The link between academic entrepreneurs and local politics

Youths hanging precariously on a moving vehicle in Kawangware, Nairobi, January 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

It’s the season of political entertainment as contenders seek our votes. They have started appearing on billboards and political rallies.

Another battlefield is social media with straw polls showing popular leaders, despite “low turnouts”

Mask makers made money when Covid-19 struck. From Covid-19 tests to masks, sanitisers and thermal guns, they made hay when the sun shone. Political entrepreneurs will make their money.

Beyond adverts, they make money from party nominations which are being advertised heavily. Wait till official campaigns start.

Merchandisers will make caps, shukas, T-shirts, reflector jackets among others. We shall become mobile billboards. 

Let’s shift away from political entrepreneurship to the academic part of polls, beyond opinion polls which Tom Wolf popularised.

I however would wish that pollsters were more detailed, giving us profiles of respondents by gender, political party affiliation, age, level of education, residence, religion, employment status, marital status, average income etc. 

Giving margin of error is not enough. Data science has work cut for it in the polls - to “de-emotionalise” the polls. The fact remains that emotions often win the polls, not the facts or logic.

Just watch as we approach the August 9 polls. The fluid state of alliances, coalitions and parties make predicting the winner very difficult.

That is good fodder for academics, away from textbooks and inert ideas. Which tools can we use to analyse this year’s unique polls? 

A crowd during a political rally at Kamukunji during the clamour for multi-party democracy, 1992. [File, Standard]

Let’s start with statistics and the law of large numbers. If we picked a representative sample as described earlier, we can predict the likely winner. Remember that Form 3 math that sent you to sleep particularly probabilities? Remember the mean and standard deviation? It’s time to review it. 

Though polls often get things wrong, they are a good tool to gauge the political mood. One area that catches is my interest is the issues that matter to voters.

Opinion polls can capture the key issues and use them to segment the political messaging.

The political message for Shamakhokho or Navakholo might not sell in Dundori or Kanyonyo.

But there is an easier and more effective method to extract the key issues from the voters - town hall meetings as Americans call them. You can easily extract key issues by freely talking to people or voters.

After several meetings, you reach a saturation point where the issues are repeated. Most big towns in Kenya had town halls. What was their use?

Are they still there? Unfortunately, you are more likely to meet elites in town halls, not hoi polloi who are the majority. That explains the popularity of political rallies.

Voter turnout

We could get the same issues online through chats but that exclude older voters, who are more likely to vote.

Such issues in addition to tailoring the messaging determine the voter turnout. Voting is not compulsory as in Australia, something should therefore motivate voters to get out. 

Could lack of big issues except the next president explain why Kenyans are reluctant to register as voters?

If I was a politician and citizens are reluctant to register as voters, I would be either very worried or very happy.

Worried because through voting, we dissipate national anger by voting someone in or out. Without voting, how will that anger be dissipated? 

Happy because citizens with little interest in politics are easy to rule or lord over. They will not turn up for public participation meetings and decide to their detriment.

Special interest groups views can be taken without their input.

Simulations and heuristics are other tools to analyse 2022 polls. I am sure party leaders have number crunchers at work, using excel and other software to simulate different scenarios.

A good simulation requires lots of data. It could be existing data or you go looking for it. With computers, simulation is lots of fun.

By adjusting variables like voter turnout or the formation of coalitions, we can simulate the likely voting patterns. What does the simulation say about low voter registration and leading presidential contenders?

Simulations and heuristics are other tools to analyse 2022 polls. [Courtesy]

Heuristics (mental shortcuts that can facilitate problem-solving and probability judgments) comes in when we have no time or data for exactness.

When we use the rule of the thumb or conventional wisdom. The elderly use heuristics to make decisions. Listen carefully to board decisions. 

I suspect witch doctors use lots of heuristics after years of trial and error.  It’s because of heuristics that older politicians seem to be more successful. 

As we analyse likely scenarios, they have already made decisions using their knowledge and experience.

Heuristics are more efficient particularly in unstructured situations like politics. Did you use heuristics in dating? Game theory is another tool. Who loses and who gains through coalitions or political parties?

The institutionalisation of coalitions is all about game theory to that, the winner does not take all. The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was about that too. I am still wondering if we can form a coalition of coalitions.

Nothing stops you from using more than one tool to analyse the likely scenarios as we approach the August 9 polls. You can even recruit witchdoctors, oracles and prophets. 

One would wish academics from political scientists to economists, sociologists, mathematicians, psychologists, even physicists would use the run-up to the polls to get deeper insights into local politics and society.

 Campaigns should not be about some entrepreneurs making money but knowledge entrepreneurs gaining insights and new knowledge.

After all, you may have to wait another year for such free experiments. I hope we did not fail to exploit the academic insights from the Covid-19 the way we react to disasters to their resolution and aftermath.

Let’s get on the ground and study Kenyan society. Believe me, westerners have won Nobel prizes for studying us.

Elinor Ostrom won the economics Nobel Prize in 2009 as cited “Challenged the conventional wisdom by demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatisation.”

Part of her work was in Masailand. The 2019 Economics Nobel laureate Michael Kremer did part of his work in western Kenya.

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