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.”

But the available data indicates that sympathy ultimately made no difference in the race. Bhutto’s PPP already led, by a small margin, in a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in November 2008, a month before her assassination; asked which party they would vote for if the election were held next week, 30 percent of respondents said the PPP, with the ruling party under Pervez Musharraf and another opposition party under Nawaz Sharif in a statistical dead heat with 25 percent and 23 percent of respondents’ support, respectively. By the time the IRI conducted its next poll a month after Bhutto’s death, in January, the PPP’s support had jumped to 50 percent of respondents; the government, viewed by most of them as responsible for Bhutto’s death, saw its support drop to 14 percent. Still, in the actual voting in February, the PPP won about 30 percent of the vote—roughly on par with the party's popularity prior to Bhutto’s assassination.

Brazil’s case, like all the others, is unique. Silva’s current poll numbers put her neck-and-neck with the other second-place challenger to President Dilma Rousseff, Aécio Neves, but the incumbent still leads the polls, with 36 percent of respondents supporting her. If, as seems likely, none of the three wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on October 5, the election goes to a runoff under Brazil’s electoral rules. “The rules also determine really whether or not [sympathy] will matter,” Jasperson says. If Silva can sustain her current level of support, she has a good chance of facing Rousseff in the runoff—and Monday’s poll suggests Silva has a shot at winning such a contest. The current surge of support for Silva, if it lasts, could send her into a second round, but the sympathy behind that surge may diminish as the presidential contest drags on. There are 46 days to go until election day in Brazil. Mondale had fewer than 12.

Keep in mind that public support doesn't automatically mean votes. Jasperson points out that much of Silva's bump is coming from previously undecided voters, and that neither Rousseff nor her other main challenger has actually lost support since mid-July. In other words, people who had picked their candidate prior to the plane crash did not change their minds because of it. Tragedy suddenly made less-engaged voters pay attention. "This is the interesting part where emotion becomes involved in politics," Jasperson says. “Now do we really believe that that’s going to be solid support or support that doesn’t dissipate? That is very doubtful.”

Silva, though, has more than sympathy going for her. A former environment minister who grew up in poverty in the Amazon, she faced Rousseff in the presidential election four years ago. She came in third, with 20 percent of the vote—about where she's polling now. Today she starts campaigning right where she left off.