How Leonel Fernández Reyna won a third presidential term...

Leonel Fernández became the most recent Latin American president to be reelected. Several factors account for his electoral success. Under Fernández, the Dominican Republic experienced one of the most dramatic economic recoveries in the region as the country overcame a grave recession and achieved an average growth rate of 9 percent between 2004 and 2007. Reelection was also the result of a simple and powerful campaign strategy that included an innovative communications strategy. As in most elections, success also came from the strategic mistakes of the opposition.

The Contenders
The Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) underwent a rigorous nomination process that pitted Fernández against at least two important figures within the party. The internal battle, which in many ways was a prelude to the subsequent presidential contest, pitted Fernández against rivals who questioned the legality of reelection. As in other Latin American presidential systems, the Dominican Republic has a long anti-reelection tradition that is largely the result of authoritarian rulers who ruled the country for dozens of years at a time.

In the most recent process, however, Fernández represented the continuity not only of a remarkable economic recovery but also the reelection of a person whom most Dominicans considered the most admired individual, as measured in public opinion polls. The admiration for Fernández was rooted not in the strongman traits that typically characterize others in the region who have been reelected; instead Leonel, as he is called by the average Dominican, is admired for his intellectual skills and for how he used his mild-mannered ways to brave the crisis he inherited in 2004.

The internal nomination process confirmed that no other PLD party leader could challenge Fernández’s leadership. Rather than embarking on a campaign against his opponents, the campaign team merely published a weekly tracking poll. In the end, Fernández won a landslide victory in the nomination vote, although Danilo Medina—his principal opponent and former chief of staff—won nearly a third of the vote. While Fernández won a decisive victory, Medina went on to play a less than decorous role in the national election, including %uFB02 irting with the leading opposition candidates.

The principal opposition party, the Revolutionary Dominican Party (PRD), selected Miguel Vargas Maldonado, who had served as public works secretary during the ill-fated government of Hipólito Mejia (2000-2004). A very wealthy businessman, Vargas put his fortune to good use. Vargas initiated his presidential campaign as early as 2006, and by mid 2007 he had already outspent all of his internal and external competitors.

The only other competitor of note was Amable Aristy, who staged a come-from-behind victory in nomination process of the Reformist Social Christian Party (PRSC). Founded by former President Joaquin Balaguer, the PRSC experienced severe internal turmoil as the losers in the nomination process went on to launch quixotic campaigns. Aristy labeled himself the candidate of the poor and spent much of his campaign handing out pigs and chickens in the poorest areas of the country in an attempt to convince Dominicans that, if he were elected, food would be handed out to one and all. This was not enough, however. The PRSC performed poorly; the party won less than 5 percent of the vote and unless it is able to bring together all factions it could well disappear as a political contender.

The PLD’s Winning Strategy
Fernández arrived in office in 2004 with a long laundry list of things to do, but he was mainly perceived as the only possible savior of a country that had been led into economic, political and socialchaos by former president Mejia. The results converted Fernández into a type of surgeon who with a team of specialists had restored confidence in the economy by restoring growth, attracting foreign investment and stabilizing all macroeconomic indicators. The most influential aspect of this recovery on the 2008 reelection platform was a very ambitious public policy agenda. From the outset, Fernández repeated the phrase “we have a plan” to address problems such as urban transportation, crime, energy and lack of food. In fact, each problem had a meticulous and executable plan. The most remarkable included the construction in record time of the country’s first metro and the Democratic Security Plan, which achieved some semblance of safety in the country’s poorest and most crime-infested neighborhoods.

While Fernández devoted his time in national and international forums explaining the explosion of oil and commodity prices and touting his programs, his opponents were presenting vacuous campaign slogans devoid of any real programmatic content. Not surprisingly, polls confirmed repeatedly that voters believed Fernández was the most qualified of all candidates to deal with the critical problems facing the Dominican Republic.

In 2004, the Fernández campaign’s main approach was to compare the PLD’s performance in of%uFB01 ce between 1996 and 2000 (when, also under Fernández, the country grew at an average of 9 percent annually). One of the principal political achievements of this strategy was the PLD’s dramatic mid-term victory in 2006, which gave the ruling party control over both houses of Congress. This victory removed the final obstacles to consolidating Fernández’s plans to modernize the Dominican state.

In contrast, the 2008 strategy defined the contest as a choice between voting for Vargas (which represented a leap back to uncertainty) and voting for Fernández, who embodied confidence and stability and the only way toward the full recovery of the Dominican Republic—especially in the midst of a looming world economic crisis. In short, the PLD’s strategy was simple and powerful. It was framed largely as a choice between progress and backwardness, concepts that Dominicans readily understood and which were decisive at the time of voting.

