Who Are the Undecided and the Abstainers?
A recent poll provides a profile of who is undecided,
who is planning to abstain and who can be swayed.
Will it hold true, or could events swing the vote?
Pedro López Ruiz
Despite the fact that polls are demonstrating abstention and indecision rates a third lower right now than at this time prior to last year’s municipal elections, two experiences in recent years show that both these categories could still be important in this presidential election. One is that abstention shot up to 44% in last November’s elections after a national IDESO poll two months earlier showed a combined abstainer and doubtful voter rate of 25.5%. The other is that Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán were in a technical tie toward the end of the 1996 campaign virtually identical to the one Ortega and Enrique Bolaños are in right now, but Alemán won with a 13-point lead on election day itself (51% vs. 37.8%). Many factors may have affected the 1996 outcome, including the utter chaos in the electoral branch of government and possibly some petty fraud. The most visible factor, however, was Cardinal Obando’s infamous last-minute galvanization of fence sitters in favor of Alemán.
Nicaragua’s incipient experience with polls in the past decade has taught that the assumption in 1990 that the undecided vote is unimportant because it will melt away in roughly the same percentages as the decided vote is false. The profile of the undecided and abstaining electorate must be looked at in its own right. The Citizen Participation and Governance Poll conducted by IDESO in the first days of September this year uncovered some interesting data about both those thinking of abstaining in the upcoming elections and those who are still undecided, and what if anything might sway some of them. In such close elections, every vote counts.
How many may not vote and why not?To the basic question "Are you going to vote in the next elections?" an extremely respectable 81% said yes, 11% said no, 6% said they were still undecided and the remaining 2% did not answer. As an overall profile, this closely reflects the strong voting pattern evident in both the 1984 and 1990 presidential elections. The 1996 elections cannot be compared because the Supreme Electoral Council lumped together with no-show voters the many completed ballots that went missing the following day.
When IDESO pollsters asked the 11% who said they would abstain this year for their reason, 34.6% responded that none of the candidates had convinced them. A whopping 55% said they believe the elections will be disorganized and fraudulent.
Among the 6% who had not yet decided whether they would vote, 48.6% also cited their fear that the elections will not be well managed or clean. Another 34.6% are waiting to see how the rest of the campaign plays out, with 4.6% saying they will be guided by the polls, 21% by the candidates’ promises and 9% by watching the candidates debate. Another 9%—barely 0.5% of the total sample—said they would wait until their religious leader indicates whom they should vote for.
Demographic breakdownsThe following charts break down the responses to the above question by age group and monthly income in córdobas. The first two categories closely reflect the demographics of the Nicaraguan electorate, while the second is more of a socioeconomic guesstimate. An analysis of the response by sex varied by less than one percentage point in all four possible answers.
As the first table shows, the decision not to vote is significantly high (19.6%) among the 16-19 age range—in other words, the over 20% of the electorate that will be voting in presidential elections for the first time. In the classic adolescent "I may be wrong, but I’m not confused" stance, that same age group has one of the lowest percentages of undecided responses. It is worrying that this stratum of voters shows the least interest in voting, suggesting a strong distrust of either the process or the candidates. This same age range also demonstrated the greatest distrust about revealing its voting plans, as over twice as many in that group gave "no response" as the mean for the sample as a whole.
As for income brackets, the responses are seriously compromised by the huge percentage of people polled who did not disclose their income bracket (52%). Among those who did, however, abstentionist inclinations are roughly twice as high in the two lower income groups as in the two higher ones. This is potentially even more significant because the first two groups combined are also twice as numerous as the last two. This suggests that the candidates have an uphill battle in the remaining weeks of the campaign if they want to convince more poor voters that they really can improve their economic lot.
Where do they get their information?Of those who have decided not to vote, 21.7% watch the news on TV and 17% listen to it on the radio; the rest prefer music, sports or religious programs, or do not listen to the radio at all. Among the undecided, the percentages are somewhat higher: 26.6% watch TV news and 31.2% listen to radio news. Barely 15.2% of those who have decided not to vote and only 12.8% of the undecided read news of the country’s political life and national economy in newspapers or magazines. According to these data, the political parties could appeal to the undecided via radio or TV, but very little through the print media.
Another question suggests the potential importance of a broadcast debate among the candidates. Asked what difference a debate might make to them, 44.4% of those who have decided not to vote said its outcome would not change their mind, but 21.7% said it might make them vote for the winner, depending on who it was. Of the undecided, 67% said that the debate would not swing their indecision, while 24.8% were open to voting for the candidate who came out ahead. (As we reported in this month’s lead article, a debate is unlikely in the remaining weeks since Bolaños, hoping to hurt Ortega, has proposed that it focus not on the myriad critical domestic issues but rather on international terrorism.)
How firm are the abstainers?Many of those who claimed to be abstainers may be less firm about that decision than they indicate, or perhaps even than they believe. Such a possible discrepancy can be seen by crossing the question "Are you going to vote in the next elections?" with the question "If you knew for certain a few days before the elections which party was going to win, which one would you vote for?" In the latter question, they were given the choice between a) the party they learned would win, b) the candidate of their choice, win or lose, and c) either of the other two to keep the worst party from winning. Faced with those choices, nearly 42% of those who had said they were not going to vote reiterated their position by not responding, but 58.1% picked an answer. While the question is a hypothetical one, it may suggest that once the final polls have been published and people are struck with the real probability that a particular candidate is going to become their next president, some of these abstainers and undecided voters may be moved to vote. The chart above shows the results of crossing the two questions above.
Who might pull the Should any of those who have declared they will not vote change their mind, Enrique Bolaños may have a relative advantage over his two rivals. While 54% think Daniel Ortega is not the best Sandinista candidate and 40% think Alberto Saborío is not the best Conservative candidate, only 29.8% think Bolaños is not the best candidate for the Liberals. The pattern differs in the undecided sector only in that Saborío changes place with Bolaños (26.6% vs. 31.2%, respectively), but here too, a higher percentage (50.5%) believe that Ortega is not the best FSLN candidate. This suggests that Bolaños might have an edge in pulling over some undecided voters and even a few abstainers, particularly if Ortega stays ahead in the final polls, since more in both categories answered that they would vote to prevent the "worst" from winning than switch to the frontrunner. There are other ways to interpret this data, however.
most undecided votes?
Thinking the candidate of a given party is not the best that could have been chosen does not necessarily imply a view that the other candidates are a better option. Many Sandinista dissidents are on record as being very unhappy that Ortega is the FSLN’s candidate and some may still be vacillating about whether to vote for him or have even decided to sit this one out. If the polls shift at the last minute and another PLC presidency genuinely looms as the alternative, however, they could feel their vote matters and cast it for Ortega. Last but not least, as we can see from the final chart above, a slightly higher percentage within the far larger group of people who plan to vote are more inclined to change their vote in favor of the winner than to block the worst party from winning. This would tend to favor the frontrunner in the final polls, whoever he may be.
As mentioned at the beginning, every vote counts a great deal to the two lead candidates in this election, since they are going into the final stretch neck and neck. How will each candidate tailor his campaign in these final days to best assure the votes he already has and at the same time make the greatest inroads into the votes he might still be able to get? Just as important, what will the other stakeholders in these elections, both national and foreign, do to influence voters to think as they do? If the 1996 elections, when Obando made his decisive remarks the day after the campaign officially closed, are any precedent, we cannot assume that the last word will have been spoken even when the official campaign closure silences the candidates themselves.
Pedro López Ruiz is a researcher for IDESO-UCA.