Raila, Ruto in scramble for 4.4m undecided voters two months to polls

Azimio leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto.

Azimio leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Deputy President William Ruto and his main rival Raila Odinga have shifted their focus to the more than four million undecided voters that are crucial in deciding the August 9 presidential winner while protecting their bases two months to the election.

At the heart of the latest political battle by the two perceived front-runners, in an election that has four candidates so far, is the quest to attain the mandatory 50 percent plus one vote to secure a round-one win.

Strategists in both Kenya Kwanza Alliance of Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition party, relying on in-house and publicly available opinion polls, are crafting campaign messaging targeting the undecided constituency to win over a substantive number.

The two camps have described the undecided bloc as a fertile ground that can tilt the balance of the election outcome towards either side.

But some politicians and analysts argue that the race could be decided by those who have made up their mind given that not all registered voters turn out to cast their ballot, with most of them from the group currently labelled as “undecided”.

The latest opinion poll by Infotrak released this week but conducted on May 23–27 placed Mr Odinga and his running mate Martha Karua at 42 percent popularity rating against Dr Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua at 38. But a significant statistic was that 20 percent of the respondents, representing 4.4 million voters, are undecided or refused to share their preferred candidates.

According to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), there are 22.5 million registered voters. This raw database is, however, subject to a clean-up to knock off dead voters among anomalies in the register before the election. A preliminary audit report by KPMG has since flagged 1.18 million voters for removal from the roll.

Interestingly, the number of undecideds appears to have increased following the unveiling of the running mates. An earlier survey by Nation Media Group conducted by Infotrak on May 8–9 had placed Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga at 42 percent each with the number of undecideds and those who refused to answer standing at 15 percent. The latest Tifa poll conducted on May 17 and released the following day placed the undecided at 14 percent.

“The big number of the undecided means there is room for campaigning and persuading voters. It is easier to convince an undecided voter to support you than for a decided voter to switch camps. That is good; it is the whole rationale of campaigning,” says Murang’a senator Irungu Kang'ata, an ally of DP Ruto.

Analysis of the 2017 presidential results that were annulled by the Supreme Court shows that more than 20 per cent of registered voters did not cast their ballot. Of the 19,611,423 registered voters, total valid votes cast were 15,114, 622. A total of 81,685 votes were rejected. The statistics imply that about 4.5 million voters did not participate in electing their president, representing 22.9 percent of the total registered voters. The figures corroborate the huge number of the undecideds highlighted by the surveys barely two months to the August 9 polls.

According to the Infotrak poll, North Rift and Western are leading in the number of the undecideds at 23 percent each followed by Coast at 22 percent, Lower Eastern (21), Mt Kenya (20) and Northern 19 percent. Nairobi has 18 per cent undecided, while South Rift and Nyanza have 15 percent each.

Mt Kenya, North Rift and South Rift are Dr Ruto’s strongholds, according to the survey, while Mr Odinga is ahead in Nairobi, Western, Coast, Nyanza and Lower Eastern.

An earlier Infotrak poll commissioned by Nation Media Group before the naming of running mates highlighted Western and Eastern as having the highest number of undecideds and those who refused to answer at 19 percent each, with North-Eastern recording 16 and Coast 15. Central was at 14 and Rift Valley at 13 percent. Nairobi had 14 percent, while Nyanza recorded 10 percent. Tifa poll released on May 18 showed that Northern Kenya was leading with undecideds at 20 percent, followed by Lower Eastern at 17 and Central Rift at 16. Western recorded 15, Nyanza 14, Nairobi 13 and Coast 10 percent.

ODM chairman John Mbadi describes the undecided bloc as a fertile ground for a win by either of the main formations but holds that some of the individuals could be just shy to give their mind to the pollsters while others may actually just not vote. He argues that the high number is likely to diminish as the candidates continue with their campaigns.

He says that a majority of the undecided in the Ukambani counties were likely to back Mr Odinga after Mr Musyoka rejoined Azimio.

“We also know that there are about 20 per cent of Kenyans who don’t vote, and the number of the undecided is around that figure,” says Mr Mbadi. “But it is a fertile constituency for those who want to win the election. The poll was done before Kalonzo rejoined, so him returning means the gap is actually wider. This election is ours to lose.”

Tifa research analyst Tom Wolf says the huge number is due to some of the respondents being uninterested, while others are shy to make their political positions known.

“Some are shy to reveal their decision. Some are also just disinterested in politics. Again, if someone says they are undecided, do the interviewers push further to know why?”

He cites a recent poll by Tifa where only a small percentage said they would decide based on the choice of a running mate, while a big percentage said they will make up their mind based on the manifesto by candidates.

Azimio has since released its manifesto while Kenya Kwanza is set to release its document by end of the month.

Political analysts Macharia Munene and Herman Manyora hold that the formations have to deliberately reach out to the undecided bloc through persuasion.

“It means people are careful before they can choose. They are waiting to be persuaded. The manifestos may not change much; there is more to persuading them than just the manifestos, which are mere campaign tools,” says Prof Macharia.

Mr Manyora says the undecided in Ukambani may have now made up their mind after Kalonzo rejoined Azimio. The polls were conducted before Mr Musyoka returned.

“In Ukambani, there are people who were still weighing their options; others were also waiting for Kalonzo to make up his mind. Some people in Mt Kenya, especially women, are confused on whether to remain with Ruto or support Raila after he named Karua,” says Mr Manyora.

“Wherever that numbers go, that person will win. But if you look at the way things are going, most of these people had already decided it is Ruto; so if they are changing their mind, it is that they will vote the other person. That thing that makes them move from being decided to the undecided will definitely push them to the other side. Aptly put, most of the undecided will vote for Raila.”

Nairobi UDA governor candidate Johnson Sakaja says the huge number of the undecided could mean that the narratives by the two main formations are not appealing to the constituency. He says the candidates have to craft a narrative that resonates with them so that they can take a position.

“That number is big enough to influence the outcome of the polls. If the polls are scientifically accurate, it means the narrative by both sides are missing out on an important segment of Kenyans.”

Mr Odinga’s head of campaign team and Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi says the increase in the number of undecideds, especially in Central, could be due to a backlash over the nomination of Mr Gachagua as DP Ruto’s running. He holds that some of DP Ruto’s supporters could have been disappointed by his pick and are now not sure about the ticket they want to support.

“Sometimes you may not know what you want but be sure of what you don’t want. It is a backlash because of the choice of a running mate. If you expected [Anne] Waiguru or [Kithure] Kindiki be named, but he decided to pick Rigathi, then you are disappointed and you decide not to stay there,” says Mr Muriithi.

“I would expect the numbers to go down in the coming days. It also means that there is a lot to be done in terms of the campaigns. We are eyeing the undecided and we are taking the manifesto to them. Of course the other camp will also be eyeing the same team.”

Ford Kenya Secretary General Chris Wamalwa says Kenya Kwanza is out to convert the constituency in its favour. He says once the alliance unveils its manifesto, the number will reduce as a majority will resonate with their agenda. But Igembe North Maoka Maore says some people make decision depending on the surrounding political wave.