Column: Will Duterte win Cebu? Is Poe surging?

Published on March 29, 2016.

READER, BEWARE. We’ve reached the point in the long national campaign when partisan exuberance threatens to overwhelm our news feeds, our timelines, even our analytical faculties.

I would be the last person to say that partisans or partisan sites cannot tell the truth; I only wish to add a word of caution. When claims are made, we must set aside the party balloons and campaign confetti, tune out the noise and the roar of the adrenalin rush, to test the statements.

For instance: In the wake of the second presidential debate, held on March 20 in vote-rich Cebu, some extravagant claims were made about a surge in Cebuano support for Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. As far as I can tell, these claims were based on anecdotal evidence—not untrustworthy in itself (as journalists we quickly learn that anecdotes can lead to stories) but subject to validation.

It may be that Duterte, who traces his roots to Cebu, is now riding a groundswell of support after his charismatic, entertaining turn at the debate; or is the indisputable beneficiary of the split between One Cebu and UNA, but we need facts to back those assertions.

When someone—an analyst, an advocate, an adviser—says Duterte will now win Cebu, we must ask: How do you define victory?

The province of Cebu, including Cebu City, has 2.7 million registered voters (the most of any province, by far; Cavite with its 1.8 million voters is a distant second). Does victory mean a majority of the 2.7 million? Already, the failure to factor in voter turnout should be a telltale sign of a partisan or haphazard read.

In 2010, about 77 percent of Cebu’s registered voters cast their ballot. If we assume that the tightness of the 2016 presidential contest will move more voters to head to their voting precincts, perhaps we can agree that an 80-percent turnout would be a reasonable estimate. That would mean that about 2.16 million votes will be in play.

Would victory mean earning a majority of those votes? In 2010, for instance, Sen. Benigno Aquino III received over 986,000 votes, some 55 percent of the votes cast for president in Cebu. Or would victory mean a landslide win, as in 2004? That year, President Gloria Arroyo received almost 1.2 million votes in Cebu, a remarkable 77 percent of the votes cast for president.

* * *

One way to test the truth of an analyst’s assertion (needless to say, this column included) is to measure it against another analyst’s reading. In the view of ex-senator Sonny Osmeña, now mayor of Toledo City in Cebu, the race is too tight for an outright win.

Besides, he told the audience at the Inquirer Town Hall held in Cebu Normal University the day before the second debate, that Cebu has “layered constituencies” and “divided demographics.”

The most that the presidential candidate who will carry Cebu can win, he said, is 35 to 38 percent of the votes cast. At an 80-percent turnout, that means anywhere between 756,000 and 820,000 votes.

To be sure, Raymond Aquino, the businessman-volunteer who serves as Duterte’s spokesperson in Cebu, confessed that the campaign’s target is ambitious indeed: to win 1.5 million votes. That is the Arroyo-level turnout (something that would please the controversial mayor, who is open about his high opinion of the former president). It is certainly within the realm of possibility, but something that Tommy Osmeña, ex-mayor of Cebu City, said in the Town Hall bears watching.

The 2016 vote is very much like the presidential contest in 1992, he said, in that the tightness of the race and the narrowness of the field give independent (that is, nontraditional) campaigns like those of Duterte and Sen. Grace Poe an advantage. Their volunteers, like those of Miriam Defensor Santiago in 1992, can offset party resources or machinery simply by showing up on election day and watching the vote closely. (Santiago came in a close second in 1992, ahead of Ramon Mitra Jr., Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., or Imelda Marcos—all candidates backed by formidable campaign organizations.)

Tommy Osmeña’s insight seems to be an advantage for Duterte, except that Arroyo’s landslide in Cebu in 2004 was made possible because her main rival, Fernando Poe Jr., notoriously did not have any poll watching operation in Cebu to speak of.

One more thing. As Sonny Osmeña noted wryly, the only political family in Cebu that has retained most of its political clout (unlike his own family, or the Garcias, et al., who have all suffered recent electoral losses) are the Duranos—Duterte’s relatives. But as former tourism secretary Ace Durano carefully explained at the Town Hall, the Duranos are solidly behind Poe.

In other words, it’s a complicated picture, not reducible to sweeping statements.

* * *

In an interesting, and daring, experiment, Social Weather Stations has partnered with TV 5 et al. to conduct Bilang Pilipino SWS Mobile Survey, a smartphone-based series of polls. I will leave it to the experts to determine whether the results of these polls are as trustworthy as the regular SWS surveys. But the poll of March 22 (two days after the Cebu debate) has also been used by some to express partisan exuberance. Sen. Grace Poe had surged in the polls after the debate, some said, because the March 22 poll fixed her voter preference rate at 35 percent. But the March 18 poll (two days before) had her already at 33 percent—squarely within the poll’s margin of error. Reader, be aware.

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