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Given the events occurred last month related to Sergio Massa’s spots and mocking videos, a recent poll showed unfavorable results for the leader of Frente Renovador Party. The candidate was leading the polls before the YouTube campaign in which he pretended to speak in different accents according to the province the spot was targeted to. After the outrage that came as a result of his faked accents, polls started showing him as third in the race towards presidency with 18,8 %, right after Mauricio Macri (PRO party) with 27,9 % and Daniel Scioli (Frente para la Victoria Party) with 23,6 %.

What comes first in mind is that performance really has an influence on voter preference and final outcome in the elections. Even though we will never be able to determine a cause-effect relationship between the performance of a candidate and voter preference, I think this is a case where that relationship may be perceived. Voters may have seen Massa’s performance as poor and fake, lacking of authenticity, something that is vital according to Jeffrey Alexander in his book The Performance of Politics. Under Alexander’s theory of performance and cultural pragmatics, I can say it was quite predictable that the audience would fail to believe, sympathize and ultimately fuse with the speaker, that is to say, with Massa. His performance wasn’t felicitous. In Alexander’s words, when a performance has felicity, the “mediations become invisible, and audiences do not, in fact, see actions as if they are performed”[1]. But Massa tried to sympathize with the voters by imitating their accents, a resource that didn’t come out as desired and lacked the verisimilitude necessary for a felicitous performance, which would have made “scripted actions seem spontaneous and real”[2]. As a consequence, the fusion couldn’t take place, because the audience didn’t fall into the “suspension of disbelief”, and they actually realized that Massa was faking the accents. This fact immediately triggered the thought that if he was lying about his accents, why wouldn’t he be lying about everything else. All of these ideas circulating in the public sphere really damaged his image and reputation and that is, in my opinion, the main reason why Massa is not leading the polls anymore.

His strategy was not bad or immoral, the problem was that it was poorly performed. Politicians are mainly performative, they “do things with words”[3], they try to convince us that things are how they describe them to be. They do so by bringing out powerful symbols and meanings with majestic rhetorical skills, evoking our concerns and trying to share with us their visions of the world. When the performance is successful, we are convinced. We don’t look into every word they say to check the truth in them, but when it shows openly that they are lying or faking a speech, the audience cannot help but to repel that situation. At the end of the day, it really comes down to being as authentic and real as the candidate can be. Massa’s faked accents needed more practice and verisimilitude to be convincing and become a felicitous performance.

Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist, once observed while talking about field operations: “I don’t think a field operation can create enthusiasm – it can mobilize enthusiasm”[4]. I strongly agree with him and believe that it is performance that creates enthusiasm, and therefore it also depends on performance to keep that enthusiasm and prevent it from vanishing. That is why candidates must be so careful when performing. Massa had been leading the polls and having a good reputation especially because of his authenticity in his performances: he was a different candidate, an ordinary neighbor or citizen who was promising to fight against insecurity, inflation and currency exchange control (three things that have always been claimed to current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner). That was his main advantage against the other candidates, and the odds were in his favour. However, the candidate destroyed that image in a matter of minutes by not performing as usual and inadvertently revealing the true nature and purpose of the ads. Instead of paying attention to his message, which was quite compelling and promising, the audience got distracted by the faked accents and only paid attention to that.

It is to add that Massa was quick and smart enough to work this binary. When the opposing candidates started to try to benefit from Massa’s downfall, he was conveniently invited to a very famous argentine talk show and wittily replied: “I would rather be criticized for faking accents than for being linked to criminal cases”. The candidate was actually trying to get out of the spotlight by reminding the audience about a previous scandal concerning candidate Mauricio Macri’s criminal cases. A quite graceful move coming from Massa, pretty consistent and coherent with the ways he used to perform; now the ball is in Macri’s court and is up to him to keep working the binaries.

[1] Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. (2010). Oxford University Press. Page 286.

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem

[4] Extracted from article online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erik-ose/why-kay-hagan-lost-in-north-carolina_b_6143286.html

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