By Tony Samson
THE STATUS of “frontrunner” has been bestowed on familiar-sounding candidates by polls that have recently come out on the senatorial race. (Jail time did not seem to damage the popularity of at least two declared candidates.) In these polls featured on front pages of newspapers with photos as well as on prime-time TV, the candidates are clustered in groups as: the top, middle, bottom, and “you can forget about them.”
Elections, the polls that really matter, do not use the category “likely to vote for” preferring instead the simple tag of “winners.” While surveys do not claim to be definitive, relying as they do on a sampling of the voting population, they do move the needle for the likely winners.
Henry Kissinger says about clout that “the perception of power is power.” The same can be said of surveys: the perception of winning is winning. Frontrunners as the election draws nearer (just four months away) enjoy many advantages.
They can draw on the best team of strategists, political analysts, think tanks, PR operators, and provincial allies who control local vote-getting machines. The aura of having a good chance of winning is like a magnet attracting iron filings.
Financial support sits on the sidelines until a pattern of possible winners emerges. Surveys bestow legitimacy on the leaders. The money goes to the front of the line. This preference of funders for frontrunners translates into a widening circle of support. Early supporters donate air time and billboards which drive voter registration and further support, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy provides momentum for victory.
The donor-beneficiary relationship is tilted in favor of frontrunners as the favorable survey results do oblige leaders to exchange promises with the donor’s support. It is the latter who feels he is just paying an entrance fee to get to the big tent.
Debate organizers on TV and other public fora cannot accommodate all the hopefuls. They reduce the number of candidates on stage to achieve a more manageable discussion of ideas and policies. Tail-enders with statistical asterisks after their names can only share their ideas with household pets, after they feed them.
The difficulties of the tail-enders multiply as they drop further down in the survey rankings.
Support dries up. The first-class talents already in the campaign move elsewhere, not necessarily to the frontrunners but back to their day jobs. It is harder to make appointments with fat cats who seem to be tied up in other endeavors — Sir, he will be hunting alligators in Florida at that time.
Laggards are not newsworthy and desperate to be interviewed even by paid bloggers. Quotes are in the form of gripes against popularity and personality politics — what’s wrong with my personality? The assertions can be grating as the interviewee doesn’t even wait to be asked a question as he launches into the unfairness of the process. (Who is paying for these surveys?)
Naturally, proxies jump in. They are touted in TV interviews as “resource persons” or “political analysts,” often from academe and pretending to be impartial. They try to discredit the methodology of the survey without even checking the questionnaire — why wasn’t “my client” in the list of fifty names to choose from? The futile attempt to throw doubt into the survey mechanics is hoped to also undermine the results, especially when the client is not even on the jump page for the list for numbers 30-36.
Perhaps, frontrunners don’t always end up winning. But it is even truer that tail-enders in the bottom seldom improve their electoral chances, even when their tongues are hanging out from all the speeches they deliver in empty basketball courts.
Survey leaders, however, even in the top five cannot be complacent. Being too much in the news is not always an advantage. A slip of the tongue on some issue like religion, the war on drugs, or contested islands in the South Seas may wake up the troll army and wreak havoc on the brand. The headlines can then turn around as a frontrunner becomes a lightning rod of attacks.
While the argument on “mind conditioning” implies sinister motives behind surveys, results do promote a bandwagon effect to provide momentum for a candidate. Whether the polls are true or misleading, in a multiple-winner format like the senate race, the laggards tend to remain under the radar, always as oddities — oh, is he really a candidate?
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.