am

There are few solid rules in politics, but one of them has become the following: a Slate prediction that you are going to win means inevitable defeat. Slate’s article praising Prodi’s campaign as something the Dems might model themselves after, last week, put a fork in the man as surely as Slate’s famous article claiming, in 2000, that Bush had a fork in him took his out. Slate has become, in fact, one of the great institutions of our time. No composite of factoid and prejudice is really viable as Conventional Wisdom until Saletan has given it his seal of approval. With Micky Kaus holding down the blog, Hitchens wildly revising the history of the past five years with every improbable column, and the inimitable Jacob Weisberg playing the David Broderish wise old man with ne’er an original idea in his head, or a non-stale breath in his mouth, I think Slate has truly become the Joe Lieberman of webmagazines — a factory of failed predictions and upward mobility.

Poor Italy. They little knew how cursed they were, last week.


bad Jim 04.11.06 at 2:52 am

At least Berlusconi didn’t win.


abb1 04.11.06 at 4:49 am

Nah, The New Republic is Joe Lieberman, Slate is more like John Kerry or something.


DC 04.11.06 at 8:39 am

Funny, as the campaign went on, and all Berlusconi’s ridiculousness was went over again, I found myself thinking very cynical thoughts about the possibility of a divergence between polls – exit polls even – and counted votes…

How on earth did he manage to hold his government together for the full term?


theorajones 04.11.06 at 8:58 am

Why do divergences from exit polls and actual results seem to never favor people on the left, and always favor people on the right?

Or is it an incumbency/challenger thing and not an ideological thing. How much of that has to do with ineffective polling, and how much of it is explained by the fact that incumbents are in charge of the vote-counting?

Ah, the puzzles of life…


P O'Neill 04.11.06 at 9:44 am

Why do divergences from exit polls and actual results seem to never favor people on the left, and always favor people on the right?

With his coglioni remark and ruminations on phone sex, Silvio was doing a good job of deterring perhaps just a small percentage of people from telling pollsters they were voting for him, just enough to throw off the polls given how tight the actual margin was. But there does seem to be something systematic about poll bias and conservatives.


Steve 04.11.06 at 10:14 am

Why do divergences from exit polls and actual results seem to never favor people on the left, and always favor people on the right?

Because journalists and polsters are overwhelmingly of the left, and thus bias or spin their poll results in an attempt to sway public opinion. In America, polls routinely oversample democrats by a preposterous margin, thus giving a false impression of the overall political views of the country.

Its a tradeoff (for both the Left and the Right). On the one hand, I’m sure it must work to a certain extent-spinning polls must help shape public opinion to some degree. On the other hand, the disadvantage of having an inaccurate understanding of the political views of the country (similar to the “Nixon couldn’t have won-I don’t know anybody that voted for him” mentality) must have a negative impact on the electoral effectiveness of the Left. So the Left is trading Spin for Understanding.

I personally think its wonderful-while its not so good having a biased media, the tradeoff of having an ill-informed and politically ineffective Left is worth it.



abb1 04.11.06 at 10:35 am

Steve, they can spin results of a poll, but how is it possible to spin the result of an exit poll? I’m not an expert, but it seems that with the exit polls it’s just straight math, no spin is possible.


dave heasman 04.11.06 at 10:59 am

“it seems that with the exit polls it’s just straight math, no spin is possible”

I’ve not seen broken-down results, but Berlusconi has usually had a big majority in Sicily, for obvious reasons. How about as well as being told who to vote for, people were also told what to say to the exit polls?


Steve 04.11.06 at 11:04 am

I guess I don’t know what an exit poll is-I assume pollsters go to people leaving the polling station and ask them who they voted for?

So pollsters, in a country that is roughly 45% Left, 45% Right, and 10% Independent, go to recent voters, and poll 55% Left, 30% Right, and 15% Independent (say, by going to voting stations in traditional Left neighborhoods). Will this be evidence of the views of the country, or evidence of the views of the subset of people who pollsters asked questions of?

There is also bias within the polled community itself. What if the percent of people who decline to answer questions is biased in one way or another (for whatever reason, say higher numbers of the Right chose not to talk to journalists). This will also bias the sample and thus alter the connect between the polled population and the total population (this is a significant problem with telephone polls; often it takes several calls for each successful call. If, say 7 out of 8 people chose not to talk to a pollster, how well does that 1/8th reflect the views of the other 7/8ths?



Thomas 04.11.06 at 11:22 am

It would be good to recall that the exit polls in Venezuela’s recall referendum went against Chavez, but the final results were in his favor.


Ben Alpers 04.11.06 at 11:24 am

Does Italy use paper ballots?

If not, who makes the machines? Is the software open source or proprietary?


roger 04.11.06 at 11:39 am

Thomas, really? I believe the Venezuelan opposition’s private exit polls gave them a lead — but no non-partisan exit poll did.


Gar Lipow 04.11.06 at 11:58 am

I find myself wondering about voting machines as well.


Steve 04.11.06 at 12:32 pm

It’s mostly paper ballots, Ben.


nick s 04.11.06 at 12:39 pm

How on earth did he manage to hold his government together for the full term?

Triumph of personality (or rather, ego) over policy.

The regional distinctions are interesting, though I haven’t seen party breakdowns: Berlusconi stayed strong in Sicily (often considered something of a bellwether) with 57% for CdF and across the rural, conservative south; Prodi cleaned up in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and the industrial north, getting close to 60% for the Unione.

What’s somewhat amusing is that the winner-takes-lots electoral law change for the Camera appears to have bitten Berlusconi on the behind.


nick s 04.11.06 at 12:41 pm

On the other hand, the disadvantage of having an inaccurate understanding of the political views of the country (similar to the “Nixon couldn’t have won-I don’t know anybody that voted for him” mentality) must have a negative impact on the electoral effectiveness of the Left.

Uh, the polls post-2000 made it look as if far more people voted for Bush than actually did. (Though I’ll predict that by 2009, you won’t find many people admitting they voted for him.) But please, remain content in your expertly-knitted fantasy.


abb1 04.11.06 at 1:21 pm

Steve, my impression is that an exit poll is taking at most or all polling stations. Anyway, here’s wikipedia article on exit polls for 2004 election in the US.


jet 04.11.06 at 1:28 pm

That article backs up Steve? Were you disagreeing with him?


Brian Boru 04.11.06 at 1:31 pm

I think this shows how fair proportional representation really is. In a Straight-Vote scenario where the vote is this close in the popular vote, the people who come second could have won the most seats.


abb1 04.11.06 at 2:05 pm

I’m saying that if you exit-poll all the polling stations, then there’s no way to spin anything – what you see is what you get. Let’s say you simply ask every 10th person coming out of every polling station how they vote – that’s it, that’s your result.

Sure, if the right-wingers are more likely to refuse to answer (which I doubt), that may be a flaw, but it’s not a spin.


Thomas 04.11.06 at 2:15 pm

Roger, the exit polling was done by a reputable US polling firm. The firm is headed by Mark Penn, who did polling for Bill Clinton. My understanding is that it wasn’t a partisan poll, though those who funded it likely were opposed to Chavez.


Cala 04.11.06 at 2:59 pm

Exit polls may vary from the overall result due to *when* the data are taken, too. Assuming that voting patterns shake out along age, class, & race lines, a poll taken at 10am may well sample a separate demographic (eager voters, students who can wait in the mornings, stay at home moms) than a poll taken at 6pm (workers, undecideds, businessmen).

Spin’s a convenient explanation, but not the most likely here, I think.


roger 04.11.06 at 3:12 pm

Thomas, I thought the objection was that exit polling was carried out by members of the very group that opposed Chavez, employed by Penn. In contrast to which, the Europeans and Jimmy Carter certified the election as fair — or as fair as Venezuelan elections get.


dario 04.11.06 at 7:56 pm

About polling: exit polls were done on select demographics, at select polling stations, and the voters were asked to replicate, secretly (and – quite obvious – anonymously) the vote they had cast a few minutes before.

Now, the psychological aspect of it: pollers are (mistakenly, in my opinion) seen from part of the centre-right voters as organic to that system of newspapers and media that, in Berlusconi’s words, is more or less controlled by the left and is against them.

(The fact that Berlusconi directly owns or controls most of the media in Italy seems to be irrelevant – beats me)

So centre-right voters tend to give fake answer to exit polls, and this brings in fake results. This is not a first.

Another point is: no statistics performed on however large a sample could fall within the .1 or .01 percent range, which seems to have marked the centre-left coalition victory.

That is, if nothing murky shows up in the next few hours/days.


Walt 04.11.06 at 10:04 pm

Someone who seriously argues that the Italian media is biased against Berlusconi can be safely ignored on all subjects.


john b 04.12.06 at 2:13 am

Re #26 – also s/Italian/USA-an, s/Berlusconi/Bush.


goatchowder 04.12.06 at 5:31 am

I’ll cast my lot with the anonymity explanation.

Voting is supposed to be ANONYMOUS. What’s with the exit polls? Some stranger wants to know who I voted for? >, l’ho detto.

This is common in advertising– it’s related to denial in addictive behaviour too. When you directly manipulate people’s emotions, as right-wing demogogues like the Berlusconi and Bush machines do– the voter’s forebrain *knows* that voting for Wingnut A is wrong, but they just can’t stop themselves. It’s like eating at McDonald’s: you know it’s bad for you, but you do it anyway, and then you deny it or rationalise it later. This is the hallmark of excellent advertising and branding: it gets you to act completely independent of your own enlightened best interests, and leaves you to splutter excuses and denials afterwards. (I think this is a lot of what “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was trying to convey, too.)