The communications strategy framed all Dominicans— not simply the campaign or the candidate—as the ones demanding the continuity of Fernández in office. The campaign slogan captured the strategy’s purpose. It was also part of an ongoing dialogue with voters. In 2004, the PLD adopted the words of a popular Merengue song “E Pa Fuera que Van” (roughly “Throw the Rascals Out”) as its slogan. The government, once elected, transformed it into a new slogan/promise, “E Pa Lante que Vamos (“We are Moving Forward”). To demonstrate continuity and capture the general sense that Fernandez should remain in of%uFB01ce, the 2008 campaign slogan became “Palante Presidente (“Onward Mr. President”).”

The campaign’s communication was managed not only through traditional means. Based on polling data that found Dominican youth identified with Fernández’s modernizing vision—as happened in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—the communications strategy relied on Web 2.0 technology to transmit the central message through virtual means.

Simultaneously, the campaign’s television spots—which also aired on YouTube and other online tools—promoted the idea that Fernández was the only one capable of nursing the country back to health. The most popular TV spot was one that relied on Dominicans’ love of baseball to illustrate how the country had already struck out twice under the PRD (from 1982–1986 and from 2000–2004) and that a third strike was likely if Vargas were to be elected.

Any good campaign in Latin America must also count on a candidate’s ability to quickly change tactics in response to changing conditions. In the 2008 campaign, potential threats were converted into winning opportunities. Such was the case with two devastating tropical storms that flooded a large part of the country and resulted in tragedy for large numbers of Dominican families. While the opposition attempted to capitalize on the tragedy, the PLD campaign portrayed Fernández as an able and compassionate president who suspended his reelection bid to tend to the country’s needs. In the end, Dominicans saw Fernández as a president resolving crises. His opponents were seen as crude politicians trying to capitalize on a national tragedy to win an election.

The Opposition’s Strategy
The opposition’s strategies were plagued with errors. The PRD launched a full-scale negative assault on Fernández in an ill-fated attempt to undermine the PLD candidate’s credibility. Vargas presented himself as an outsider and as an entrepreneur who could generate employment and better economic opportunities for all Dominicans. Given his prominent role as public works secretary during the chaotic 2000–2004 period, however, this message was never credible.

The PRD also made the mistake of not only selecting a lackluster and uncharismatic candidate but also one whose ability to deliver a public speech was limited. This contrasted with Fernández’s polished and sophisticated delivery, which demonstrated profound knowledge and control over every issue. Vargas’s limited oratorical skills proved fatal to a negative campaign that begged for someone with good delivery. Vargas’s principal strategic mistake was to design a campaign that essentially hid the PRD to avoid the linkage with the past. Given the candidate’s limited personal skills and the PRD’s very strong social base, in the end the campaign made a very belated attempt to restore the party and to make it—rather than the candidate—the real option in 2008. By the same token, the message of the PRD’s campaign message was %uFB01lled not with hope (which was essentially the PLD’s message) but with very negative doom and gloom scenarios. As is common in elections anywhere in the world, hope generally defeats tragedy.

The Results
Fernández won 53.8 percent of the vote to Vargas’s 40.8 percent and the PRSC’s meager 4.5 percent showing. While the PLD’s victory augurs well for this party, the results showed that the rest of the party system is facing a very serious crisis. Vargas showed that he could indeed mobilize PRD supporters, but it is unclear whether, in the long run, he will be able to overcome challenges from within his party. Former president Mejia, for example, announced himself as the party’s leader right after the elections.

The situation with the PRSC is more dramatic. This once-great party failed to surpass the 5 percent threshold needed to maintain its standing not only as a legal political entity but also to receive funding from the system to compete in future elections.

Incumbents have a clear advantage in winning reelection. Clearly, reelection is determined mainly by good performance in office In the United States, reelection has also rewarded those who do well in of%uFB01ce and penalized those who do poorly, as happened to President George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he lost to Bill Clinton. Similarly, throughout Latin America, reelection has rewarded a diverse group of presidents who have done well in handling the economy and who have retained very high levels of public support.

Fernández’s reelection is part of this broader trend. The challenges he faces as president in the context of the global financial crisis are legion, and most Dominicans still see him as the only one capable of leading the Dominican Republic through these turbulent times.

Mauricio De Vengoechea and Eduardo A. Gamarra are partners at Newlink Political, a member of the Miami-based Newlink Group. Newlink Political provides political consulting services throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where it makes innovative research technology solutions available to its clients.