Ericssen – Breathe deeply. The presidential election will finally be over two weeks from now. But at the moment, the proliferation of polls may still give us a headache.
Most of these polls show that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is on track to win a second term quite comfortably, with double-digit leads of around 15-20 points over his rival Prabowo Subianto.
But does this mean a Jokowi victory is inevitable? My answer is no. By my calculations, Jokowi is still favored to win re-election but Prabowo could still find ways to beat him.
Reading the polls
Polling data are noisy. Standards of polling in Indonesia can differ considerably. There are good and bad pollsters. There are high-quality polls and low-quality polls. Some pollsters release results to achieve a certain agenda. Pollsters affiliated with a political candidate may tweak results in favor of their client to sway public opinion and influence voters, particularly swing ones.
We must read and interpret polling data carefully. What makes a good pollster? One with a solid and credible track record in predicting election results, correct and proportional sampling, proper polling methodology and transparent financier(s).
Based on my personal assessment, there are only two or three pollsters that can be considered the "gold standard' for polling in Indonesia.
They publish high-quality polling results consistently, garnered from face-to-face or live phone interviews. Their poll results are accurate, often not far from actual election results.
Another polling problem that we need to pay attention to is a phenomenon called "herding."
According to US election guru Nate Silver, this happens when pollsters let themselves be influenced by other pollsters when publishing poll numbers.
They might even choose not to publish the results of a poll if they think their poll will be considered an "outlier." They might also adjust their results to ensure the numbers come more into line with the results of other – often more credible – polls.
For example, in the 2014 US senate election in Virginia, Democratic senator Mark Warner was heavily favored to win a second term but he was caught by surprise on election night with a closer-than-expected race against Republican Ed Gillespie.
While almost all pre-election polls showed Warner with a consistent lead of 10-12 points, in the end he barely escaped defeat with a 0.8 point victory.
Later it was revealed that Gravis Marketing had conducted a poll whose results suggested that Warner and Gillespie were locked in a dead heat.
But the pollster decided not to publish the poll because they were worried it would be summarily dismissed by critics as an outlier poll and taint its reputation.
Many in Indonesia were surprised by the latest Kompas poll, which showed against expectations that the gap between the two presidential nominees is now at a considerably close 11.8 points.
While the Kompas poll can be considered as an outlier, the results may not necessarily be wrong.
What we should do is start examining the numbers in the "inlier" polls more closely. Polls should show variations. It's only natural. Unless the pollsters have adopted a herd mentality.
There are also the results from internal polls conducted by the campaign teams of both presidential nominees.
Prabowo's internal polls indicate the gap between him and Jokowi is now in the single figure, much closer than most public polls have been showing. On the other hand, Jokowi's camp confidently says the president's lead is getting stronger at 63 percent.
Of course we must take the results of these internal polls with more than a grain of salt. Campaign teams conduct polls all the time and they always release results which favor their own candidates.
The goal is of course to spin media coverage to their advantage. In the age of 24-hour news cycle, good poll numbers will create an avalanche of positive news that can have a psychological effect on voters.
Don't underestimate Prabowo
Note this though, a stunning Trump-like or Mahathir-like upset victory for Prabowo is still not impossible. Prabowo's grassroots political machine and strong party loyalty may still turn the tide in his favor.
We should certainly not ignore one factor working in the ex-general's favor: the militancy of his grassroots supporters, both from his own party Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement Party) and from the coalition conservative Islamic party PKS (Prosperous Justice Party).
Volunteers from both parties have been conducting aggressive door-to-door campaign and also sending text messages to WhatsApp groups and targeted individual numbers.
It has been argued that this grassroots political machine was the main factor in Gerindra and PKS-backed gubernatorial candidates overturning late poll results in past elections.
In Jakarta, former education minister Anies Baswedan scored a stunning, larger-than-expected victory against Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama in 2017, even when considering the handicap of Ahok's blasphemy scandal.
Gerindra's Sudrajat, who lost the 2018 West Java gubernatorial election to Ridwan Kamil, also performed much better in the final election results than polls had suggested.
Late polls showed a 6-10 percent support for Sudrajat, but he surprised many, including himself, by securing nearly 30 percent of the final votes.
Meanwhile, former energy minister Sudirman Said, who also lost the 2018 Central Java gubernatorial election to Ganjar Pranowo, still managed to win over 41 percent of the votes, double what the polls suggested before election day.
Another factor which may work in Prabowo's favor is voter turnout.
The Jokowi camp is increasingly concerned that their supporters may end up not turning out to vote either out of complacency or disenchantment over Jokowi's choice for his running mate, the conservative Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin.
They are reportedly even worried that since election day is only two days away from a public holiday long weekend, overconfident Jokowi voters may be tempted to travel out of town instead of casting their votes.
Poor voter turnout was one of the reasons cited for Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat against Donald Trump.
The results of the Indonesian presidential election are still undecided and the race is far from over. Prabowo is gaining momentum and clearly closing the gap.
A relatively large number of voters – currently around 10-12 percent – are still undecided at this stage of the campaign.
Prabowo still harbors hope that a majority of these undecided voters will turn toward him and some of Jokowi's voters will swing to his side.
Will Prabowo outperfrom the polls on election day? Probably yes, but he remains an underdog.
Could Jokowi suffer a shock "Hillary moment"? Probably not. The advantage of being the incumbent president and high approval ratings will probably get him over the line.
I expect Jokowi to win a second term in office with 55-58 percent of the final votes.
A double-digit lead by Jokowi will probably hold up even if there is an unprecedented polling error. Jokowi will get his re-election but the margin might be narrower than he expects.
[Ericssen is an independent political analyst based in Singapore, and senior political contributor to the Jakarta Globe. He specializes in Electoral politics, American politics, and Indonesian politics.]