Rio gubernatorial aspirants Wilson Witzel of the Partido Social Cristão (left) and Eduardo Pães of the centrist Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (right)

Rio gubernatorial aspirants Wilson Witzel of the Partido Social Cristão (left) and Eduardo Pães of the centrist Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (right)

If the national polling agencies and analysts got Brazil’s presidential election wrong, their failings were even worse in Rio de Janeiro State. After the first-round vote on 7 October, the leading candidate was the right-wing, law-and-order candidate Wilson Witzel of the Partido Social Cristão (PSC). Witzel — the former federal judge and ally of Jair Bolsonaro who is also from Rio — won a totally unexpected 41.28% of the valid votes. He beat the expected winner, former Rio State governor and long-time polling front-runner Eduardo Pães of the centrist Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (MDB), by more than 20%. In a poll published by the respected IBOPE polling agency the day before the election, Witzel — who was in fourth place for almost the entire campaign — had moved into a statistical tie for third with an expected 12% of valid votes, 20% behind Pães

Witzel, who was long written off as too weak to finish first or second in an 11-candidate race — even after one of the most popular leading candidates and former governors was struck from the ballot — was mostly seen as a potential power broker in an expected second round. It is bad enough to under-estimate the final vote totals in a presidential race by a 6% in a poll taken on the eve of the election, even if you correctly predict the winner, runner up and the finishing position of the rest of the pack. But when your expected first-round winner for Rio governor not only fails to win but gets nearly 12% less than you estimated and the candidate you forecast would come fourth beats all rivals, and your estimate by nearly 30%, you have utterly failed.

This inability to accurately measure public opinion will have serious consequences. First, there has been little formal or spirited debate by voters, rival candidates and parties, or by analysts and experts about Witzel’s socially controversial, legally questionably, and financially dubious policies. All the people know about him is that he plans to get tough on crime, he’s an ex-federal-court judge, and he supports Bolsonaro. People who are fed up with crime and the same old names, are excited by Bolsonaro, and that’s enough.

Fighting crime means little, however, without understanding how you plan to do it. He has shown an open willingness to threaten and intimidate opponents. Upset with criticism from Pães, he promised to call for his arrest on the grounds that Pães was spreading lies about him.

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