The Social Weather Station and Pulse Asia have become potent political entities as their voter preference surveys have become significant factors in Philippine politics. They have unduly influenced the outcome of national elections. High ranking in the polls instead of substantive experience in public service or private enterprise has become an important, if not the top, consideration of political parties and alliances in their choice of nominees for national elective offices.
In August, Senator Panfilo Lacson proposed to Vice-President Leni Robredo that all opposition candidates for president should agree to withdraw from the race at a certain point and throw their support behind the one among them who leads in the surveys. He said that is the practical way of unifying the opposition forces against President Rodrigo Duterte’s anointed successor and thus prevent the extension of the Rodrigo Duterte brand of government beyond June 2022.
To Senator Lacson, the unifying factor of the opposition is the opposition candidate leading in the polls, not the sameness of what the candidates are opposed to and what they stand for and advocate.
But rankings in political polls are temporary. They reflect the sentiments of the voters at the time the survey was conducted. The question pollsters ask the voter is: “If elections were held today, who would you vote for?” not “Who would you vote for on Election Day?” A lot of things can happen between the time the survey is conducted and Election Day — May 9 in 2022. Not only can a lot of things happen, those with stakes in the elections will make things happen, either to boost their candidate’s political stock or to erode his opponent’s standing.
For almost a year, Vice-President Jejomar Binay ranked No.1 among those known to have plans to run for president in the 2016 elections. When certain Liberal Party leaders hinted that they were considering Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) Chair Grace Poe as their presidential candidate, Poe surged ahead of Binay in the survey rankings. But not long after, the Binay camp raised the citizenship and residency issues against Poe. Poe fell behind Binay in the next polls.
Then came the Senate investigation into the alleged overpricing of the Makati City Hall Parking Building II. Binay’s survey ratings dipped, with Poe emerging as the leading candidate. But soon after, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte joined the presidential derby. Promising to bring change in the governance of the country by making fearless decisions and fast action like he did as mayor of Davao City, in contrast to the laid-back style of then incumbent President Noynoy Aquino, Duterte became the frontrunner in the polls.
It has been like that in all post martial law election periods. In 1992, Miriam Santiago was the leader in the polls for much of the campaign period. In the end, Fidel Ramos emerged the winner. In 2010, Manny Villar topped the polls from January to March. But the results of the surveys done in April showed Noynoy Aquino as the preferred candidate.
That is why Lacson’s proposal, contrary to his assertion, is not practical. The survey ratings change. They are influenced to a large extent by the events preceding the conduct of the surveys. It would very hard to get the opposition forces to agree on when the opposition candidates should withdraw in favor of the one leading in the surveys.
The endorsements of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) are clear examples of the misuse of the poll results. The religious sect’s endorsements do not influence the winnability of candidates for public office as is the belief of traditional politicians, it is the winnability of the candidates that influence the sect’s endorsements.
Last week, former senator JV Ejercito confirmed this practice of the INC. In the Oct. 5 episode of the TV talk show Headstart, he said he was not endorsed by the sect in 2019 because he was not among the senatorial candidates in the top 12 in the polls. He is running again for senator in next year’s elections. He said he has been told by the INC that he will be endorsed because in the last surveys before the 2019 elections, he was among the 12 in the winning circle. He was not endorsed back then because by the time the survey results were released, the sect had already finalized its senatorial slate.
The INC endorses only those candidates that the polls show to be likely winners. That has been shown to be true in past electoral exercises. In 1998, it endorsed Joseph Estrada for president months before the elections. This in spite of the fact that Estrada’s private life is the antithesis to the teachings of the religious sect. Adulterous relationships, gambling of any kind, and excessive drinking are prohibited by the sect. Members found guilty of transgression of those rules are either suspended or expelled.
Estrada is known to have sired children with several women. He frequented the casinos. His drinking sprees with his close friends were said to be nocturnal occurrences. But the sect endorsed Estrada just the same because the Social Weather Stations (Pulse Asia was not yet in existence then) consistently projected Estrada as the overwhelming preference of the voters.
In 2004, it delayed its endorsement of Gloria Arroyo until the last week of the campaign period when she emerged as being ahead of Fernando Poe, Jr., the rumored preference of the sect. In 2010, it switched from Senator Manuel Villar to Senator Noynoy Aquino five days before Election Day, when Aquino had dislodged Villar from the top rank of the polls as Election Day neared.
After a long wait for its endorsement, it announced close to Election Day of 2019 which 12 senatorial candidates it was endorsing. All were among those who occupied the top 12 spots in the surveys conducted by Pulse Asia that year, as corroborated by JV Ejercito.
That is how the INC chooses the candidate it will ask its faithful to vote for. It chooses a candidate not on the basis of any moral or political standard, but on who the polls show to be the most likely winner. It has given the less discerning traditional politicians the impression that INC’s bloc vote is the deciding factor in the success of a candidate’s quest for an elective post.
The sect’s endorsement as the deciding factor in a candidate’s success is a myth. The candidates it endorsed in recent elections would have won just the same with or without its endorsement as they are really the people’s choice as the surveys indicated. Koko Pimentel was re-elected senator even without the vaunted INC endorsement. Jinggoy Estrada was among the 12 senatorial candidates it endorsed but he lost.
That is why I say political surveys have become dysfunctional. In pre-martial law days, national conventions of party members decided who the party’s candidates for president and vice-president would be. Only in 1959 was political polling introduced in the country when Gallup Poll’s affiliate in the Philippines, Robot Statistics, conducted a survey on the probable winners in the mayoralty race in Manila.
Robot Statistics released the results of the survey to the public after the voting booths had been closed. That is how it should be — to prevent the creation of a bandwagon effect. The results showed Arsenio Lacson of the Nacionalista Party and Antonio Villegas of the Liberal Party as the winning mayoralty and vice-mayoralty candidates, respectively. The actual vote counts jibed with the pollster’s projections, leading to the acceptance of political polling here.
It is folly to expect the survey companies to stop their practice of releasing to the public the results of their election surveys. Their election forecasts promote their wares and their organizations, thus generating revenue for them.
Surveys should be used to determine campaign strategies, not to determine who to put up as candidate. What we have is that candidates are chosen on the basis of their ranking in the polls. That is why we have so many celebrities in elective posts for which they are not qualified.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.