With crucial state elections scheduled in three months, pre-poll surveys have begun appearing in the media. If done well and at regular intervals, these surveys serve as useful tools for tracking shifting voter sentiment. However, pre-poll forecasts have often been quite different from the eventual result. Quality issues apart, there’s a major reason for this divergence, and that’s late decision-making by voters.
Since 2000, there have been 130 Assembly elections. During 78 of them, Lokniti has conducted post-poll or exit poll surveys where it has asked voters when they made up their mind about who they would vote for. An analysis of the responses shows that most voters finalised their choice only during or after the campaign period, and not before. This tendency was always strong in Assembly elections, but has increased in the last decade.
In 46 of the 78 elections, at least half the voters took a final call during the campaigning weeks or at the last minute (Table 1).
In 8 of the 17 states where Lokniti has conducted post-polls more than twice since 2000, we find that the voters’ tendency to decide during the campaign, or just after it, has been stronger in elections since 2010 compared to elections during 2000-09. These are Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.
In 10 states, the last Assembly election there recorded the highest percentage of late deciders compared to previous elections. For instance, in the Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala elections this year, 65%, 68% and 39% of voters respectively decided their vote during campaigning or at the last minute, which was the highest of the last two decades for these states. Jharkhand in 2019; Chhattisgarh, MP, Karnataka and Tripura in 2018, and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2017 also recorded higher-than-before figures.
This apparent rising tendency of voters to decide late gets confirmed when we merge data from all 78 elections. In elections between 2000 and 2009, 53% voters decided their choice during campaigning or after it ended; in 2010-13, this increased to 57%; and in 2014-21 (the ‘Modi years’) it rose further to 63% (Figure 1). The rise in late deciders during the Modi era is due to a high proportion of campaign-stage deciders and not so much last-minute ones, whose proportion has remained quite stable at around one-third across the three periods.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election too had a large proportion (62%) making up their mind either at the campaigning stage or the last moment. This, in fact, constituted a reversal of the trend towards early decision-making seen in national elections held from 1999 to 2014.
It’s important to stress that late deciders don’t always end up upending poll predictions or behaving differently from early deciders. There have been instances when they haven’t, but they often have. In West Bengal in 2021, most pre-polls had predicted a close contest. However, eventually the Trinammol Congress won easily and Lokniti’s post-poll data shows that this was due to a massive 16-percentage-point vote advantage among campaign-period deciders (Table 2). In Bihar in 2020, the NDA was predicted to win quite comfortably. However, a late shift towards the Mahagathbandhan made the contest close.
All these data highlight the risks of predicting an election too early.
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