The Presidential Image: Do Polls Tell the Truth About Gabriel Boric?

Carola López
President Gabriel Boric. Source: BBC

On March 11, 2021, Gabriel Boric won the Chilean presidential election with 55.8% of the votes. Fast forward four months later and recent polls showcase a high level of disapproval –up to 50%– for his administration. It is worth wondering how does Boric, the highest-attaining percentage president in the history of Chile, get such a bad image in only four months of governing? Are polls to be trusted?

Boric’s Road to the Presidency

Gabriel Boric’s election was record-breaking in two aspects: he is the youngest Chilean president in history at 36 years old and the most successful president to have attained a large majority of the votes in the country’s history, with about 8.3 million people voting for Boric.

Although he has been involved in politics since his time at university, it was in 2013 that he was elected as a Member of Parliament for the lower house. In 2020 he tried to run for office, yet, he quickly dropped out of the campaign. The next year, his alliance, Convergencia Social, obtained 25.8% of the votes which took him to a runoff election along with José Antonio Kast from the Partido Republicano – a conservative right-center party. Before the runoff, Boric received public support from ex-Chilean presidents Michelle Bachelet and Ricardo Lagos; as well as, national left-center parties and alliances such as Partido Socialista, Demócrata Cristiano, Liberal, Progresista, Radical, Ecologista Verde, Igualdad, Humanista y Ciudadanos. The historic rise to the presidency of a young politician with a relatively short career in public administration like Boric showed an interesting new perspective on political candidates’ profiles, especially for modern Chilean society that has often been described as traditional and generally uninterested in politics.

Approval/Disapproval for Boric’s administration. Source: LaTercera

Boric’s Current Image

A survey conducted by Cadem highlights a downward trend in relation to president Boric’s image as well as his governing skills. The approval for his administration is at an all-time low (59%) and his leadership abilities became stagnant at 38% of approval while also receiving poor approval rankings for his ability to maintain public order (32%), manage immigration (32%) and to deal with crime (28%).

A similar trend is seen in connection to his cabinet of ministers. The image of his governmental team has a 39% approval rate. It is worth mentioning, however, that this low percentage can be connected to the issues that took place in La Araucanía, which is known for a long and ongoing conflict regarding native American communities –mostly Mapuches– demanding the return of usurped lands by the State who in course sold to private investors. In this context, Home Secretary, Izkia Siches, faces the most criticism. As a consequence of the escalation of violence and protests in La Araucanía, Siches renewed the state of emergency receiving a strong backlash from the Mapuche community.

According to Cadem’s survey, only 25% of those consulted consider Boric of having the capacity to resolve said conflict. Not long after the survey results were made public, Boric addressed the nation in the annual report on public accounts. In the two-hour-long speech, he announced a series of measures in both the social and economic agendas, particularly a National Health Fund, an increase in the minimum wage, and the reduction of the weekly workday by up to 40 hours.

Approval/Disapproval of the cabinet of minister. Source: LaTercera

Are Polls to be Trusted?

Polls do not equal truth. Instead they are a useful tool that reflects, to a certain point, public opinion in a pre-set and defined timeframe. Therefore, their results must be analyzed afterwards. Generally speaking, in social sciences, polls help understand the social perception of certain topics, objects, or people. In political campaigning, in particular, consulting agencies run polls multiple times a month, as public opinion can be very volatile, especially in times of fast media consumption and “fake news.” This volatility can explain some of the reasons behind Boric’s poor presidential ranking. During elections, public discussion tends to be highly centered around the candidates. Therefore, and inevitably, their images grow. Boric was portrayed by the media and by his campaign team as the young candidate breaking through the establishment that Kast –his opponent– embodied. Once he won, the public interest naturally died down.

It is also worth mentioning that Boric’s predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, was also his total opposite, being a conservative 72-year-old politician with decades of experience in public administration and who had already completed two non-consecutive presidential terms (2010-2014 and 2018-2022). Piñera received plenty of criticism as a consequence of his management of the social crisis that took place in Chile in 2019, where his administration was accused of violence and torture toward arrested protesters. All this is established in a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (ACNUDH). In this context, it is understandable that Boric’s image became highly popular, both his opponent and predecessor were similarly poorly perceived by the public and had similar “established” political views. This scenario may have helped him grow his image as a political alternative and eventually lead to him winning the election.

Another reason for Boric’s current popularity drop could be linked to mass media. By publishing Cadem’s survey results, the public may even develop stronger opinions – good or bad – about the Chilean president as a consequence of the media coverage. In other words, continual new coverage about Boric’s public and presidential image abating can perpetuate that trend. As the well-known Mass Communication Model developed by the sociologist Harold D. Lasswell states: “the media cannot tell people what to think, but it can tell them what topics they should have opinions on.”

Finally, a third reason why this phenomenon may be taking place can be associated with German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence which states that people have a tendency to lie about the views they have on certain topics – politics in particular – especially if they are not “socially accepted.” This scenario constitutes a spiral of silence, which raises questions regarding the accuracy of public opinion polls.

Probably the best conclusion to take from what the polls show is that public opinion changes constantly. It is important to start seeing polls as analysis tools, and, most importantly, to use them as such. This means that mere survey results do not have much substance on their own. On the contrary, comparative analyses of different polls can be way more useful in drawing conclusions and sharing them with the public.

  • Why did polls become so popular in the past decade?
  • How much importance should politicians give to polls?
  • Could new mainstream methods of public opinion analysis be developed with information technologies?

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