Good market research (and, IIRC, good psychological research) measures only the actual physical behaviour of the experimental subject. “Self-report” data (like, um, exit polls) is considered wildly unreliable, and in direct proportion to the effectiveness of the marketing work under test.

I’ll offer that my humble explanation might be helpful in understanding this week in Italy, Blair’s survival last year, and the American elections of 2000, 2002, and 2004. It’s all about FEAR– or any other simian emotion strong enough to trump actual cognition in a vast swath of the electorate. If the Democrats don’t get their grand rhetoric on, and learn how to crassly cloy on people’s basest emotions in the manner of Madison Avenue and/or Karl Rove, I predict more of the same for the USA in 2006 and 2008. Alas, and goddamn.


goatchowder 04.12.06 at 5:33 am

Heh, old-skool Italo-quotes don’t agree with HTML interpreters. The retort to the nosey pollster was, “Fatti i gazzi tuoi”, l’ho detto.


soru 04.12.06 at 7:02 am

I think there is a strong correlation between innacurate exit polls and large and not especially economically credible tax cuts – the kind of situation where the average voter will think ‘I don’t really think that is good for the nation, but, hey, it will buy me a TV’.

The only way for pollsters to reproduce the results would be for them to bribe people to vote a certain way too.


abb1 04.12.06 at 8:40 am

I don’t think Berlusconi is considered a wingnut in Italy. Somehow his painting himself as a victim worked; many Italians seem to view him as a victim of relentless politically motivated attacks. Also, the ever present North-South hostility plays a role; many people in the North feel grotesquely over-taxed for the benefit of the lazy Southerners. Also, some left-wing parties seem insane – and your voting for democratic socialists will result in a coalition that includes left-wing radicals.

This is a bit more complicated than it looks.


Phil 04.12.06 at 11:10 am

Prodi’s majority in the Senate is small, and there are going to be a lot of votes that divide his coalition. I don’t think this is necessarily means his government’s doomed, though, as a lot of these issues will be just as divisive for the opposition, who were fighting like rats in a sack even before the election. When you add the divisive effects of failure, I think major splits are far more likely on the Right than on the Left.

That said, I see the Lega more as a spoiler on issues they don’t like the sound of than as a coalition-breaker, if only because of Bossi’s personal relationship with Berlusconi. I’d be looking more towards some kind of realignment of the post-Christian Democrat ‘centre’: Casini (UDC, centre-right) already seems to have a better relationship with Rutelli (Margherita, centre-left) than with Berlusconi. If Prodi can split the UDC (and keep the Left on board), he’s home and dry. Equally, if the Margherita splits from the Unione to refound the DC, Prodi really is doomed – but I think that’s a fairly low-probability outcome.

The problem for the Left will be caution. When they were last in power they spent several years trying to get Berlusconi to agree to reduce his media holdings, only to have him turn round and say, No, no, I said I agreed, but I didn’t say I agreed to these terms, what do you take me for? (Apparently he wasn’t negotiating in good faith – who’d have thought it?) I hope they’re a bit more direct about it this time round – as people have been saying on the other thread, attacking Berlusconi’s empire would make life a lot easier for the Left from then on, as well as being the one thing that unites the coalition – but I’m afraid they’ll be trimming to the Right from day one.

Incidentally, Ginsborg is good – gives a bit too much attention to the Guardian-reading wet liberal classes (Unita-reading?) but it’s a minor fault.


roger 04.12.06 at 6:56 pm

Fortune magazine had an interesting article about Berlusconi. I liked these two paragraphs:

“The Prime Minister’s people might be forgiven for acting as if he owns the place. After all, he does. Berlusconi isn’t just Italy’s Prime Minister; he is the country’s richest man, and his business empire includes a 35.5% stake in Mediaset, the television company he founded in 1995 and on whose station he was appearing. Through that ownership and his political control of public TV, Berlusconi holds sway over six of Italy’s seven main TV channels, which together command 87% of the viewing audience.”

And this one:

“Freedom House dropped its rating of press freedom in Italy to the lowest in Western Europe, ranking it alongside Bulgaria, Mongolia, and the Philippines. The closest parallel is Thailand, where Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, another media tycoon turned politician, controlled both public and private stations until he cashed out earlier this year for $1.8 billion.”

It is pretty easy to see why Berlusconi almost took this election.


L 04.15.06 at 12:50 am

I’ve heard that British newspapers have figured out how much to push the polls to the right to accurately predict elections, and don’t bother reporting the actual polls. Sorry for no source.

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