Column: The 3 nations voting in May

Published on March 8, 2016.

A MONTH into the official campaign period, we can say confidently that there is real movement in the surveys and that the presidential race remains a tight one. This is the central paradox of the 2016 elections, and it may well be solved in the same way Zeno’s famous paradox was solved: by walking.

In the closest presidential contest since 1992, it may be the campaign which has logged the most kilometers, and put in the most hours on the road, that will win in the end.

The tightness of the race seems to me to be magnified by the composite nature of some of the voter allegiances. I have been puzzling over this aspect of the race for some time, but I do not know if I have found the right language with which to describe it. Consider this a first pass.

Let me start with the obvious: Each of the candidates has a core following, a base of support that will vote for them no matter what. If we anchor our count on the last eight Social Weather Stations surveys going back to November/December 2014, we can for purposes of discussion equate each candidate’s lowest rating as the size of his or her loyal base. In this view, both Vice President Jejomar Binay and Sen. Grace Poe have a support “floor” of 21 percent; we can extrapolate from this number and say that a fifth of voting-age survey respondents will vote for Binay and Poe, each, no matter what. Former interior secretary Mar Roxas has a floor of 15 percent, while Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte enjoys a core support of 11 percent. (In the first of these eight SWS surveys, Duterte actually registers only a 5-percent rating, but that poll was taken before the mayor became serious about his presidential ambitions.) Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has a support floor of 2 percent.

All together, the core supporters represent 70 percent of the electorate—which leaves 30 percent for the taking. To be sure, we should expect the official campaign period to add to the number of core voters; that is, after all, the entire point of campaigning, to raise awareness and then to convert awareness into likely votes. In conversations with two presidential candidates, I get the sense that in their view at least 20 percent of the votes are still in play. Regardless of the candidates’ standings in the latest polls, they said, at least 20 percent of the support may be classified as soft, and up for grabs.

In the latest Pulse Asia survey, conducted in the week leading up to the first presidential debate on Feb. 21 in Cagayan de Oro, 26 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for Poe if the election were held then; 25 percent said the same thing about Binay. Both Duterte and Roxas got 21-percent support, while Santiago received 3 percent. In this three-week-old snapshot of voter preferences, only 4 percent of respondents were uncommitted or undecided. But if, in the view of the two candidates, at least 20 percent of voter support is in fact soft, then the 2016 presidential vote is really anybody’s game.

I am, like anyone else, interested in this 20- to 30-percent zone. At the same time, I am also keen on the notion of composite allegiances, or overlapping voter preferences. (This did not seem to be a factor in 1992, although I’d need to do more research to validate that.) What do I mean? I have met many voters who are ready with a second choice, who say they are as likely to vote for Poe as for Roxas, or for Duterte as for Binay, or for Santiago as for Poe.

I realize this is only anecdotal experience, but I think it helps explain the 20-30 percent of voters who may yet change their minds on Election Day.

Here’s a theory, then: Three great constituencies, or “nations,” will turn out to vote on May 9.

There is the reform constituency. I think of certain voters who are choosing between Poe and Roxas, or who are comfortable casting their ballot for either candidate. I use the word “reform” because that is how both campaigns perceive themselves, as essentially continuing the initiatives undertaken by the second Aquino administration, and because that is how these voters’ concerns—about continuing the fight against corruption, continuing the macroeconomic gains, continuing the emergence of the Philippines on the world stage—are best classified. I am a lone voice when I say, yet again, that the popularity of Poe’s late father does not explain her own personal popularity. As I wrote in “The sheer inadequacy of single-factor analyses” (5/21/13), millions of young voters voted for Poe in 2013 who did not even know who FPJ was, or cared.

There is the authoritarian constituency. I borrow the term from Amanda Taub’s “The rise of American authoritarianism,” which explores a “psychological profile of individual voters” that best predicts support for a rogue candidate like Donald Trump. The term refers to the voter who is “characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders,” who “when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary.” I think of voters who support Duterte, but who are also ready to cast their ballot for Binay or even Santiago: They place their hopes on the man or woman on horseback (or, in Duterte’s case, in the taxi or pickup truck) who will make things right.

And there is the pragmatic constituency, the voters who want results, who recognize that the role of today’s politician is like that of the father in a traditional family: a provider. There are voters who will vote for Binay because he is the only candidate who has bothered to visit them in their sitio, and who can be persuaded that Duterte, another local executive, is perhaps cut from the same durable retail-politics cloth.

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