Deputy President William Ruto and his main rival Raila Odinga are in a dead heat. A Nation Media Group opinion poll conducted last weekend showed each of the two main presidential aspirants commanding 42 per cent of the popularity vote.
The poll confirms that the presidential election set for August 9 this year will be a two-horse race between Dr Ruto on the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) ticket and Mr Odinga of on an Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition ticket.
All the other presidential candidates combined shared just 1 per cent of the vote in the poll conducted by Infotrak Research & Consulting on May 8 and 9.
The poll showed 10 per cent of voters undecided on their favourite presidential aspirant, while an additional 5 per cent refused to respond to the question. The aggregate 15 per cent undecided will thus be key to the presidential election outcome once they make up their minds.
However, as indicated by various polls over the past six months, the presidential election looks likely to be headed for a run-off unless there is a major change that propels either of the two main candidates over the 50 per cent mark to secure victory in the first round.
The Nation poll holds a number of lessons for the candidates in regard to regions where they need to spend more time campaigning, and the issues of most concern to voters that they have to address to bolster their support.
A key lesson, for instance, is that voters are more interested in a candidate’s experience, track record and development agenda rather than affiliation to a political party or coalition.
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Under the question “Reasons for choosing the presidential candidate”, 67 per cent of Mr Odinga’s supporters cited his experience and development record, versus 53 per cent of those who said they will vote for Dr Ruto.
On the issue of manifesto and campaign pledges, Dr Ruto attracted 37 per cent support compared to Mr Odinga’s 29 per cent. This will be important to the candidates as they push their respective litany of campaign promises, with Dr Ruto most associated with millions for the “Bottom-up” economic model and Mr Odinga pledging monthly stipends of Sh6,000 each for poor families.
Political party and coalition was at 5 per cent for both candidates as reason for support. This finding could indicate, that Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga both enjoy support largely based on strong personality and loyal following irrespective of agenda issues or political formation. Their respective bands of dedicated supporters would follow them wherever they moved in the event of switching parties or coalition.
If party or coalition is not of too much interest to the voter, it could turn out that in downstream contests for county governor, National Assembly, Senate and county assembly will experience high incidents of cross-party voting, with candidates being assessed on their own merits.
The main political movements are worried of this likelihood, hence the campaigns from both the Ruto and Raila parties, UDA and ODM, for “six-piece” voting within their strongholds. This call is meant to ward off threats from independent candidates and split votes from smaller parties within their own coalitions.
When the presidential popularity poll is broken down to regions corresponding to the former provincial administrative boundaries, the numbers show that Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga both retain strong support in their traditional strongholds, Rift Valley and Nyanza, respectively.
However, the twists and turns of the shifting political alliances in the final term of the Jubilee administration are clearly reflected in the numbers, with both aspirants gaining ground in hitherto hostile territory while having to fend off encroachment on their secure turf.
Dr Ruto commands 61 per cent of the populous Rift Valley vote against 25 per cent for Mr Odinga, with undecided or refusing to answer totalling 13 per cent.
In Nyanza, Mr Odinga holds on to his base with 72 per cent of the vote compared to 18 per cent for Dr Ruto, with 10 per cent still to make up their minds.
In both the respective strongholds, the total numbers are also influenced by areas within that remain contested. Going by 2013 and 2017 voting records, Dr Ruto should expect more than 90 per cent of the vote in northern Rift Valley, but the overall percentage is reduced by zones in the central and southern Rift Valley—Nakuru, Kajiado and Narok counties—where Mr Odinga has substantial support.
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The converse is true in Nyanza where Mr Odinga would comfortably command more than 90 per cent of the vote, but the numbers show Dr Ruto making inroads in Kisii and Nyamira counties, which impact on the regional total.
Another area of interest is the vote-rich Mt Kenya region, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s base, that in the last two elections gave the Jubilee ticket an overwhelming vote of between 96 and 99 per cent.
The break up in Jubilee, with President Kenyatta switching support from his DP to Mr Odinga, would in ordinary circumstances have seen the Mt Kenya vote move with him. However, a succession of polls and general observation on the ground indicates that the President has largely lost control of a key voting bloc that has shifted loyalties to Dr Ruto and his UDA party.
What remains of the ruling Jubilee has not been able to garner much support for Mr Odinga under the Azimio banner. This is confirmed by the Nation poll which gives Dr Ruto 60 percent of the Central Kenya vote to Mr Odinga’s 22 per cent. However, the DP would probably be disappointed at not recording closer to 80 per cent of the vote, while Mr Odinga might well be satisfied with 22 per cent. The region has a 14 per cent of the voters undecided or not responding.
It is instructive that in the recent past, the Raila campaign has tried to tackle the issue of Jubilee Party candidates in Mt Kenya distancing themselves from the presidential campaign due to voter hostility.
Other areas of interest are the key battlegrounds of Western Kenya and Lower Eastern region, which in the last two elections voted strongly for Mr Odinga, but are now vulnerable to encroachment by the Ruto campaign.
In the wider Eastern region, the Nation poll gives Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga an equal 40 per cent each. However, the region also includes Meru and Tharaka-Nithi counties, which are considered part of the Mt Kenya voting block that is solidly behind Dr Ruto.
When the Lower Eastern counties of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni are isolated, Mr Odinga commands a clear lead, but with Dr Ruto making gains.
The DP has made notable gains, but the area remains fluid with uncertainty over the fate of presumed regional kingpin Kalonzo Musyoka who has been loudly demanding the right to be named Mr Odinga’s running mate for the third time. The 19 per cent undecided voters are probably waiting to see how the Azimio running-mate quest pans out as Mr Musyoka has threatened to decamp if not named.
The exit this week of outgoing Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua from the Raila camp to join Dr Ruto might also have an impact in days to come.
In 2017, the Raila-Kalonzo team dominated Lower Eastern with 83 per cent of the vote to 15 per cent for Uhuru and Ruto .
Western Kenya is another important battleground where Mr Odinga commands 48 per cent of support to Dr Ruto’s 33 percent. But shifting alliances seem to be making an impact since key allies from the last elections – former Vice President Musalia Mudavadi of ANC and Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula – defected to Dr Ruto. Mr Odinga has comfortably dominated the region in the past, in 2017 garnering over 80 per cent of the vote to President Kenyatta’s 17 per cent.
Dr Ruto has thus recorded some impressive growth in the region, but key again might be the undecided 19 per cent, similar to Eastern region.
The Coast is another region where Mr Odinga is strong with 55 per cent of the vote to Dr Ruto’s 29 per cent, but again this has to be seen against 2017 figures where the former led solidly with 73 per cent of the vote against President Kenyatta’s 26 per cent.
The DP has improved marginally from the 2017 Jubilee ticket numbers, but Mr Odinga’s tally has markedly declined in a region his team considers safe ground. Unless the undecided 15 per cent come to his favour, there will be cause for concern for his team.
In the expansive but sparsely populated North Eastern region, Mr Odinga leads with 48 per cent against Dr Ruto’s 37 per cent.
Swing either way
Then there is the ultimate battleground, Nairobi County, which Mr Odinga has narrowly edged in the past but could always swing either way. The latest poll has Mr Odinga at 51 per cent to Dr Ruto’s 33 per cent in the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic capital, with 14 per cent undecided.
If the capital is taken as a microcosm of Kenya, Mr Odinga might be quietly satisfied, especially as a good proportion of the voting bloc reflects Mt Kenya tendencies. However, Nairobi voters are also very fickle with records showing little loyalty or attachment to specific candidates or parties.