Column: Should we trust surveys?

Published on April 26, 2016.

HATS off to ABS-CBN for devoting three and a half hours of expensive Sunday prime time to the last presidential debate. Many viewers expected fireworks, especially after survey front-runner Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte provoked yet another controversy with his remarks about the 1989 gang rape of Australian lay missionary Jacqueline Hamill, but the five candidates for president stuck mostly to the issues as they understood them. This may have been partially because of the town hall format, which allowed the TV network to humanize pressing issues. But the end result was a civics lesson aired live.

I have seen complaints on social media about the debate being, well, boring, but cannot sympathize with the complainers. We all say we want a real, substantive discussion; now that we got one, just about, we complain about the lack of zing.

This is not to say that the other candidates should not have held Duterte to account for his gratuitous and self-indulgent remarks; that they didn’t was a risk they decided to take and which they may rue in the next two weeks.

I thought there was a lot for voters to consider; the dozen people or so I asked at the gym afterwards all thought the debate did not change anyone’s mind.  That may well be, but I thought we learned even more about the candidates than we may have thought possible.

***

During the debate in Dagupan City, held at the gym of University of Pangasinan, I had the chance to write one quick story and two off-the-cuff analyses.

In “Miriam comeback story takes center stage,” I wrote about my sense that Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago’s arrival was the most eagerly anticipated of the day; it was the first time she took to the debate stage since the first one in Cagayan de Oro over two months ago.

In “Format restrains candidates in first half, focuses on issues,” I noted that “the tone of the discussion has been cordial and mostly issue-oriented—an unusual departure from the first two debates” at least in its first 90 minutes, and attributed the change in part to the format.

And in “A contest between populism and policy, Digong and Mar,” posted just before the debate ended, I zeroed in on the two candidates who in my view made the strongest impression on the live audience:

“The debate’s town hall format was arguably favorable to Roxas, who gave detailed, well-researched answers. But presidential debates like the game-changing series organized by the Comelec and leading media organizations are not won or lost in the conventional sense. Rather, debates like these help frame the candidates’ narratives. The Dagupan City debate highlighted some of the differences between the candidates, but the contrast was sharpest between the entertaining Duterte and the serious Roxas.”

* * *

Should we trust surveys?

Yes, emphatically so, because of the great democratic paradox at the heart of the entire survey enterprise: Surveys—and of course I mean only the scientific kind, based on a truly random sample—are by and large accurate about public opinion because they do not in fact influence public opinion.

In “Breaking the survey mirror” (Opinion, 5/14/13), I referenced the Social Weather Stations’ position on whether preelection surveys determine voting behavior.

“In fact, as the surveys themselves point out, only a minority of voting-age Filipinos are aware of survey results, and even fewer say they will be influenced by them. In the latest Social Weather Stations poll, only 11 percent of respondents said survey results will shape their vote—and essentially the so-called bandwagonners and the underdoggers (SWS’ own terms) cancel each other out.”

In other words, surveys are by and large accurate because they do not exercise undue influence on voters. On political operators, yes—the bewildering shift in alliances betrays candidates’ anxiety about a standard-bearer’s coattails. But on voters, the answer from the country’s short survey history is No.

This is not to say that survey results are set in stone; they are best understood as snapshots, and as the Poe Senate run in 2013, the Binay campaign for the vice presidency in 2010 and the Trillanes Senate candidacy in 2007 have proved, sometimes the picture can change dramatically in the last few weeks before the vote.

* * *

In the April 24 debate, Perla May Suan spoke for all urban commuters who spend an inordinate time on the road when she asked the candidates what they would do to ease her plight. All five sympathized with her but—truth be told—none of them offered near-immediate relief, which I believe was what she was in fact seeking. I was hoping one of the candidates would say, that aside from the investment in infrastructure, the purchase of new trains, and the review of bus franchises, he or she would require Cabinet members to use the train or the bus to work at least once a week. This seems like mere tokenism, a populist gambit, but in fact it is exactly what needs to happen.

Part of what makes the urban commute so dehumanizing is that the entire “customer experience” is hellish. Busted lightbulbs, broken elevators, dirty stairwells, missing or illegible directional signs, the lack of adequate waiting areas; we can go on, but imagine if Cabinet secretaries had to endure this hell regularly. We would fix this part of the experience in no time at all.

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