WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As in global regions more distant from the United States, high percentages of those in Latin American countries surveyed in August and September did not express a preference when asked about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. However -- again, as in other regions worldwide -- Sen. Barack Obama received considerably more support than Sen. John McCain among those who did offer a preference.
The fact that many in Latin America perceive the result of the U.S. election as irrelevant to their lives largely explains Latin Americans' lack of opinion about the election. Among the seven South American countries surveyed, the median percentage of those who do not believe the election's outcome makes a difference to their country is about the same as the percentage who do think it will make a difference. In Central America and Mexico, residents are only somewhat more likely to feel the election will make a difference to their country (this is most likely due to these countries' closer proximity to the United States).
Obama's and McCain's lack of attention to Latin American on the campaign trail has done nothing to counter Latin Americans' impression that the election is irrelevant to them. The candidates' foreign policy focus has mostly centered on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about Russian aggression, and the economic rise of China and India. In the Sept. 26 debate on foreign policy, aside from brief references to the anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, Latin America was almost completely absent from the dialogue.
Attention Varies by Economic Level
The low average socioeconomic status of populations in the region is another likely factor in Latin Americans' low level of concern with the U.S. election. In countries where many are focused mainly on day-to-day issues such as providing for their families, there may be few chances to stay apprised of international news -- or else they cannot afford the time and expense required to do so. Moreover, in low-income countries, information technology is apt to be far less widespread than in developed nations.
In fact, with a few exceptions, differences in the percentages of "don't know" responses among the Latin American countries tend to vary with differences in per-capita GDP. So, for example, in a comparatively prosperous nation such as Chile, fewer than half of respondents have no candidate preference, while among the much poorer Nicaraguan population the figure is 70%.
U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement
When Latin American countries have come up in the course of the campaign, it typically has been in the context of free trade agreements (FTAs) with the United States. McCain is a strong supporter of unrestricted free trade, while Obama takes a more cautious approach to trade liberalization.
The proposed U.S.-Colombia FTA has been the main point of contention, and it was the subject of a heated exchange between the candidates during the final debate on Oct. 15. McCain has called for immediate passage of the agreement, while Obama has opposed it in its current form in light of ongoing violence against Colombian labor leaders.
Concern over the fate of the agreement, which has been stalled in the U.S. Congress since April, may have had some modest effect on Colombians' opinions by the time Gallup polled them in August. Sixteen percent of Colombians say they would prefer to see McCain elected, a higher proportion than in any other Latin American country surveyed -- though Obama still receives more than twice as many nods, at 38%. What's more, about half of Colombians (49%) say the election's outcome makes a difference to their country, the highest figure in the region.
Results from Latin America are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in August and September 2008. For results based on these total samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.