The Brazilian electoral system is very different from the one used in the U.S. Instead of the electoral college – with a winner-takes-all system in nearly every state – in Brazil each vote counts the same. Our rules are pretty straightforward: whoever gets the majority of the popular vote wins the race. Still, every four years, one Brazilian state is described as a “swing state” in the molds of the U.S. presidential race. It is the case of Minas Gerais, often nicknamed the “Brazilian Ohio” by political scientists.
Since 1960, not a single U.S. President has been elected without carrying Ohio, a major swing state with 18 electoral votes. The last one to do so was John F. Kennedy. The same phenomenon can be seen in Minas Gerais. Despite the absence of an electoral college, the results in Minas Gerais have consistently reflected what happens nationally – in 2016, they were exactly the same, Dilma Rousseff winning with 52 percent against Aécio Neves’ 48 percent in the runoff stage.
And no one has ever won Brazil’s presidency without winning the majority of Minas Gerais’ votes, ever since the country’s return to democracy.
Why Minas Gerais is so important to win Brazil’s presidency
Almost one-quarter of Brazilian voters are concentrated in the state of São Paulo, the country’s economic center. However, São Paulo is far from being a swing state, as it shows a clear preference toward center-right candidates. Since 1994, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) has won the state gubernatorial race time and time again and has performed far better than the competition in presidential races, with one exception: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s election back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Minas Gerais is Brazil’s second-most populous state, with 15.7 million voters – just over 10 percent of the total amount of people who will head to the polls in October. And the state’s electoral behavior is not as predictable as São Paulo’s. “What makes Minas Gerais a ‘Brazilian version of Ohio’, for electoral purposes, is that neither has a clear partisan bias,” says Adriano Cerqueira, a political scientist at the Federal University of Ouro Preto. If voters end up swinging to the left or to the right, it will be more of a circumstantial movement, not a permanent one.
The state is capable of electing a center-right governor, while at the same time pushing for a center-left presidential candidate. That has happened in 2002, 2006, and 2010, when the state elected candidates from the PSDB, by a landslide, while also helping former center-left presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff get over the hump in the national race. “The diversity of Minas Gerais explains its lack of automatic alignment with a party or ideology,” explains Fernando Bizzarro, a political scientist at Harvard University.
In theory, it is possible to win Brazil’s presidency without carrying Minas Gerais – but since 2006 it has become highly unlikely. The country’s electoral map has shown a clear division between the Northeast and North regions, which have become strongholds for the Workers’ Party, and the Center-West, Southeast, and South regions, which tend to vote more to the right of center.
In his book, O voto do Brasileiro (The Brazilian Vote), political scientist Alberto Carlos de Almeida explains this phenomenon using the social inequality between those regions. In areas where people are more dependent on aid from state policies, people lean to the left, which is more associated with social programs. The presence of the state is not as crucial for people’s living in wealthier areas, so voters prefer candidates who defend a smaller state.
The catch? Minas Gerais.
While the state is in the Southeast region, it is also the gateway to the Northeast. “The closer [a municipality] is to São Paulo, the stronger the PSDB gets; the closer it is to the Northeast, the stronger the Workers’ Party is,” writes Mr. Almeida.
Minas Gerais electoral map (2014 presidential race, runoff stage)
Who will Minas Gerais vote for in 2018?
Currently, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro leads presidential polls held in the state, with 29 percent in a survey carried out by DataPoder360. Does this mean that the former Army captain will snatch Brazil’s presidency come October? Well, not necessarily. First, because most polls in the state are conducted over the phone – a method that can overrepresent wealthier, right-leaning voters.
Second, Mr. Bolsonaro’s lack of partisan structure in Minas Gerais may prove his downfall in the key state. His Social Liberal Party is very small and has no local significance – in 2016, it only elected 30 out of 853 mayors in the state. To get elected, a candidate must have a strong grassroots presence, something Mr. Bolsonaro currently does not have. Therefore, traditional parties hold an advantage, as local leaders can sway voters to their candidate of choice.
Finally, almost one-third of voters in the state have yet to choose their candidate – which represents roughly 4 percent of nationwide voters. Meaning that the race for Minas Gerais is still up for grabs.
Sympathizers of Mr. Bolsonaro, however, have a beacon of hope. State capital Belo Horizonte was the only major urban center to have elected a true outsider for mayor in 2016. Alexandre Kalil, former president of soccer club Atlético Mineiro, won the race while running for the tiny Humanist Solidarity Party (PHS).
For Mr. Bizzarro, this fact makes the election in Minas Gerais “even more important that is has already been in previous decades.”