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Brazil towel sales emerge to mock mistrust of polls

Towels featuring President Jair Bolsonaro, left, and former President Luiz Inacio da Silva
Towels featuring President Jair Bolsonaro, left, and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are displayed for sale next to a chalkboard showing the vendor’s daily sales for each.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)
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As keen supporters of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro claim polls signaling he will lose reelection can’t be trusted, an unlikely proxy has emerged: towel sales.

Cashing in on skepticism of pollsters ahead of the October election, some street vendors have begun using scoreboards to track sales of towels bearing the faces of far-right Bolsonaro and his rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftist Workers’ Party.

The boards have become a social media sensation in recent days. The trend is dubbed DataToalha, a pun alluding to the country’s most prominent pollster, Datafolha (“toalha’’ is Portuguese for towel.)

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At one stand in Rio de Janeiro’s city center Wednesday, Lula led 43 to 5. Vendor Jose Lucas da Silva, 28, said sales have soared and his scoreboard is drawing crowds and comments from passersby.

“It’s a joke, a joke that’s working out!” he said. “Whoever wants to participate just needs to buy!”

Were such sales a solid barometer of voter intent, they would indicate an even wider margin of victory for Lula than Datafolha surveys suggest. Its most recent poll, conducted in June, shows the former president with almost 50%, compared with 28% for Bolsonaro. The two-day survey of 2,556 people had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Political analysts have said that gap will narrow as inflation slows and the government begins disbursing recently approved welfare payments.

Bolsonaro has cast doubt on polls’ reliability. He mocked a Datafolha poll last year that indicated Lula would get nearly 60% of the votes in a runoff against him.

His voters are reading from the same hymn book. According to a May survey by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Novelo Data, groups backing Bolsonaro’s reelection have spread misleading news on WhatsApp, Telegram and YouTube channels, seeking to tarnish the reputation of polling institutions. The researchers monitored more than 2,000 social media groups for several months.

At the party convention Sunday that made Bolsonaro’s candidacy official, fans including Elizabeth da Costa Maia highlighted that Datafolha had projected Bolsonaro would lose the 2018 election — one of the most common arguments shared on pro-Bolsonaro social media groups.

“I don’t take those polls into consideration, especially because of the last result,” said Da Costa Maia, 58.

But although Datafolha’s poll one month before the runoff indicated a Bolsonaro loss, its poll just before that vote matched the ultimate result.

Bolsonaro supporters say a more accurate way to gauge the upcoming result is to watch the crowds that flood Bolsonaro rallies, which they refer to as DataPovo, or DataPeople. Such enthusiastic turnouts, they say, contrast with less visible support for Lula.

“The best survey is in the street, the people. Lula can’t even set foot in the street,” Júlia Rodrigues, a 24-year-old student, said at the convention. “Bolsonaro is so close to the people, and we identify with him.”

The word “DataToalha” was coined by another university student, Harumy Sato, whose interviews of three towel vendors in Rio went viral nationwide on social media on July 23. Lula shared her video, and vendors began hanging chalkboards at their stands to tally sales.

The video got more traction than anything produced so far in Sato’s journalism innovation class, much to her surprise.

“When I published more serious reports, they didn’t have such repercussion,” Sato said by phone. “It was supposed to be funny, unserious, and not as big as this.”

AP producer Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.

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