Is the 'Sympathy Vote' Real?

How the death of a long-shot Brazilian candidate could make his running mate president
Haryadi CH/Shutterstock

Last Wednesday, Eduardo Campos, the Socialist Party politician and third-place candidate in Brazil's presidential race, was on a short morning flight from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo when his plane hit bad weather along the coast and crashed in a residential neighborhood. And last night, his vice-presidential running mate, Marina Silva, officially ascended to the top of the party ticket to carry on the campaign in his stead.

She enters a race fundamentally different than it was a week ago. “[Silva] should get a bounce from the outpouring of sympathy and despair,” David Fleischer, a political-science professor at the University of Brasília, predicted in an interview with The Washington Post as an estimated 100,000 mourners lined up for miles to see Campos’s coffin over the weekend. A poll released Monday suggested that that “bounce” was an understatement—support for the Socialist Party  presidential candidate had roughly doubled, from 8 percent in mid-July to more than 20 percent after Campos’ death, with a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

But does grief really sway voters? Can a freak tragedy somehow make a candidate more appealing?

Absolutely, at least in the short term. But whether that can make Silva president is another question.

Support for Brazilian Presidential Candidates

(Data: Datafolha)

“It’s always interesting when you see a surge in support,” Amy Jasperson, a political-science professor at Rhodes College who has researched the 'sympathy vote,' tells me. The concept, she wrote in a 2006 study, “suggests that after the death of a candidate, the deceased candidate’s party is likely to win the race when it benefits from an outpouring of support in honor of the deceased.” To see how, or even if, the effect worked, she examined Minnesota’s 2002 Senate race. That year, incumbent Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 12 days before the election. “[C]onventional wisdom," wrote Jasperson in that study, "suggested that this concept of ‘the sympathy vote’ would propel Wellstone’s replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to victory.”

But it didn’t work out that way, despite a surge in the polls for Mondale immediately after Wellstone's death. While Jasperson found that Mondale initially benefited from one-sided positive coverage of the candidate he replaced, the media soon took away what it had given, devoting negative coverage to the the partisan tone of Wellstone's memorial service. “[T]his sympathy effect was fragile," Jasperson concluded, "and disappeared when the media messages communicated to the public shifted to partisan conflict.” Mondale's sympathy bump disappeared by election day, and his challenger Norm Coleman won the race. Jasperson identified another factor in the outcome: “[T]he more time that passes after the tragedy, the greater the likelihood that the sympathy effect will dissipate.” In Minnesota, 12 days was enough.

The specter of the sympathy vote appeared again, half a world away from Minnesota, in Pakistan’s 2008 general elections. When Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party was assassinated while campaigning in December 2007, news reports predicted that her death would determine the electoral outcome. “Certainly there’s a sympathy vote,” the PPP’s Syed Yousaf Gilani, who later became prime minister, declared ahead of election day. After the PPP did in fact win the most votes and Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became president in her place, skeptics, too, attributed the victory to something other than the appeal of PPP policies. One teacher in Pakistan told the Associated Press, “The PPP is in power just because of the sympathy vote after the brutal murder of Benazir Bhutto.”

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Kathy Gilsinan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers global affairs. She was previously senior editor at World Politics Review.

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