CEPR: Risk of Deceptions in Venezuelan Referendum

There is a significant risk that fraudulent polls and other deceptions will be used to challenge the results of Venezuela’s referendum, if proposed constitutional reforms are approved this Sunday, according to Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) economist and Co-Director Mark Weisbrot.

"The international media has not always exercised due diligence in its reporting on polling data and elections in Venezuela," said Weisbrot, who has authored papers on previous elections there.

"This opens up the possibility for the use of fake polling, as was done in the last (2004) referendum, to cast doubt on the results if the proposed constitutional reforms are approved," he said.

In 2004, the influential U.S. polling firm Penn, Schoen, and Berland published fake exit polls on the day of the Presidential recall referendum, showing President Hugo Chávez losing by a 59-41 margin.(1) The actual results, which were certified by observer missions from the Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center, showed the opposite, with Chávez winning by a margin of 58 to 41 percent.(2)

The fake exit polls were not the only dubious polls that plagued the last referendum. Most of the pre-election polls in 2004 showed the race "too close to call." Although these were conducted by opposition pollsters, most of the international media accepted them in their reporting. As CEPR demonstrated at the time, it is extremely unlikely that a properly conducted poll could have shown a result that was "too close to call."

The election’s credibility was also attacked by a widely-cited statistical paper(3) purporting to show evidence of fraud. CEPR showed that this analysis was deeply flawed and provided no such evidence; the Carter Center later commissioned an independent panel of statisticians from U.S. universities, which confirmed CEPR’s finding and concluded that there was no statistical evidence of fraud.(4)

Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal and some Latin American media outlets used this paper and the fake exit polls to claim that the referendum was actually stolen through a clever electronic fraud.(5)

On this basis of such analysis and fake exit polls, most of the opposition rejected the results of the 2004 referendum, and went on to boycott the 2005 national elections.

In the 2006 Presidential election, Penn, Schoen and Berland once again produced questionable polling data showing the race to be in a " very close" just before the election. Other pollsters, including Zogby International, showed an 18-29 point spread favoring Chávez.(6)  According to the Miami Herald, this led to the sudden departure of Doug Schoen – who was responsible for the Venezuela polling – on the eve of the election.(7) Chávez won the presidency by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.

"The international media’s reporting on the current referendum so far is not encouraging," Weisbrot said. He noted that on November 7th, "almost all of the U.S. and international press reported that pro-Chávez gunmen had fired on a crowd of peaceful protesters returning from a demonstration against the reforms.(8)  We now know that this is not at all what happened."(9)

Weisbrot also noted that the media has given wide coverage to a poll by Datanalisis this week showing a defeat for the proposed reforms.(10) The firm’s longstanding ties to the opposition, and its serious polling errors in the last referendum, were not mentioned in the press.


1 See Rosnick, David. "Polling and the Ballot: The Venezuelan Referendum." Center for Economic and Policy Research. August 2004.

2 Former President Jimmy Carter noted after observing the referendum that the opposition "deliberately distributed this erroneous [Penn, Schoen, and Berland] exit poll data in order to build up, not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line."

3 Hausmann, Ricardo; and Roberto Rigobón. "In Search of the Black Swan: Analysis of the Statistical
Evidence of Electoral Fraud in Venezuela". September 3, 2004. Available

4 The Carter Center. "Observing the Venezuela Presidential Recall Referendum: Comprehensive Report." February 2005. Available here

5 See The Wall Street Journal. "Conned in Caracas." September 9, 2004.

6 Angus Reid Global Monitor: Polls & Research. "Chávez Reaches 60% in Venezuelan Election." November 28, 2006.

7 Gunson, Phil and Steven Dudley. "Sudden change at U.S. polling firm startles Venezuelan opposition." The Miami Herald. December 3, 2006.

8 See e.g., The Associated Press. "Gunfire erupts after Venezuelan students protest Chávez reforms; 8 injured." November 8, 2007; Bloomberg. "Venezuela Students Shot After Anti-Chávez Protest." November 7, 2007.

9 See the video (from opposition Globovision TV) and the Wall Street Journal report, Lyons, John and José de Córdoba, "To Oppose Chávez, Youth In Caracas Rally Behind Stalin," November 24, 2007, indicating that shots were fired by people who came to rescue pro-Chávez students trapped in a building that a crowed of anti-Chávez students had surrounded and set fire to. While all the details of the incident may never be known, it is clear that media reports describing the repression of peaceful demonstrators were inaccurate and created a powerful false impression.

10 See Starchevich, Johann. "Venezuelan leader accuses US of funding campaign to oust him." Agence France Presse. July 11, 2004. "A previous poll released in June by Datanalisis showed Chávez losing 42.6 percent 57.4 percent."

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) is an independent, nonpartisan think tank that was established to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives.