Sympathy Vote for Marina Silva

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 19, 2014


The untimely death of Eduardo Campos (1965-2014), the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, has redefined the election in Brazil. Seven weeks before the first round vote to be held on October 5, the designation of environmentalist and former presidential candidate Marina Silva to replace him will most likely make a runoff inevitable and might put Marina on the ballot in the October 26 runoff. However, when the new presidential term begins on January 1, 2015, the most likely scenario is that incumbent President Dilma Rousseff will be sworn in for a second and final four-year term.


The plane crash that took the lives of Campos and six other people on August 13 turned the presidential campaign into a rollercoaster. The other presidential hopefuls — including front-runner Rousseff from the Workers’ Party (PT) and Aécio Neves of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB) who was in second place in most polls — immediately put their campaigns on hold. Though Campos was in third place and his campaign was losing traction, a likely runoff had centred the attention on him. If Campos would have supported Neves in the ballottage, Dilma would have been left in a vulnerable position. Because Campos served under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as minister of Science and Technology and he represented a party to the left of the ruling PT, Campos was perceived as being closer to Dilma. Many expected him to support her in the runoff to pave his way to become the candidate of a Workers’ Party-Socialist Party coalition in 2018.


Even before Campos was laid to rest, the Socialist Party began discussing the name of his replacement. Vice-presidential candidate Marina Silva was the overwhelming favourite. Marina comes from a very different background than the upper-class Campos. Born in poverty, she learned to read and write as a young woman. She rose to power as an environmental activist in the Amazon region. Elected to the Senate in 1994, Marina acquired national prominence. She was appointed minister of the Environment by Lula in 2003 and remained in office until 2008. A member of the growing evangelical population, Marina ran for president in 2010, receiving 20 percent of the vote and forcing a runoff between Dilma and PSDB candidate José Serra. Though Marina remained neutral in the runoff, polls indicated that a majority of her voters ended up supporting Dilma. In 2014, after considering a new presidential run, Marina decided to throw her support behind Campos. Many speculated that she was waiting for 2018, when Dilma would be term-limited and Marina and Campos could compete for the PT endorsement.


With Marina in the race, pollsters have rushed to assess if the new lineup will change voters’ preferences. As expected, Marina has quickly benefited from a sympathy vote. In a poll released yesterday, her vote intention stands at 21 percent, more than twice the eight percent that Campos had a couple of weeks ago. Support for Dilma (36 percent) and Neves (20 percent) did not change. Many people who were previously undecided are supporting Marina. Most strikingly, in a runoff against Dilma, Marina comes up ahead (47 to 43 percent). As she has high negatives, there is a strong protest vote against Dilma. In past polls, as people learned about the positions of other candidates, discontent with Dilma turned into null and blank votes rather than into support for her possible rivals. Since the positions held by Marina are far less known today, her vote intention in a possible runoff might be temporarily inflated by sympathy.


A couple of weeks ago, when the most likely scenario was a runoff between Dilma and Neves, the campaign was expected to become more moderate in the second round. After all, centre-left voters who supported Campos would be closer to Dilma in the runoff. However, if Marina makes it to the second round, the campaign after October 5 will focus on right-of-centre voters who disapprove of the incumbent president’s performance but might dislike leftist Marina even more.


Because there is plenty of uncertainty about who will end up second in the first round vote, Dilma might be able to influence the outcome of the race. If her campaign emphasizes the president's moderate credentials, it will gain votes from moderates who might be tempted to support Neves and might help Marina win second place. If the president focuses on the PT's leftwing traditional messages, Neves will make gains among moderate voters. Since the effect of the sympathy vote is more difficult to assess in the case of Marina making it to the runoff, it would make more sense for Dilma to make a left turn in her campaign in the final weeks. As polls have consistently shown that Dilma would beat Neves in a runoff and given that Marina now has momentum, the incumbent president will much rather face Neves in the second round. Thus, in the coming weeks, Dilma's campaign will probably move to the left to try to take votes away from Marina.