Published on March 2, 2010. As it turned out, core support for Manny Villar proved to be much weaker than I thought. And Erap himself turned out to be “the Erap of 2010.”
The January 2010 Pulse Asia survey tells me the fates of Senators Manny Villar and Noynoy Aquino are intertwined. Of the 10 presidential candidates, only the two of them have majority trust ratings. Randy David has already written about the meaning of this survey, or at least the trust ratings part of it (this is also the survey which found the two leading candidates in a statistical tie). But a poll is a snapshot of public opinion at a certain moment in time; it is defined by its limits. Allow me to draw some necessarily limited tactical lessons from the survey’s numbers on trust.
Villar is the Erap of 2010. In the 1998 presidential contest, the scandalous life of Vice President Joseph Estrada was the subject of many reports and more rumors, but none of them slowed his candidacy. Those of us raised on a steady diet of American political reporting might conclude that Estrada was Ronald Reagan’s equivalent, a Teflon candidate. In fact, the analogy is inaccurate. For most of Reagan’s charmed political life, none of the accusations hurled against him stuck. (Hence the nickname.) In Erap’s case, however, the accusations (of serial infidelity, or a profound inattention to the details of governance, or a fatal attraction to characters of a sleazy kind) did stick to him, but did not matter at all. Many Filipinos knew, for instance, about the many women in his life—and voted for him anyway.
(This kind of acceptance is not unique to Estrada; Ramon Revilla, an infamous womanizer, was elected to the Senate twice; Fernando Poe Jr. admitted in the middle of his own presidential run in 2004 to siring a child out of wedlock, but still received, post-Garci, almost two-fifths of all votes cast. Call it the equity of celebrity.)
Pulse Asia’s January survey shows that Villar, a three-term congressman and a second-term senator, enjoys very high trust ratings indeed: 75 percent in October, 69 in December, 70 in January. The last two are statistically similar (the January 22-26 survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2). I think this means that Villar’s unprecedented advertising has worked and is working, not so much because he has pulled even, statistically speaking, with Aquino, the frontrunner in the last four months of 2009, but because of the underlying dynamic: he has consolidated his trust ratings.
As the polling firm duly noted, the latest survey was conducted at a time when the C-5 controversy was again in the headlines. (At about the same time, the alleged “Villarroyo” connection went viral.) I take all this to mean that Villar is the Erap of 2010; many Filipinos may or may not believe that Villar profited personally from the C-5 extension or is in talks with President Arroyo’s representatives, but they don’t care or are ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. As with Estrada’s Erap-para-sa-mahirap shtick, Villar’s rags-to-riches narrative is broad enough to include them.
The tactical lesson is simplicity itself: continue selling his story. That is precisely what Villar is doing; indeed, his latest advertising has only become more effective, from a formal perspective. (Content-wise, I have other things to say.) The most recent TV commercial continues to track his life’s trajectory (his brother’s death, for lack of money), but now explicitly includes voters in the ride (a vow to end their poverty too). The content (the message) is simplified, but it is the presentation—the candidate looking directly into the camera, the lack of clutter in the visuals, the perfect choice of words and images—that allows Villar to make the connection. All that, and repetition too.
Noynoy must campaign vs Arroyo. The trust ratings of Aquino are both higher and lower than Villar’s: 78 percent in October and 72 in December (higher), but 64 in January (much lower). The drop in the last survey is outside the margin of error and should be a cause for some concern. His partisans who point out that Villar’s distrust rating in January rose from 10 to 12 percent should remember that the difference is within the error margin, and that Aquino’s own distrust rating is exactly the same: 10 in December, 12 in January.
I share the view of many that Aquino’s candidacy is a true political phenomenon, and that he represents a genuine constituency: those who subscribe to the ideals of both Edsa 1 and 2. (Yes, I include the direct people’s action of January 2001, which has temporarily suffered a loss of public esteem because of its association with its most visible beneficiary, the much-distrusted President Arroyo.) But because of the very character of political phenomena, and also because of certain missteps by his campaign (the inclusion of the administration’s Ralph Recto in the Liberal Party’s Senate slate, the inexplicable rap video), Aquino has suffered a loss of trust: I do not mean the negligible rise in his distrust rating to 12, but the jump in his undecided rating from 17 in October and December to 23 in January. (The phrasing of this survey option is not without its problems: undecided means trust that is “maaaring malaki at maaaring maliit.”)
With just a little over two months to go before the vote, it seems unlikely that either Villar or Aquino will lose their majority trust ratings. If this assumption holds true, the tactical lesson for Aquino would then be to distinguish himself from Villar. He can do that by campaigning, not against Villar or other presidential candidates, but against President Arroyo herself.
After all, the reason he was drafted into a presidential run was because he suddenly appeared to a grieving nation, last August and September, as the exact opposite of the President. This means, or so it seems to me, that he should stop banging his head against the wall of Villar’s trustworthiness, and sharpen the contrast with Arroyo.