This article by GQR Vice President Kristi Lowe and Liana Presser, originally appeared in Diario Libre.

With five weeks until the 15 May Election, Luis Abinader is running out of time to close the gap with President Danilo Medina. In a new survey conducted for Diario Libre, Medina widens his lead over Abinader, 59 percent to 32 percent; this is a four point gain for the president and a two point loss for his challenger since the last GQRR survey in late February. Guillermo Moreno is at 3 percent and Minou Tavarez Mirabal has 1 percent, while all the other candidates have less than 1 percent.

In the last six weeks, Abinader has not done enough to cut into Medina’s lead. The selection of vice presidential running mates only bolsters Medina’s strength and the row over Joao Santana does not appear to be tarnishing the president. Still, if Abinader can capitalize on the seeds of discontentment and if he can make the case for change, there remains a path to making the race closer.

The nationwide survey fielded 29 March through 1 April and was designed and analyzed by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, an international polling firm based in Washington, DC.  One thousand and six Dominican adults were interviewed, of which 716 were identified as likely voters (representing 71.2 percent of the voting-age population). The margin of error on random samples of 1,006 and 716 are plus or minus 3.1 and 3.7 percent, respectively, at confidence intervals of 95 percent.


The Medina Advantage

While conventional wisdom suggests the race will tighten as Election Day approaches, Medina’s lead shows no signs of shrinking. In fact, 80 percent of Medina’s supporters are certain in their vote. Furthermore, his presidential job approval increases 6 points in the last six weeks to 86 percent, a vote of confidence for another term. He continues to appeal across all demographics, although still does the best among women and younger Dominicans. If a runoff election were held today, Medina would defeat Abinader by 22 points (59 percent to 37 percent); his lead widens from 17 points in February.

Medina’s advantage is due, in part, to the gap he’s created with Abinader on a personal level.  To put it bluntly, Dominicans like the president more. Medina’s favorable ratings are higher (62 percent vs 37 percent); more see Medina as a strong leader (67 percent vs 48 percent); more describe Medina as honest and trustworthy (67 percent vs 50 percent); more believe Medina cares about people like me (65 percent to 49 percent).

“Over the last six weeks, Abinader made some really important gains in terms of his favorability ratings and on the specific attribute measures that we know are critical when voters evaluate presidential contenders,” says Kristi Lowe, a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research who directed the poll. “That said, Medina made bigger gains and is pulling away. Time is ticking for Abinader.”

Despite Abinader’s focus on crime, a majority of Dominicans say social issues like education and health will be most important when deciding their vote. Social issues trump economic issues, like prices and employment, by 29 points and they also are more important than security issues, like crime and drugs, by 27 points. This dynamic also favors Medina whose first term focused on a social agenda. In fact, the two top reasons to support Media involve his focus on social issues: 52 percent say the best reason to support Medina is “he has increased spending on education” and 35 percent say the best reason is “he is humble and cares about the poor.”


Vice presidential picks heighten the gap

Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez is a strong asset for Medina, and keeping her on the ticket reinforces Medina’s front runner status. In fact, Medina leads Abinader by 31 points (64 percent to 33 percent) when voters factor in the vice presidential picks; that is a 9 point boost. Fifty-one percent of voters are favorable toward the current Vice President, and an overwhelming majority approves of keeping Margarita on the ticket; 71 percent say this makes them more favorable to Medina.

Abinader’s selection of Carolina Mejia, daughter for former President Hipolito Mejia, as his vice presidential running mate does little to improve his chances – a missed opportunity to close the gap between him and the President. Although Carolina Mejia makes 56 percent feel more favorable about Abinader, she is not well known and only 17 percent have a favorable impression of her.  Carolina’s father, Hipolito, continues to be a liability – 59 percent have unfavorable feelings about the former president and this is the highest it’s been since 2014. While Abinader needs to consolidate the PLD, branding himself with the Mejia name is not effectively working.

