This 3,000-word feature, part of the Inquirer’s Charm Offensive Revisited series, ran on the front page of the May 5, 2004 issue—a week before the presidential elections. (This version differs slightly from the piece as published; I edited three or four infelicitous passages, made a couple of corrections, changed one translation.)
Air of unreality
Fernando Poe Jr. is a king running for president. This explains his candidacy’s mass appeal; it also explains his campaign’s increasingly unappealing prospects of victory. An air of unreality marks his bid for the presidency.
Flashback to two Tuesdays ago. At the back of the makeshift stage constructed in the middle of Librada Avelino Street in Pandacan, Manila, campaign organizers call for more security about 10 minutes before Poe arrives. Local campaign supporters wearing blue vests are marshaled into the area, and they join the others already linking arms. With their bodies, they mark off a path for Poe. But the moment Poe exits his vehicle (a new Toyota Land Cruiser without license plates; he is, as is his wont, riding in the front seat), a frenzy difficult to capture on television spreads through the crowd. The pushing and shoving is claustrophobic. Even the supporters doubling as security shout and scream his name. “FPJ! FPJ! FPJ!” In their fervor, some forget to link arms.
Is this a political campaign? More like fans’ day for the popular movie actor known as “Da King.”
But the same unreality marks the rest of his campaign. His leaders belittle the surveys which Poe once ruled. These are being manipulated, says Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Poe’s personal campaign manager. They are the work of “analysts in air-conditioned offices,” Poe’s running mate Senator Loren Legarda says over a midnight meal. How do you measure your progress in the campaign, if you don’t believe in the integrity of these surveys? “We conduct our own,” says ex-Senator Ernesto Herrera, one of Poe’s candidates for the Senate. Continue reading
Published on August 25, 2015.
I want to deconstruct the instructively skewed political analysis of self-described “observer” Serge Osmeña, senator of the Republic, but this exercise will have to wait. Having started with a reading of Mar Roxas’ possible “path to victory,” and having followed that up with a look at Jojo Binay’s still very viable track, I am bound to consider Grace Poe’s own chances of winning.
Can Poe win? The objective answer is clear: Yes, she can. Will she win? As the current frontrunner, the odds are in her favor; if experience is any guide, however, it is in fact still too early to tell. We should have a better idea by early next year.
Reducing these banal facts to writing will strike many as an overbelaboring of the obvious. Surely the trends are clear? As recorded by both Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia, the trend lines since the second half of 2014 have been on the up and up for Poe, downward for Binay, a roller-coaster ride for Roxas. The smart money must be on Poe. Continue reading
Published on September 30, 2014.
Much has already been said about the incident involving Budget Secretary Butch Abad and a score of student protesters at the University of the Philippines the other week. Inquirer reporter Erika Sauler’s summary sentence, in a report she filed a few days after the incident, can serve as a helpful wrap-up: “As he exited the auditorium [and made his way] to his vehicle, a group of protesters from Stand UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP) ganged up on him, calling him a thief as they threw crumpled pieces of paper, placards and coins in his direction.” Other reports described one protester grabbing Abad by the collar.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, whether the students were justified in their violent protest or not, the incident seems to me to demonstrate that words in fact have consequences in the real world. Continue reading
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.
Published on May 14, 2013.
I must disagree with the esteemed Randy David, when in his May 9 column he lumped election surveys together with “political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, [and] corporate financing of electoral campaigns” as obstacles to modernity.
By that measure, every single modern polity that the Philippines can possibly look to as template is premodern. In fact, given that mature democracies use election surveys even more heavily than the Philippines does, by Randy’s own criteria they must be even more backward than we are.
I must quarrel especially with his reduction of the purpose of election surveys to the general notion of trending, and thus of the bandwagon. To quote the passage in full: “Interestingly, theorists of modernity do not fret over the fact that premodern societies do not measure up to these standards. They believe that societal evolution eventually favors the emergence of autonomous political systems. In short, whether or not there’s an explicit law banning them, political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, corporate financing of electoral campaigns, and the use of surveys to sway voters are bound to become less important, or even obsolete, as society becomes modern.”
A reading that proved to be erroneous, at least in terms of actual election results. Published on April 23, 2013.
The results of the April 13-15 Social Weather Stations survey are in, and for the first time two nonreelectionist candidates for the Senate have broken into the Top 4. The number of survey respondents who said they would vote for Nancy Binay and Cynthia Villar rose from 47 percent in March to 49 percent in April, enough for them to tie for joint 3rd-4th place.
