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Why polls failed to predict big Fox win in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY — Among the biggest losers in Vicente Fox's upset presidential win over Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are some of the country's top pollsters who failed to predict the result.

As the presidential election drew near most Mexicans were thinking "we need change," but many did not tell pollsters they were thinking of spurning the party that has ruled since 1929.

With their reputations bruised, pollsters speculated voters either did not fully decide until the last minute or had possibly feared repercussions for announcing they would turn their backs on the only governing party they had ever known.

In any case, many told pollsters they were undecided. Therefore most opinion polls ahead of Mexico's July 2 vote predicted a close race between Francisco Labastida of the PRI and Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN).

But when the votes were counted, Fox won by an unexpectedly wide margin of some seven percentage points, surprising himself and pollsters, some of whom now plan to conduct a study of their failings.

To explain their inability to predict Fox's big win, one theory offered by pollsters was that a pro-Fox groundswell crystallized at the last minute as Mexicans realized a PRI win was not inevitable as it had been in the past.

"I incline toward this incredible momentum at the end," said pollster Dan Lund. "It was hard to imagine (a Fox win) was possible. They weren't sure they were willing to (vote for him). But by the end there was a momentum."

Lund said the late, large Fox wave was detected by polls conducted by his own campaign but not made public.

The other main theory was that those people who told pollsters they had not decided how they would vote were actually hiding their pro-PAN voting.

"Mexico lived seven decades under one governing party and under those circumstances, people hid their true voting intention," Susan Pinkus, polling director for the Los Angeles Times, told Mexico's Reforma newspaper in an interview.

One late poll, published by former PRI pollster Maria de las Heras, did predict a 10 point advantage for Fox. Vicente Licona of local polling firm Indemerc said De las Heras got it right because she applied a mathematical formula to estimate the true intentions of the undecided voters.

Licona said excessively small polling samples, and inability to interpret the undecided vote made most other polls wrong.

The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) apparently also did its job to convince voters the secrecy of their vote was guaranteed, through a large-scale publicity campaign that may have helped to flush out opposition votes that were not detected in polls.

Lund said he failed to recognize that PRI vote-manipulating through handouts in rural communities totally backfired this year. Voters, when they were convinced their vote would be secret, accepted PRI gifts and then voted as they pleased.

Many rural Mexicans were scared to state their intention out loud, because they worried that despite a secret ballot, local PRI officials would somehow find out how they voted, Pinkus said.