Abinader’s hopes of Carolina Mejia peeling off female voters from Medina are unlikely to happen. Although Carolina is making promises that an Abinader administration will increase investment in women and youth, she lacks support and enthusiasm from women. Women are even less familiar with Carolina Mejia, they have a less favorable opinion, and adding her to the ticket does not help Abinader cut into that key female advantage.


Santana scandal leaves Medina unscathed

While some suggested the recent arrest of former Medina advisor Joao Santana may tarnish Medina’s standing and tighten the race, the corruption scandal made little impact. Just over half of voters have heard of the scandal and only 25 percent have heard about it in any great deal. It is not a good story for Medina – 54 percent say it makes them less favorable toward the president. That said, a majority of 57 percent do not think Medina has any illicit link to the scandal (36 percent strongly feel there are no links).  In the aftermath of the arrest, only 22 percent of Dominicans describe Medina as corrupt and our survey detected no statistical change from the last survey that fielded before the Santana scandal made headlines.

“You never know how a scandal is going to impact an election. It can shake it up in unpredictable ways or, as we are seeing here, have no impact at all.” says Lowe. “But this still can be an opening for Abinader if he can increase awareness.”


Abinader’s openings

Time may be running out, but Abinader could narrow the gap if he taps into the underpinnings of dissatisfaction and targets the minority who want change. A plurality of Dominicans thinks the country is going in the wrong direction rather than in the right direction, 49 percent to 42 percent. While Medina’s popularity is on the rise, this ambivalence is not budging. 

There is a hint of Medina fatigue, with 58 percent saying that Medina has been in office too long.

The number one reason to support Abinader is “we need a change” and a growing number of voters say there is a chance they will consider voting for the PRM leader. On the other hand, Abinader has to convince a sizable number of voters that he has enough experience to be president; right now the electorate is virtually split (48 percent say he does not have enough experience to be president and 44 percent say he has the needed experience).

In light of the Santana scandal and the Panama Papers, Abinader might be able to ramp up a focus on corruption and peel off some voters. Nearly half of Dominicans have not yet heard about the Santana corruption charges and Abinader gains significant support among the minority who have heard a great deal – in fact the vote nearly flips between Medina and Abinader.  If Abinader can increase awareness and make it stick to Medina over the next 5 weeks of the campaign, the president’s sizable lead may be in jeopardy.

Though security is lower priority on the issue ladder for voters, Abinader has been highly critical about the “empire of crime and violence” and pledged to tackle it with a vengeance. This will be attractive to Dominicans who say crime is their leading concern and the most important decision in their vote. Hiring former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is a step in the right direction, as it makes 68 percent of voters more favorable to Abinader. Over half, 58 percent, say Giuliani will be effective at helping to combat crime in the Dominican Republic.

“Our survey shows that a majority of Dominicans already have decided who to support in the upcoming election, but there is a quarter still looking at candidates and may change their mind,” says Lowe. “The door is not closed, but the gap is big and time is running out.”

Zika concern is pervasive

Although the Dominican Republic is one the 33 countries with ongoing Zika transmissions in the Americas, just 54 percent of Dominicans follow the news on the Zika virus, and 34 percent say they follow it very closely. Not surprisingly, women in their childbearing years, those with higher education levels, and residents of Santo Domingo are paying most attention to the news on Zika.

Despite the moderate attention to the issue, anxiety is high as 85 percent are personally concerned about the virus (and 53 percent feeling very concerned). The trepidation is pervasive across the island and throughout every demographic, particularly among young women. 

The Clinton/Trump gap

The upcoming election in the Dominican Republic is not the only big election in 2016. In the fall, the United States will elect a new president too. While the primary race continues to defy odds, conventional wisdom driven by delegate math suggests the match up will be Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and First Lady against Donald Trump, the businessman and television personality. If Dominicans could weigh in on the American political contest, a huge gap in support would appear. While over 60 percent can identify both Clinton and Trump, Dominicans like Clinton much more than Trump. A quarter of Dominicans are favorable toward Hillary and only 7 percent are favorable to Trump.