Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Which way the polls swing depends on voter heuristics

Mental shortcuts that go by current emotions and quick recall tend to influence voter behaviour

Voter behaviour is not easy to predict. As electoral predictions take centre-stage, the questions which reign supreme are: Will Indian voters keep their tryst with this “festival of democracy"? More importantly, what will influence such voters’ choices?

Voter turnout is a critical factor in democracies, improving the chances of decisive results and fair success. Some people choose not to vote as they believe their votes will have very little or no impact on election outcomes. “To vote or not to vote"thus becomes an all-important question. If, in voters’ minds, the expected subjective cost of going out to cast a vote outweighs the expected subjective benefit, voter turnout will be low.

Political parties have typically resorted to highlighting key issues to exhort greater voter participation. Seminal work in the field of voter behaviour (The Effects Of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, And Direct Mail On Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment; ) indicates that content actually does not matter. It is the mode of contacting the voter that influences turnout. The more personal the mode of contact, the greater will be the impact on the contacted citizen. Thus, face-to-face canvassing by local, familiar candidates is the best bet. Personal phone calls will work if done in a chatty, unhurried manner, while impersonal one-way communication, including robo-calls and text messages, are the least effective.

The 2019 elections are going to be interesting for the impact of newer forms of social media campaigns on voter turnout and voter influence. Much ahead of the polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party has already designed a Whatsapp-based campaign identifying 900,000 nodal persons, termed “cell-phone pramukhs", at the level of election booths who would be responsible for circulating campaign material.

The Prime Minister on his official blog has put out “Four Requests for Democracy" (, exhorting citizens to register, check for the presence of one’s name on the voters list, plan well so that they are present in their respective cities on the day of voting, and mobilize others to ensure a large voter turnout. He has then tagged celebrities in various fields as well as leaders of opposition parties in a set of 25 tweets, ostensibly to get them to endorse the voting process and help raise awareness.

How will retweets by such celebrities work on voter turnout and voter psyche? Will these be seen as celebrity endorsements of the voting process or as support for the person himself? Such retweets may well be seen as endorsements of the person, the explanation for which lies in behavioural theory. Human beings are cognitively limited information processors. In fact, they are cognitive misers. They do not access and process all the available information to make rational decisions. Rather, they develop a number of “heuristics" or shortcuts, which allow them to take quick decisions. In the case of a voting decision, this could translate into higher voter turnout, though probably in favour of the candidate endorsed by their favourite celebrity, who may merely have retweeted the Prime Minister’s appeal to vote.

The voting decision itself is a well-defined problem, made within a specific context. Voters have to choose between alternative candidates who go to great lengths to highlight their achievements. There are other cognitive heuristics and resulting biases that affect the voting decision in this case. Important in this context are the affect and the availability heuristics. The affect heuristic refers to mental shortcuts wherein people make judgements that are heavily influenced by their current emotions. The availability heuristic is one where people make judgements about the likelihood of an event based on the ease of recall (availability) of relevant information.

Could voter emotions have been significantly aroused by the recent Indo-Pak tensions, especially the Pulwama and Balakot attacks, which would be available to the voter when she goes out to vote? Can these result in a swing in favour of “a" party? Nationalist sentiments have the potential to affect voter emotions in a pre-election phase by kicking in the affect heuristic. However, this is contingent on the idea of “one" voter across all of India who responds emotionally to issues of nationalism in exactly the same fashion—clearly a fallacious assumption. In the northeastern states, local issues such as the Citizenship Bill may evoke high salience. Similarly, in the southern states, Pakistan may evoke less affect and emotions than in states like Uttar Pradesh.

Anecdotally, local issues like the loss of jobs on account of demonetization and complexities associated with GST continue to weigh supreme in the minds of common citizens going out to vote. Of the 16 general elections to the Lok Sabha, voter turnout has been less than 60% in 10. Political parties have been trumpeting their achievements and relative performance (or lack thereof of the opponent) to influence voters to cast their all-important vote in their favour. The key issues being raised on either side of the political divide are those of unemployment, rising social insecurity, national security and the absence of an alternative—the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor.

Which way votes will swing this summer would depend on voter heuristics. Voter behaviour may well turn out to be irrational, albeit predictably so.

These are the author’s personal views

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor of economics at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research.