The last of a series of seven election-related columns, an attempt to understand Grace Poe’s stunning first-place finish in the Senate race. Published on May 21, 2013.
Apparently, there was a sympathy vote for the late, defeated presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. At least that is what many commentators, both professional and on-Facebook-only, assure us is the meaning of Grace Poe’s 20 million votes.
I can understand why the senator-elect sees her unexpected victory as vindication for her father; it is harder to understand why so many seem to think that that is the only meaning. Or why—and this is my main argument—there should be only one explanation.
Let me start, as many have, with anecdotal evidence. Two first-time voters in my household voted for Grace. Did they vote for her because they were convinced FPJ was cheated in 2004, or because they had realized that the country would have been better off in the six years between 2004 and 2010 under a Poe administration, or because they believed that the Poe family should be given a second chance to serve the nation at the highest levels?
None of the above. They voted for her because they liked what they saw; in the reverse hyperbole of teenage-speak, she “was not bad.”
No mention of FPJ at all. But think about it. How many of the 10 million or so new voters since 2004 (assuming over a million citizens reach majority age every year) even know who the actor was, or that he was the most reluctant candidate for the presidency, or that after Corazon Aquino he was the most famous victim of election fraud in our history—and knowing, cared enough to vote for his daughter?
I wish to be clear. There must have been many, even millions, who cast their vote for Grace Poe more or less for those reasons. Just not very many of the new voters, as now-conventional wisdom would have it. But if there were millions who voted for Grace for reasons unrelated to FPJ, how can we say Grace’s win was only, or primarily, a sympathy vote for “Da King”?
We need account for only a million and a half, or maybe two million, votes. That is the difference between first place and second in the Senate race. Take away those votes, and Grace wouldn’t have topped the Senate contest. And if Grace had not topped the Senate race, there wouldn’t be any talk now about sympathy for FPJ.
But starting with the January surveys, Grace was always in the winners’ circle. Her monthly standing varied, a roller coaster ride she has herself alluded to, but once she had dramatically improved her voter support level from August last year (at that time, only 6 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for her), she was among the handful of candidates who were always in the safe zone.
When we speak of her “unexpected victory” then, we do not mean that nobody expected her to win; we only mean nobody expected her to top the Senate race.
It is quite a feat. Her vote total is the first to break the 20-million mark; given the continuing growth in our voting population, reaching this milestone was only a matter of time. But it is still a powerful symbol: the highest vote total in our history, eclipsing Ferdinand Marcos’ 18 million votes in the sham 1981 presidential election and the 19 million votes of Senate topnotchers Mar Roxas in 2004 and Bong Revilla in 2010.
How did she do it?
She certainly banked on her father’s name, and her mother’s image. But I suggest that all that banking made a difference because of the massive investment in TV commercials she made in the last week of the campaign period.
Here’s more anecdotal evidence, but the kind that can be corroborated by hard numbers as soon as the data become available. By my count, in the last week of the campaign, Grace aired some 20 ads to every one of Loren Legarda’s. I must confess (and if I get the chance I will write at length about what I didn’t get right) that I thought all that adspend was a waste; my reading of the surveys led me to think that the race in the last month had become static, that the contest for the first 10 Senate seats had become settled. As the Grace Poe and Sonny Angara campaign teams would be the first to tell me, I was obviously wrong. But the point is: Grace spent a lot of capital airing ads in the last week; not coincidentally, all this happened after the last Social Weather Stations preelection survey was conducted on May 1 and 2.
How did she top the race?
I do not wish to belabor the point, but it must also be said that her campaign was the antithesis of her father’s feckless, frustrating drive to Malacañang. Having had the chance to cover that unexpected run in 2004, and seeing the Grace Poe campaign team at work in 2013, I can only marvel at the discipline, the strategic thinking, of Grace’s Senate bid.
While many volunteers and coordinators were on board (every single one I dealt with was as courteous as the candidate—something that cannot be said for all campaigns), there was one clear direction. There was a strong emphasis on ground operations. And from the start there was the decision to take part in candidates’ forums and debates. None of this, it pains me to point out, can be said of FPJ’s presidential run.
One more thing. As a candidate, she was acceptable to many. She took a principled stand and stood by the Liberal Party coalition when the United Nationalist Alliance forced her to choose, but in such a gentle, non-offensive way that, to the very end, Joseph Estrada, one of UNA’s so-called Three Kings, vowed to support her. Having worked diligently and intelligently to raise her awareness rating, she found that conversion (getting those aware to vote for her) came more easily because many perceived her, including first-time voters, as “not bad.”
Not bad at all.