In Brazil’s election, polls are the ‘biggest loser’

Following a trend in recent years of underestimating voter support for Brexit and Donald Trump, opinion polls in Brazil were well ahead for the first round of Sunday’s presidential elections.

Jair Bolsonaro and many of his far-right allies put together far better results than polls had predicted, catching analysts off guard and scaring supporters of his leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“They are all the people who are losing on Sunday’s election,” Latin America analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank told AFP.

– What are the poll predictions? –

Lula collected 48 percent of the votes cast on Sunday – within the margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points worked out by pollsters Datafolha and Ipec.

Both of them put Lula within arm’s reach of taking the election in the first round — with a prediction of 50 percent of the valid votes cast by Datafolha, and 51 percent by Ipec.

Bolsonaro’s result came completely out of left field. He managed 43 percent of the votes compared to 36 percent predicted by Datafolha.

Instead of a predicted 14-point barrier, Lula was only five points, or about six million votes, behind.

The same trend existed for some of Bolsonaro’s right-wing allies.

Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro won re-election in the first round with 58 percent of the vote compared to poll expectations of 44 to 47 percent.

And in São Paulo, Tarcisio de Freitas entered the gubernatorial runoff race leading with 42 percent — 11 points higher than he polled.

– What went wrong? –

Analysts are scratching their heads: was Bolsonaro’s last-minute surge among undecided or opposition voters, or did polling institutions that had a reputation for reliability until now lost the ability to accurately predict voter intent?

“We don’t know if Bolsonaro made real progress or if he already had this support” that the polls failed to capture, Leandro Gabiati, director of the Dominium consultancy, told AFP.

According to Mayra Goulart of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, there is a “darkness of information” in Brazil due to a pandemic-induced two-year delay in the census, which is carried out every 10 years.

This could affect the accuracy of pollsters’ population sampling, especially in influential segments such as evangelicals — part of Brazil’s growing and right-leaning society.

“The 2022 census will probably correct some of these discrepancies for future elections,” said Guilherme Casaroes, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

– Consequences –

“It will certainly damage the credibility of the analysis” by the media and experts like himself, said Leonardo Paz, Brazil’s adviser for the International Crisis Group think tank.

“Right now it’s more difficult to analyze because… the numbers are no longer credible.”

The discrepancy between the prediction and Sunday’s result “caused a big problem for the (polling) institutions and for democracy itself,” Gabiati Dominium said.

“The polls are an important part of the electoral process and it is a terrible thing for democracy that this aspect is called into question.”

Bolsonaro has long sought to cast doubt on the accuracy of polls, which he claims works for the left, and he could now use this “proof” to fuel anti-Lula sentiment ahead of a run presidential runoff on October 30.

“The polls lied to us,” he crooned on Sunday.

In the case of Goulart, this could contribute to the discourse of rejection led by Bolsonaro.

“If an election poll is called on an issue in the context of a far-right population, science and reliable sources of information will be called into question, including the media,” she said.

Bolsonaro’s congressman, Eduardo, said on Monday that he would collect signatures to open a parliamentary committee investigation into polling companies about the discrepancies.

“Polling agencies will have to reinvent themselves,” said Casaroes.


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