The untappable floating voters of India

In the backdrop of the 2012 the US presidential election, Linda Killian documented the characteristics and importance of floating voters in her book ‘The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents’. In fact, Ms Killian spotted four distinct demographic groups of Swing voters in the US:

 
  • The NPR Republicans, also known as Rockefeller Republicans, due to their political philosophy close to Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican. They are traditional, well-educated, socially moderate and fiscally conservative Republicans who became independents because of a growing disaffection with their natural party home. Many of them voted for Barack Obama, for example.
  •  America First Democrats, also monikered as Reagan Democrats, are largely male, working- and middle-class voters. They tend to be more conservative than the Demo­cratic party, and think that many Democrats didn’t stand up for traditional American values both at home and abroad. Many of them voted for Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, but didn’t vote for Obama.
  •  Many voters under 35 are Independent as they mistrust politicians of both parties. They are from The Facebook Generation.
  •  The largest and most important Swing voting bloc are the Starbucks Moms and Dads. These suburban and exurban voters tend to be sceptical of big government; they are socially moderate, concerned about education and national security. And, according to Ms Killian, they decide elections.
 

Linda Killian believes that the Swing voters are an ever-expanding force which comprises more than 40 per cent of the American voters. And they determined the outcome of every election since the World War II. Some experts spotted a fifth category, namely the Ideologues, whose philosophical allegiance doesn’t match with any major party contesting the elections.

 

Even days before the Brexit referendum, YouGov poll suggested the support percentages favouring ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ to be around 45 per cent each. The 10 per cent Undecideds certainly determined Britain’s relationship with the Europe. In any YouGov survey ahead of a general election, the population is segmented into three key groups based on their voting pattern in the previous election and their current voting intention: Stickers, Switchers, and Undecideds. Clearly, Switchers and Undeciders can be pooled to form the Swing voters’ group. For example, there were 57 per cent Stickers, 22 per cent Switchers, and 20 per cent Undeciders for the 2017 snap election, indicating about 42 per cent Swing voters, and, interestingly, this is about the same proportion as in the US.

 

In our multi-party democracy, floating voters maybe categorised into many groups. Some voters are certainly independent, while there must be some soft-hearted supporters of any party who change their support quite often, like the Rockefeller Republicans or Reagan Democrats.

 

There is a widespread belief that the number of floating voters is reducing in this country. Is that so? Some experts prefer to find the approximate proportion of floating voters in the country in an indirect way. Assuming 1989 the beginning of the coalition era, and considering the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and Others as three parties/bloc, the minimum vote share for a party within the eight general elections during the last three decades, when the corresponding party/bloc faced a debacle, is considered to be the size of its core vote bank. The BJP attained its minimum in 2009 (considering 1991 onwards data for the BJP) when its vote share was 18.8 per cent, the Congress got its minimum vote share of 19.5 per cent in 2014, and the combined ‘Others’ had the minimum vote share in 1991 when it received 43.5 per cent support. If these figures represent the dedicated voter base to these parties/bloc, then nearly 82 per cent of the country’s voters are committed, keeping only 18 per cent floating voters in the country. There is no denial that this is a huge proportion, nearly 2 in 11, and certainly decisive in any election in our electoral setup. But, I tend to believe that this indirect method certainly overestimated the committed voters — with more and more elections we would attain new minimum for any party/bloc. Also, instead of considering ‘Others’ together, if the minimum vote share for each party is considered separately, we’d certainly get a much higher percentage of floating voters. Thus, this 18 per cent value may very well be a very conservative lower bound of the floating voters of the country — much less than the actual figure.

 

For example, in the 2017 Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress could manage only 22 per cent, 22.2 per cent and 6.2 per cent votes, whereas the BJP got only 15 per cent support in the state in 2012. Adding a minimum value of 6 per cent support for the other small parties combined, the committed voters in UP can’t be more than 57 per cent, leaving a massive 43 per cent floating voters in the state. I guess that this would hold true for any state and the whole country as well.

 

Political parties are up to grab these floating votes as much as possible, in their own styles. From poll promises to big-data-analytics-based canvassing — all come into the process. Interestingly, according to the National Election Study 2014 conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 43 per cent electorates in India go with the hawa. There are several factors contributing to that. Opinion polls, for example, contribute about 3 per cent hawa.

Likewise in the US, as portrayed by Linda Killian in her book, I firmly believe that a huge proportion of voters must be floating in India too — the gigantic and expensive election campaign is certainly not without reason. Where I differ Linda Killian is that the swing voters, I believe, are ‘untappable’, not just ‘untapped’. And that keeps our democracy fascinating and thrilling as well.

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The writer is professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata