Does Brazil have a hidden gender gap?

Election Day in Brazil has arrived and the daily polls are leaning back toward incumbent President Dilma Rousseff as the possible winner. As of Friday morning…
Does Brazil have a hidden gender gap?

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who is running for reelection with the Workers Party, greets supporters at a campaign rally in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Election Day in Brazil has arrived and the daily polls are leaning back toward incumbent President Dilma Rousseff as the possible winner.

As of Friday morning Dilma had moved passed her strongest rival, Aecio Neves, and is gaining back voters in a very ugly week of campaigning. Being on the ground in Rio de Janeiro this week, it seems that one factor that may be putting Dilma back in the lead is women voters, and also with the gay community as she has managed to pull votes away from Aecio by characterizing him as a wife beater and also anti-gay.

When Marina Silva, the candidate of the Socialist Party who came in third in the first round of voting on October 7th endorsed Aecio, he also agreed to support her policies, including the condemnation of homosexual behavior.

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In this traditionally high testosterone nation talk of a gender gap that favors women leaders is really not part of the dialogue.

Polls usually do not how voter breakdown by gender, but by socio-economic standing. The conversation here is more about having Dilma in the drivers seat again to consolidate the legacy of her predecessor, Luis da Silva, Lula.

This is important given the tremendous social gains that has included lifting more than 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. But something else is also going on.

From conversations with women, and especially with millennials, the negative message about Aecio’s behavior with women, coupled with the baggage he picked up from Marina de Sliva on being anti-gay, there is now a backlash among voters who prefer Dilma to someone considered a womanizer.

At meetings with university women, and with younger women on the street, Dilma seems to be the favorite. Several cited that they had been convinced that this former revolutionary was a model of strength at one of the darkest times in Brazil’s history during military rule in the 1970s.

Neves and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, presidential candidate for re-election are in a tight election contest, that culminates Sunday when millions of Brazilians are expected to go to the polls and decide who'll be the next leader of Latin America's biggest economy.

Aecio Neves, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB, greets supporters from his home in Sao Joao del Rey, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Saturday, Oct.25, 2014. (AP Photo/Eugenio Savio)

Furthermore, I believe it is that women voters (voting is mandatory in Brazil) also see in Dilma a woman who has led the ship of state to continue the social contract that her Labor Party made with the poor. It is women who manage the home, buy the food, send their kids to school, and ultimately control the pursestrings. While polls don’t always break things down by gender, something is happening in Brazil, a traditionally machista culture is changing.

So it should not be surprising that women voters want to continue with Dilma, a known quantity and also a strong woman leader. They may not want the change that so many of the polls said were the reason why Brazilians are opting for Aecio Neves, the Social Democrat (PBMD) candidate.

Aecio will certainly bring a more open trade policy, and greater engagement with the United States and Europe to this country. But this may not be enough in an election that will turn on the domestic situation and not on foreign policy.

Talking to women in Brazil – young women students, women workers at the hotel, my quick sidewalk polls reinforces the belief that Brazil has a gender gap that most formal polls do not capture. Women are flexing their political muscle, showing that they want a voice in what some would describe as an election that marks a generational shift in Brazil.

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The 2014 presidential race will be the last stand of the generation of 1968. The leftist boomers who are still nationalistic and anti-U.S. are also the group that does not want to see the rise of new alliances that are needed to build a  more open, and democratic Brazil. Women may be the factor upon which this election  outcome turns.

If Dilma is reelected, pollsters will need to go back to their samples of voters, and to review the issues that these women identified as the most important for Brazil’s future.

Women are more likely to support Dilma because they see in her a leader that will continue to fight for them. These women voters may very well have Dilma’s back in ways that men will never understand, let alone articulate. This may be the unspoken change that we should be watching on Sunday.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at the School of International Service at American University and a Senior Associate at the Stimson Center, Washington,D.C.