Assessing The First Presidential Debate

April 24, 2018 By 0 Comments

Last night marked the first of three scheduled debates among the five candidates in the presidential campaign scheduled to wind up on election day July 1st. We provided a live blow by blow blog of the event as well as some post-game commentary in both Spanish and English here. For the record, the candidates are as follows: PRI Jose Antonio Meade; PAN-PRD Ricardo Anaya; MORENA Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and two independent candidates, Margarita Zavala (wife of former President Felipe Calderón) and Jaime Rodríguez Calderon, “El Bronco”, currently governor of the northern state of Nuevo León. Presently, López Obrador has a commanding lead in the polls at 48% with Anaya in second place at 26% and Meade trailing at 18%. Margarita Zavala is at 5%. “El Bronco” who came into the race late under highly controversial circumstances, is in last place with 3%.

While the debate was a bit of a snooze-fest, the four establishment candidates piled on the attacks on AMLO as the leading candidate. Ricardo Anaya, the youngest of the establishment candidates at 38, was clearly the most comfortable with the format although he appeared disturbingly robotic at times. Meade, the technocrat, sounded like one while Margarita Zavala, in a highly caffeinated performance, smacked of desperation. None of these three provided much in the way of excitement or policy proposals which meaningfully addressed the three main topics of the debate: public safety, corruption, and marginalized and vulnerable groups. AMLO was the only candidate to offer innovative proposals such as an amnesty for criminal gangs involved in the drug war — which has claimed over 300,000 lives over the last three PAN and PRI presidencies — and his proposal for an automatic presidential recall every two years of his administration.

As the preferred target, AMLO received 38 attacks while the other candidates – some like Meade and Anaya who face serious corruption allegations – received about a third less. The attack dog of the night was “El Bronco” who launched 20 attacks, followed by Meade and Anaya who logged 17 each. Many believe that “El Bronco” was belatedly allowed into the race by the National Electoral Tribunal – even though guilty of forging thousands of false registrations – with the sole purpose of launching unrelenting assaults against AMLO. His most spectacular proposal of the night was to call for amputating the hands of criminals and corrupt officials.

The topics of the debate were tailor-made for López Obrador to go on the offensive. But AMLO is not the most brilliant or charismatic public debater; he often seems not to take such events that seriously and lacks the killer instinct when it comes to exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses. And there were plenty of such opportunities on display last night. But AMLO launched only 7 attacks of his own and responded to less than a third of those launched against him.

Still, with such a commanding lead, all he really needed to do was show up and blandly stick to his taking points, which he did — maddeningly I’m sure, for many of his supporters. The establishment candidates would have had to deal AMLO a serious blow to do him any real harm, and none was forthcoming. So, we are unlikely to see much change in the current polls in the coming days. AMLO may even get a boost since many will come away from the debate rightly believing that the entire establishment is arrayed against him. There are two more debates scheduled, by which point the political elites are likely to be increasingly desperate and, therefore, reckless. Once the race for second place is decided between Meade and Anaya, it is likely other strategies for stopping López Obrador will come into play. While AMLO may want to simply run down the electoral clock in the manner of the first debate, he may not be given that opportunity.