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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-09-2023 05:08

Can Bullrich and Massa face the ‘Milei-tide’?

The only candidate who could be moderately competitive in a run-off against Milei appears to be Bullrich, who is the farthest from taking that spot, if opinion polls are to be trusted.

Who are the presidential candidates talking to in Argentina? Certainly, their political strategists have figured this out and have built communications strategies aimed at capturing the core voters, along with potential fence-sitters amongst other sociological cohorts. The apparent inevitability of a victory by Javier Milei, forecast now by the majority of pollsters and analysts, may have to do with the fact that his message easily reaches some of the largest social groups. These groups are also amongst the most connected to the Internet and social media, in some cases counterintuitively as with lower socio-economic classes. Conversely, Patricia Bullrich and Sergio Massa are speaking to the traditional elements of society, generally older, more formally employed. Their share of media consumption is probably skewed toward traditional media outlets. Their electoral campaigns don’t appear to be turning the “Milei-tide,” who doesn’t seem to have what it takes for a first-round victory, but could be close. Ultimately, the only candidate who could be moderately competitive against Milei in a run-off appears to be Bullrich, who is the farthest from taking that spot, if opinion polls are to be trusted.

According to a new study by the Taquion consultancy firm, Milei’s voters are mostly under 55 years of age, with two-thirds of them under 43. A vast majority of them (66.7 percent) belong to the lowest socio-economic level, and are predominantly male (63.6 percent). Compared to Bullrich and Massa, the ultra-libertarian economist has the highest proportion of voters who work (54.6 percent, compared to 50.9 percent and 48.7 percent respectively), who are in the informal sector (38 percent, compared to 9.6 percent and 20.9 percent respectively), and who are students (24.9 percent, compared to 7.9 percent and 10.2 percent respectively). Broadly speaking, Milei is connecting with younger people who are poor, working informally and/or studying. 

According to data from the INDEC national statistics bureau, 68 percent of the population is under 44 years of age, while 40.1 percent of the population is either poor or destitute. Just over 60 percent of households belong to the two lowest quintiles in terms of income distribution. If Milei and his La Libertad Avanza alliance are a social media phenomenon – as characterised by their candidate for mayor in Buenos Aires City, Ramiro Marra – then the fact that over 96 percent of those aged 18 to 29 are connected to the Internet (a figure that drops to 63.6 percent for those 65 or above) helps to confirm why their message penetrates. Indeed, according to political analyst Diego Corbalan, Milei generated 1.4 billion social media views since the PASO primaries – more than twice the 624 million generated by the economy minister and four times more than the former security minister’s 301 million.

 As mentioned previously, there seems to be a cultural bias among the Argentine intelligentsia that initially discarded Milei as a wacko, and now are failing to understand the phenomenon. This suggests that the country will implode once the unthinkable but most probable scenario occurs. This specific group of people, which probably looks a lot more like Bullrich and Massa’s archetypical voter, is part of the country’s decision-makers that is desperate to see either of the traditional coalitions’ candidates win. They are clearly older, with 52.4 percent of Bullrich’s voters over the age of 55 and 37.6 percent of Massa’s, and better paid (20.9 percent of Bullrich voters were in the highest socio-economic ranking, compared to 15.1 percent for Massa and 6.9 percent for Milei).

According to political scientist Marcos Novaro, speaking at the annual ADEPA press assembly in San Juan Province, their campaigns are just not sticking. Massa, who’s gone on a massive spending spree in order to “put money in people’s pockets” to the point where he’s been reprimanded by the International Monetary Fund, has seen his polling figures remain essentially unchanged since the PASO primaries, apparently consolidating his lead as the frontrunner if the run-off scenario occurs — this, of course, is favourable for Milei in that Massa’s electoral chances in a one-v-one encounter are essentially impossible. The libertarian must contend with Kirchnerism’s decision to put all of the coalition’s resources in the Buenos Aires Province, where Axel Kicillof is looking for re-election and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is fighting to survive. The former president doesn’t really care about the national election as long as they retain the province, Novaro argues. Across the aisle, Juntos por el Cambio appears to have been effective in their traditional campaign when it comes to territory, given their strong performance in provincial elections. Yet at the presidential level, the primary seems to have sucked the air out of the campaign, with Bullrich apparently sliding to third place, potentially out of the run-off. With the debate coming up, both parties are looking to capitalise on the spotlight, despite evidence that suggests these instances have a limited impact on voter intentions.

Does Milei have any weak spots? Up until now, he’s been a Teflon candidate, managing to face what could have been serious crises for others, which in his case only consolidates his position. Ahead of the primaries a scandal broke out that seemed to prove that La Libertad Avanza was inundated by the “caste” they are looking to eradicate, selling candidacies and bringing on third- and fourth-level political outcasts. Picking Victoria Villaruel as his vice-presidential candidate, Milei could’ve lost votes, given the importance of the human rights movement in Argentina. Despite bringing on a denialist, not only has he further consolidated his position but now Villaruel is beginning to grow on her own, according to Novaro’s analysis. And even when his incipient team has begun to water down some of his landmark policy proposals, including dollarisation, their supporters remain firmly in place. According to a survey put together by the Strategic Center for Latin American Geopolitics (CELAG), his main weakness in the eyes of society is being considered violent, something his opponents will look to capitalise on during the debate.

Less than a month before the election, the initial shock to Milei’s surprise victory has been followed by a sense of inevitability and his expected victory by some sectors of society, not the ones to whom the ultra-libertarian normally speaks. From their standpoint, the cards have been dealt and they will fall in Milei’s favour. It’s not clear whether his rivals are managing to mount any sort of significant resistance. Yet, in the same way as the intelligentsia suffered from an inevitability to see outside of their own bubble, maybe the candidates have something up their sleeves that could reveal itself in time for the election. Their first big opportunity is tomorrow.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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