Demographic polarization and the rise of the far right: Brazil’s 2018 presidential election

Layton, Matthew L.; Smith, Amy Erica; Moseley, Mason W.; Cohen, Mollie J.
Research and Politics

Does the recent electoral success of far-right populists represent a mere rejection of the political and economic status quo, or has it revealed deeper cultural divides? Historically, demographic cleavages have been poor predictors of vote choice and partisanship in Latin America. However, during Brazil’s 2018 presidential election campaign, right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro fomented conflict across lines of gender, race, and religion. We argue that his candidacy activated latent, previously unexploited grievances in the electorate. Using survey data from an original five-wave online panel conducted between July 2018 and January 2019, we examine the effect of demographic cleavages on presidential vote choice. In stark contrast to prior elections, we find clear evidence of demographic divides in 2018, partially mediated by issue positions. Bolsonaro’s campaign and subsequent election thus appear to have created new identity-based alignments in Brazil’s electorate. Our findings shed further light on the global resurgence of the far right, suggesting that far-right candidates can attract new bases of support through demographic polarization, exploiting differences in values and issue preferences by gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.