The campaigns for the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana have entered their final laps. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his bête noire Congress president Rahul Gandhi are addressing multiple rallies in the poll-bound states in a final attempt to woo voters. These attempts may be particularly relevant for Madhya Pradesh and Telangana where pre-poll surveys are indicating neck-and-neck contests. But how important are these final campaign pushes? Data from surveys conducted by Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), show that the final campaign period is critical for parties in India.
A substantial section of the Indian electorate decides whom to vote for during the campaign period or just on the eve of voting. In the National Election Study 2014 (NES 2014), about one-fifth of respondents revealed they decided whom to vote for during the campaign period, while 27% said they made up their mind either on election day or just a few days before.
These late-deciders do not belong to any particular sociodemographic group, but as a proportion of the electorate, have declined considerably over the last two decades. In 1999, 54% of voters made their choice on the eve of polling. However, even with this decline, parties can ignore them only at their peril. Late-deciders are still a large enough group to be pivotal in most elections, especially in close contests. Thus, it is vital for parties to strategically time their campaign and peak at the opportune moment. Losing steam much before the polling day can prove to be costly.
During campaigns, parties actively try to capture the narrative and build a sentiment among voters that they hold the winning momentum. This is critical as a high proportion of late deciders engage in bandwagon voting. The data shows that voters want to back winners.
In NES 2014, respondents were asked if they voted for a party because it was likely to win the election. More than four out of 10 voters (43%) said that they voted for a party simply because they felt it would be the winning side. Early on in the 2014 campaign itself, Modi and the BJP had built a widespread perception that they were doing well. This played out in favour of the party as there was an 18 percentage points gap between the BJP and Congress among voters who said that the winning party mattered in their voting choice . Not surprisingly, late deciders are more likely to be bandwagon voters. More than half of those who decided on the cusp of polling said that winning party mattered to them as compared to only 38% among the early deciders.
How are parties reaching out to these swing voters and favourably shifting their vote? Apart from mass on-ground activities, such as public meetings and roadshows by leaders and candidates, and media campaigns, parties use micro-level targeting to reach out to voters.
They rely on vote mobilizers and workers to directly deliver their messages to voters. In recent state elections—Gujarat in 2017 and Karnataka in 2018—BJP and Congress workers reached out directly to more than half the voters in the electorate.
Most of these voters were reached out by both parties, but those who were reached by only one party voted decisively in favour of that party. These would be mostly traditional supporters who are often not even approached by workers of rival parties during the campaign.
Interestingly, there was a sharp difference in the voting patterns of those who were reached by both parties. In Gujarat, the BJP had an 11 percentage point lead among this section, while in Karnataka, the Congress enjoyed a 8 percentage point lead.
This difference in effectively persuading voters may partly explain why the BJP crossed the half-way mark in Gujarat, but fell short in Karnataka.
Given these results, political parties have been continuously trying to innovate and improve their mass outreach. For the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been personally interacting with booth-level workers from across the country through video conferencing over the course of the last few months. The Congress, on the other hand, has started Operation Shakti, a programme for mobilizing and engaging booth-level workers. All this, even if it is at the end of the campaign, could be critical, come results day on 11 December.
Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Pranav Gupta is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.