As Indian voters get increasingly ideological, there is reason to wonder: do we really need an expensive, intense 70-day campaign, or have people already decided whom to vote for? A combination of growing ideological consolidation and greater access to information has meant that voters now increasingly make up their minds early.
Post-election surveys conducted by the Lokniti programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies as part of the National Election Studies show that one in two voters had made up their minds about whom to vote for even before the election campaign had begun in 2004 and 2014. In previous elections, such early deciders used to be in the range of one in three voters. The share of voters who make up their mind on the day of the election or a few days before has declined from one in two to one in four.
Early deciders tend to be either political activists or traditional supporters of a party with high interest in political activity, or relatively privileged voters – male, urban, educated, middle class – with higher media exposure and greater access to information, said political scientist Rahul Verma, based on his analysis of Lokniti-CSDS post-election studies.
Campaigns, including voter contact and messaging by political parties as well as media coverage, matter less for such voters and more for those who are less plugged-in.
Particularly in multi-phase elections, this helps create that intangible “hawa” or momentum. As Verma found, late deciders vote overwhelmingly for the party perceived to be winning.
In 2014, for instance, 45% of the voters surveyed by Lokniti-CSDS said winnability was not a factor, but over 40% of voters said that they voted for the party they believed would win. This perception affects late deciders more – over half of the late deciders voted for the party they thought was likely to win.
“In 2014, the BJP led the Congress by eight percentage points among voters who had made their decision even before the campaign started, but it almost doubled its lead (i.e. 16 percentage points) among those who decided in the last 48 hours,” Verma found.
As long-drawn multi-phase electoral campaigns become the norm in India, keeping the political messaging and media coverage around “winnability” at a high volume becomes crucial. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders are undoubtedly strong campaigners. In 2013-’14, the BJP’s preference among voters had surpassed that of the Congress by the beginning of 2014, but the gap expanded significantly during the campaign, data from Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll and post-poll surveys shows.
Moreover, in 2014, the Congress’ voteshare declined as the campaign progressed. Post-election analysis by political scientist Gilles Vernier and the YIF Electoral Data Unit shows that the Congress’ voteshare fell steadily by phase, falling to its lowest by the ninth and final phase.
Consistent media coverage during the campaign is always helpful. The BJP polls best among those with high media exposure and those most aware of opinion polls. In 2014, then BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi contested two seats: Vadodara in Gujarat, which went to the polls in the seventh phase at the same time as Amethi and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, the constituencies of Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, which went to the polls in the last phase.
This was unusual. Varanasi had not voted in the last phase of an election in at least 20 years. Modi’s candidature helped keep the national media’s interest in the BJP campaign well past the seventh phase. Varanasi will again vote in the last phase in 2019, while Amethi and Rae Bareli vote in the fifth phase.
But it would be a mistake to suggest that media coverage alone drove the BJP’s 2014 campaign bump. For one, coverage, while systematically higher for Modi, remained proportionately roughly the same for the two leaders through the end of the campaign. Gandhi, in fact, got his highest coverage at the end of the campaign. Moreover, the growth in preference for the BJP was not among those with high media exposure alone.
Eight weeks before the first vote had been cast in 2014, the BJP’s lead over the Congress was apparent in pre-election opinion polls. But there is no evidence for the gap widening yet. While the polling agency CVoter does not ask a direct question about party preference in its daily tracker poll, the closest approximation comes from a question on PM preference, and Modi’s lead here has only grown after the air strikes against Pakistan.
For this to change, the Congress and its allies would have to mount the campaign of their lives, and substantially reverse the voting preferences of women, rural voters, those with less education and less media exposure, while simultaneously winning back the media narrative – all in 65 days.