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Brazil elections: How pollsters failed to predict Bolsonaro’s vote share

Since neither Lula nor Bolsonaro have been able to secure a majority, they will now proceed to a second round of elections.

brazil electionsA man walks past presidential campaign materials depicting Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia. (Reuters file photo)

Brazil’s hotly contested presidential elections will head to a run-off on October 30, after the country’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, pulled off a better show than what pollsters had predicted. The divisive leader secured 43.2 per cent of the votes on Sunday (October 2), trailing close behind leftist veteran Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who won 48.4 per cent of the votes.

While Lula, Brazil’s former president who served between 2003-2010, was heavily favoured to win in the first round of voting, since neither he nor incumbent Bolsonaro have been able to secure a majority, they will proceed to a second round of elections.

While Lula continues to have a slight edge, possibly marking yet another Latin American country’s return to the Left, with the recent performance by Bolsonaro, it remains to be seen who will emerge victorious after the next four weeks of campaigning.

What is Brazil’s presidential election system?

Brazil’s presidential elections consist of two rounds. In the first round, people get to choose from all the candidates participating in the elections. If no single candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes, then a final round is held on a scheduled date, where the top two candidates with leading vote shares from the first round participate. The winner of this round becomes the President.

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Elections for all seats in Brazil’s lower house of parliament and a third of the senate’s seats also take place at this time. Furthermore, governors and vice governors of all states are also elected.

Eleven candidates took part in Sunday’s (October 2) elections. After Lula (of the left-wing Worker’s Party) and Bolsonaro (of the conservative Liberal Party), Simon Tebet (of the centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement) and Ciro Gomes (of the centre-left Democratic Labour Party) came third and fourth, with 4 per cent and 3 per cent of the votes respectively.

Voting for both rounds is done via electronic voting machines, and Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubts on their efficacy, without providing any evidence for the allegations. Much like former US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has suggested that if he does not win the elections, it would be due to voter fraud.


In July, three out of every four Bolsonaro supporters told a Brazilian polling company that they trusted voting machines a “little” or not at all, The New York Times reported.

What did pollsters predict?

Polls had claimed a sweeping victory for Lula and underestimated the support Bolsonaro received from the electorate. Brazil’s polling companies, Ipec and DataFolha, released the final polls of the campaign season on Saturday (October 1), claiming that Lula would receive a 13- or 14-point margin over Bolsonaro, who was predicted to receive around 36 per cent of the first-round votes, The Guardian reported. Other polls claimed that Lula would emerge victorious in the first round alone.

Bolsonaro, since 2018 serving his first presidential term, has been criticised for the rising unemployment in the country, for his reductions of environmental protections and destruction of the Amazon rainforest, endorsement of political violence and mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic that claimed 600,000 lives in Brazil – the second highest death count in the world after the US.


He has frequently questioned the data published by polling companies and claimed they were underestimating the support he enjoyed. After the results were announced on Sunday, Bolsonaro told reporters in Rio de Janeiro, “We beat the lie today.”

Why did polls underestimate Bolsonaro?

Analysts have blamed faulty demographic data emerging from an outdated census. The last one was carried out in 2010 and the one scheduled for 2020 was delayed to the Covid-19 pandemic. The subsequent year, it was held back once again after Bolsonaro’s government cut funding for the survey, the Wall Street Journal reported.

During his two terms as President, Lula introduced sweeping measures aimed at combating poverty and uplifting the working class, making him immensely popular among the poor in Brazil. Many of the polling companies are said to have overestimated the number of the people in the lowest income bracket, and thus projected that Lula would have a greater lead.

“Working out what religion these people were was even harder,” said Rafeal Cortez from the consulting firm Tendências, in a Wall Street Journal report. The polls underestimate the number of evangelical Christians among the poor who heavily favoured Bolsonaro, he said.

The failure of Brazil’s polls are indicative of a larger trend of pre-election polls around the world failing to track the support of right-wing and far-right leaders, such as Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections, or France’s Marine Le Pen, who as the Washington Post reported, underperformed in polls but increased her vote share in this year’s elections.


Bolsonaro’s allies emerge victorious

While polls were incorrect in their predictions of Bolsonaro’s vote share, Lula nonetheless emerged the front-runner in the presidential election race. In the last eight presidential elections in Brazil modern democracy, every candidate that led in the first round also won in the second, The New York Times reported.

Even if Lula does win, he will likely face an uphill battle as Brazil’s Congress is currently dominated by Bolsonaro’s allies. A number of conservative leaders that share ties with him emerged victorious in the governorship and congressional elections. At least eight of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were elected to Congress, and currently his Liberal Party holds 112 seats, making it the biggest in both the lower and upper chambers, as reported by The New York Times.


Much like Bolsonaro, many of his key allies also defied the pre-election polls and won key posts. Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro of the Liberal Party was reelected to his post on Sunday and Tarcisio de Freitas, the Bolsonaro administration’s Minister of Infrastructure, won more than 10 points higher than the poll and is headed to the gubernatorial run-off for Sao Paulo.

First published on: 04-10-2022 at 06:47:53 pm
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