Brazil’s polls for president: a look beyond the numbers

. Aug 23, 2018
jair bolsonaro brazil 2018 election poll numbers Rejection to Jair Bolsonaro could be higher than some polls show

The Brazilian presidential campaign is now officially underway, with candidates holding rallies, attending debates, and preparing their television and radio spots. Now, more than ever, polls will play a big part in the candidates’ strategies – and they will also influence the press, the markets, and political pundits. Some institutes have set themselves apart from the rest over the years and, thanks to methodological evolutions, the main pollsters tend to publish similar numbers as Election Day draws closer. However, important differences in how questions are formulated (or how the voters are approached) remain.

Last week, three major polling institutes released their latest surveys, all with fairly similar results. CNT/MDA, Ibope, and Datafolha all showed Lula with almost 40 percent of voting intentions for president and far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in second, close to the 20-percent mark. In scenarios with Lula, the two frontrunners are way ahead of the rest of the pack – with Marina Silva coming in third, never polling better than 8 percent.

But let’s focus on the scenarios which present Fernando Haddad as the Workers’ Party’s candidate, as Lula is unlikely to stay on the ballot. The former Mayor of São Paulo coordinated the party’s political program for the election and is Lula’s nominee for vice president. If (or when) Lula’s name is barred by the Electoral Justice system, Mr. Haddad would step in as the true candidate.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to Ibope, Lula&#8217;s exclusion has a limited impact on Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s stock &#8211; he rises only by 2 points. In Datafolha&#8217;s poll, Bolsonaro grows by 3 points (outside of the margin of error). Both show Mr. Haddad with only 4 percent of the votes, so far, while CNT/MDA didn&#8217;t measure a scenario with him instead of Lula as the Workers&#8217; Party name.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-7837" src="" alt="jair bolsonaro brazil 2018 election poll numbers" width="1024" height="804" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1096w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-7838" src="" alt="jair bolsonaro brazil 2018 election poll numbers" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-7839" src="" alt="jair bolsonaro brazil 2018 election poll numbers" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <h2>Discrepancies</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The <a href="">major differences between Ibope&#8217;s and Datafolha&#8217;s polls</a> refer to how Lula&#8217;s votes will transfer to the competition. While Ibope shows Marina Silva with 12 percent, according to Datafolha the environmentalist candidate has 16 percent of voting intentions. The impact of Lula&#8217;s exit on Geraldo Alckmin and Ciro Gomes is similar, with both institutes showing the candidates in a statistical tie (although Mr. Gomes slightly ahead), between 7 and 10 percent.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While Mr. Haddad&#8217;s polling numbers are far from being jaw-dropping, this is due to the fact that many voters don&#8217;t even know he is a candidate (and furthermore, that he is Lula&#8217;s candidate). This might be particularly true among his party&#8217;s voter base &#8211; which consists of poorer, less-educated voters, from the Northeast region. In &#8216;spontaneous polls&#8217; (in which voters must choose a president without being presented with a list of candidates), Mr. Haddad polls at 0 percent.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">CNT/MDA and <a href="">Datafolha</a> also diverge in their runoff stage projections (Ibope didn&#8217;t test runoff simulations). </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to CNT/MDA, Mr. Bolsonaro would have a slim advantage in all tested scenarios &#8211; while Mr. Alckmin would trail against every opponent by narrow margins. A rigorous interpretation would force us to say that in all scenarios, the candidates are statistically tied.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Such is not the case with Datafolha. Its poll shows Lula winning in every second-round scenario, but Mr. Bolsonaro losing against everyone except Mr. Haddad, and Mr. Alckmin beating all opponents besides Ms. Silva. </span></p> <h2>Who would you never, ever vote for?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Another interesting source of analysis is to look at rejection rates. The institutes have different ways to ask voters this question. CNT/MDA offered multiple options for every candidate: </span></p> <ul> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><em><span style="font-weight: 400;">I would never vote for him/her;</span></em></li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><em><span style="font-weight: 400;">He/she is the only candidate I&#8217;d vote for;</span></em></li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><em><span style="font-weight: 400;">He/she is someone I&#8217;d consider voting for.</span></em></li> </ul> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On the other hand, Ibope gave a list of candidates and asked: &#8220;Among these candidates for president, who would you never vote for? Anyone else? Is there a third that fits the bill?&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Datafolha asks this in a similar fashion: &#8220;In which of the following possible candidates would you never vote for? Anyone else?&#8221;</span></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-7840" src="" alt="" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The different approach is noteworthy and could explain the discrepancies between the polls. CNT/MDA shows Mr. Bolsonaro as the most opposed candidate, with a 54-percent rejection rate. For Ibope and Datafolha, however, he is rejected by &#8220;only&#8221; 37 and 39 percent of the electorate, respectively. Corroborating the impression that the way the question is asked can alter the result are Mr. Alckmin rejection rates. He is close to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s rate on the CNT/MDA poll but appears with only 25 and 26 percent in Ibope&#8217;s and Datafolha&#8217;s, respectively.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is worth mentioning that rejection rates vary a lot depending on the voter&#8217;s socioeconomic position. Mr. Bolsonaro is more rejected among women than men (41 to 33 percent, according to Ibope) and his voting intentions are cut in half among female voters &#8211; which could be his biggest obstacle in the election. Whites, more educated, and evangelical voters are the demographics that support the far-right candidate &#8211; largely known for his conservative positions and statements deemed to be racist.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Polls are important sources of information which have shaped the political and economic environment in Brazil in the past &#8211; and should continue to do so this year. The fragmented electoral landscape &#8211; enhanced by the uncertainty surrounding Lula&#8217;s status as a candidate &#8211; will weigh on voters&#8217; choices. Expect the number of undecided voters to remain high until the final moments of the campaign, as voters will vote more strategically than ever &#8211; observing the pieces of the electoral board before choosing their candidate. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Ironically, voter swings that contradict polls are one of the reasons for people not to trust polling institutes &#8211; even if those swings are motivated by what the polls show at a given moment.

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Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.

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