Brazilection 2014: Coming full circle

No Se Mancha’s Brazilian insider João Schlüter  gives his predictions days before the first round of the presidential election this Sunday. 

Brazil votes this Sunday

Brazil votes this Sunday

Now this is it: the first round election is on Sunday and things look almost like they did when I started writing here back in May: The old President is most likely to be the new president.

But hasn’t it been a ride to get here? Things were only moderately interesting up to August as challenger Aécio Neves was clearly trailing incumbent Dilma Rousseff.

The tragic death of Eduardo Campos changed everything


Out of the ashes of the crashed Cesna plane, rose like a Phoenix, Marina Silva, the saint-like (according to her followers) Amazonian surging past Aécio and briefly even beating the president in the polls.

In recent weeks however, Marina’s numbers crumbled as she was caught in the crossfire of the governing (PT) as well as major opposition party (PSDB). With only 2 minutes of free TV time and a weak party organization on the streets she was easy prey for the old guard. And if that wasn’t enough, unforced mistakes and inconsistencies drew her readiness to govern into question.

So where do we stand now?

The first round is on Sunday and there is no doubt Dilma will win it 

Phoenix down - will she fly on to the second round?

Phoenix down – will she fly on to the second round?

The incumbent stands at 40 percent in the latest Datafolha first round polls, near her ceiling but not  quite enough to win it outright in this round: she would need 50 plus percent of the valid vote (more than all other candidates combined), she’s standing at 45 percent. Hence a one round election is possible but unlikely.

The real race on Sunday is for second place

The competition for who will join Dilma in the second round on October 26 has tightened. Marina surged  ahead of Aécio by up to 20 percentage points in early September. In the latest Datafolha poll of October 2, she’s up by only 3, within the margin of error (plus / minus 2 percentage points).

So how is this going to play out?  

It’s no use holding back now: prediction time! Clearly, Dilma will win the first round. The second place race will be a nail biter and may well decide the final outcome.

If Aécio manages to pull off the comeback and sneak by Marina Silva, we will really be in the same place we thought we would be in until August: Dilma beating Aécio in the second round.

Scenario #1: Dilma vs.  Aécio – Dilma wins 

The Aécio – Dilma second round has been simulated all year and Dilma has been ahead consistently. In July the Tucano candidate came close by 4 points (44 to 40). The gap widened during the Marina surge but narrowed recently to 7 (48 to 41).

Here is why I don’t think Aécio can win: His ceiling appears to be around 40 percent. His party, the PSDB is (rightly or wrongly) is associated with the south-eastern white elites. In the North-East, Brazil’s second most populous region, he trails Dilma by almost 40 percentage points. In the south or south-east he might beat her, but not by enough to make up for it. His poll numbers among the poorer half of the population are dismal all over the country. Those Brazilians don’t identify with the sleek grandson of a former (almost) president and they won’t vote for him.

The bottom line is that he was never able to attract the all-important “middle segment” of the electorate: Voters who are not poor, but not part of the traditional middle class either. While he might be able to pick up the majority  of the Marina first round vote, to beat Dilma he would need almost all of it.

So my prediction: unless something big happens between the two rounds, Dilma beats Aecio.

Only the lady can beat the lady

Only a lady can beat the lady

Scenario #2: Marina vs. Dilma:  The devil you know and the angel who doesn’t know herself

What about Marina’s chances of beating Dilma? This is a tricky one. Marina did rise ahead of Dilma a few weeks ago beating her by up to 10 percentage points (50 to 40). Since then however her momentum has turned and she’s currently trailing the incumbent at exactly the same rate as Aécio (48 to 41).

Now here’s why I think Marina has a better chance to win: She’s able to reach more of the middle and lower segments of society that Dilma relies on. Marina continuously outpolls Aécio in the Northeast as well as among poorer voters all over the country. Marina, with her rags-to-riches life story, is more able to seize the crucial middle ground and challenge Dilma on her turf among the poor and no-longer-poor.

Basically in the case of Dilma vs. Marina it will be a choice between an incumbent who everyone knows well but far from everyone likes (approval rating of 39 percent, rejection rate of 33) and a challenger who some love but most feel they don’t know what to expect from.

Given Marina’s record of affiliation with various parties and changing positions or discourses, no one really knows what her government would look like,  chances are she doesn’t even know herself.

The choice is therefore one between more of the same – the devil you know – or a jump into the blue, betting on a largely untested candidate. How this will play out is anyone’s guess. But there are good reasons to think that Marina has a shot if she plays her hand right:

Marina factor #1: the people want change

One thing has been persistent in this campaign it is that the voters want the next president to do things differently. About three quarters say they want change. The demonstrations of June 2013 clearly demonstrated this. Unsurprisingly all candidates have adopted a change rhetoric (Dilma’s slogan is “more changes more future”). But in the end Dilma is the status quo and Aécio is widely seen as the past (his party governed from 1994 to 2002), Marina is the one most clearly symbolizing change.

Marina factor #2: New round – new rules 

The second round will be different. In the case of a Marina – Dilma runoff, Aécio voters will have to make a choice and it should be clear: Whoever votes for Aécio doesn’t want Dilma to stay in power. Marina should be able to collect just about all Aécio voters, especially if she can convince them of her ability to govern.

There are also important regulatory changes from the first to the second round. In the runoff the playing field will be level. Whereas Dilma had over 11 minutes of TV time versus Marina’s 2 over the past 8 weeks, they will get the same time in the three weeks following Sunday’s vote. This should enable her campaign to defend her better against the   (sometimes absurd) allegations coming from the PT. In TV debates, there will be no more minor candidates stealing the show. It would be a fair fight – woman against woman.

Does all of this mean that Marina will beat Dilma? Not necessarily. If Marina makes the second round she will have her work cut out, convincing the roughly 10 percent of the electorate who are up for grabs to bet on her. She will have some convincing to do. She’ll probably have to do better than she did in recent debates, but as we’ve seen in this campaign a lot can happen in a few weeks.

João Schlüter is a Brazilian political analyst and insider covering the Brazilian presidential election for NoSeMancha.

See all of João’s election coverage HERE 

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