I was extremely lucky to be in Bogota last week, meeting with bunch of different people and talking about what have been some of the most unique and exciting elections in Latin America.

I could feel the excitement from my desk in Washington. The intensity was exponentially multiplied on the steps of Plaza Bolivar. Debates, campaign posters, endless conversation about the election and candidates brought me back to 2008, when the US was in the middle of deciding its own future after eight years of one man being called president.

Probably to the chagrin of my Colombian hosts, I kept bringing up the 2008 elections here in the United States. There were just too many similarities – the use of social media, mass international attention favoring one candidate, a charged electorate of first-time voters, an outsider who resembled nothing of the political establishment – not to mention my desire to talk about what I felt most comfortable with, that led me into the alluring arms of comparative politics. (I’m being sarcastic, but for those still reading who found that part funny, you may like William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness).

This is by and large a politics blog, not a psychology one, but the two overlap in an important way. One thing that has been shown time and time again in studies of the other imperfect science is that people’s attitudes don’t always correspond to their behavior.

Another way of saying this is that intentions don’t predict actions. That is why, in spite of the polls, the enormous media flack against Sarah Palin, and a cautious reminder from a wise old man about the silent majority, I thought Obama would lose.

Unlike 2008, this time my hunch that Mockus would not fare as well as predicted was confirmed. This post attempts to do what others have already done better than me: Explain perhaps how the results of May 30 occurred.

A quick background

First, it is important to understand the background of these elections. Colombians familiar with elections past all seemed to echo the sentiment that these elections were much different than any in the past.

For a long time, it was uncertain whether Uribe would be allowed to run again. When it was finally announced he couldn’t, at the end of February 2010, the race to succeed him took off, and candidates and parties frenetically scrambled to get their campaigns into gear and get members of congress elected. They had less than three weeks to do this before congressional elections on March 14.

The congressional elections killed the chances of up-until-then Presidential frontrunner Sergio Fajardo, whose Compromiso Ciudadano por Colombia movement died out when Fajardo may have overestimated his own popularity and underestimated the power of political parties. The Partido Verde, led by a man, Antanas Mockus, who in name, appearance, and policy seemed the antithesis of the Colombian political establishment, also only won a small percentage of seats. However, unlike Fajardo, Mockus made some key moves – the most important of which was arguably getting Fajardo as a vice president – that catapulted his candidacy into a front-running position.

New Processes Yield Constant Change

Sunday’s results were just a continuation of the constant surprises the campaign has revealed.

By all accounts, Juan Manuel Santos did extremely well in the first round of elections. Santos captured 6.76 million votes, compared to the 3.12 won by Antanas Mockus, the runner-up, who will face Santos in a run-off, known as the Segunda Vuelta, on June 20. The discrepancy was much higher than the latest published polls predicted, which had the two at a near tie and predicted a Mockus victory in the second round.

There are a number of potential reasons as to why.

1)      One could be imperfect polling methods, in which pollsters called landlines, which may have favored wealthier Colombians who supported Mockus in greater numbers.

2)      As highlighted earlier, human capriciousness may have been another factor. People change their minds at the last minute, let alone within a week, a week in which a lot can happen. Pollsters were prohibited from publishing results during the final week of campaigning. Today, in their defense, they said they knew Santos would win big, but couldn’t say so.

3)      Last-minute gaffes. LatAmThought wrote nearly three months ago that not being disliked could matter just as much as being liked. The final week saw Mockus make a number of unlikeable and alienating gaffes, such as saying in a debate that he doesn’t want a dirty war (which some may have perceived as being weak against a hated enemy, the FARC) and a proposal to cap doctors’ salaries at 1 million pesos. It was not the amount of votes necessarily that cost him – the majority of Colombians are not doctors – but rather that to many, it may have exacerbated…

4)      People’s fear about Mockus’ uncertainty about what he intended to do. Indeed, the candidate who campaigned largely on the platform of having the best defined policies – German Vargas Lleras – did far better than predicted.

5)      Change is hard. Even when people say they want change, when it comes down to the moment of the decision, it is hard to pull the trigger. Mockus was different, and at the last minute, that may have scared people. In a country where many do not want to see things the way they were, any inclination that they would be could be enough for a person to change their mind

6)      The underestimated power of Uribismo. In his victory speech, Santos thanked his supporters for supporting the policies of “the best president Colombia has ever had”. His remark was met with uproarious applause. Uribe was a powerful figure in Colombian politics. Even Mockus didn’t cast himself as anti-Uribe, but a post-Uribe candidate. In the end, that may not have been enough.

Less than two weeks ago, polls were predicting a Mockus victory in the second round. That now seems all but impossible. However, as this election has shown, stranger things have happened.