But I would guess that the real story from the April results, from the point of view of the campaigns themselves, is the sharp declines in voter support for the ex-soldiers running for reelection, Antonio Trillanes IV and Gringo Honasan.
(Caveat emptor: As I have done in previous columns, I equate the voter preference of the respondents participating in these surveys with voter support, and assume that these numbers will translate, more or less directly, into actual votes. More qualifications need to be made, but that is the gist of it.)
I missed my deadline for April 2, just as the campaigns for the 2013 midterm elections were heating up; I tried to make up for it with seven election-related columns in the next several weeks. This one, published on April 9, 2013, was the first.
Supporters of Risa Hontiveros were the first to point this out to me. She was doing worse at this stage of the campaign in 2010, they said, and yet she still came tantalizingly close to winning then.
Let’s take a look at the SWS surveys from three years ago. In the January 2010 poll, she came in at 22-23, well outside the prospective winners’ circle. In February 2010, she improved to 18-20, but then lost ground in March 2010, falling to 22-24. (She would come back strongly in the succeeding months, improving to 16-18 in April and to 14-15 in the May 2010 survey, before finally landing, after the votes were counted, in 13th place.)
Her numbers in 2013 are healthier. In the January 2013 poll, she came in at 18-19. She consolidated her position in both the February and March surveys, claiming solo 18th place. This is, of course, still six steps removed from a seat in the Senate. But the campaign implications are clear: She is starting from a higher base, and if she can muster the same momentum she put to good use in 2010, especially in the second half of a 90-day campaign, she just might break into the circle of 12.
In response to my critique, Tatad wrote a lengthy letter explaining his attack on surveys of the SWS and Pulse Asia kind. My counter-reply. Published on March 9, 2010.
Ex-Senator Kit Tatad wants an “intelligent debate” on the uses of surveys. I am happy to oblige.
In reply to my Feb. 23 column mocking his new-found anxiety over the perfidy of political pollsters, he wrote me a lengthy letter; I am reprinting it below, albeit with some editing in (missing commas, etc.) and some editing out (three less-important paragraphs, etc., to give me space, about 1,500 characters worth, for my response). But I have refrained from inserting my answers into his letter, reserving them for the end. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Published on February 23, 2010.
Former Sen. Francisco Tatad is shocked —shocked!—that surveys in the Philippines, the same ones that show him lagging behind in the Senate race, are, in his words, “fatally flawed.” He told a media forum last week: “We are shocked that survey methodologies, techniques and practices that have failed and been completely discarded in the United States and other advanced countries are being used in local opinion surveys without any mention of their limitations.”
His attack came as a surprise to journalists and other survey-users who have made it a habit to read the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia websites when new surveys are released. But Tatad did not mean just margins of error and confidence levels. He meant something even more fundamental: the practice of face-to-face interviews. Continue reading
A manufactured crisis; the conventions of opinion writing; coping mechanisms for survey laggards. Published on January 12, 2010.
Yesterday’s editorial piqued my curiosity. “Not least, the history of the Court itself belies [Rep. Matias] Defensor’s contention that the office of Chief Justice had never been vacant, not even for a day.” Good thing the Supreme Court maintains one of the better government websites.
On sc.judiciary.gov.ph, we can find a list of the country’s chief justices, going all the way back to Cayetano Arellano. There are a few mistakes on the list that even a non-lawyer can spot and which can easily be remedied, such as Manuel Moran’s date of retirement (May 29, 1951, not 1966) or the order of Roberto Concepcion’s successors (Querube Makalintal came before Fred Ruiz Castro). But in it too, Defensor can find the perfect rebuttal to his arguments. Continue reading
Published on October 27, 2009.
When “Joseph ‘Erap’ Ejercito Estrada” (in the ex-president’s own formulation) declared his intention to run for the presidency yet again, he basked in the genuine adulation of supporters gathered at Plaza Amado Hernandez in Tondo, Manila. Part of his appeal is his sincere and overriding belief that, as he expressed it most recently: “During the lowest point in my life, the poor did not abandon me.”
Without a doubt, many from the constituency he calls his own stuck it out with him during the years he was detained while undergoing a plunder trial. But like many statements Estrada issues or that are issued in his name, this assertion, that he was not abandoned by the poor—his natural constituency, so to speak—needs to be examined. “Walang iwanan” (instead of the Disneyesque “Nobody gets left behind,” perhaps we should translate this into the more assertive “Nobody leaves anyone behind”) is a potent slogan. Continue reading
Published on April 7, 2009
No, this is not an attempt to add to the literature of “warm spit”—the practice, begun by the Americans, of minimizing the importance of the second-highest office within the gift of the electorate. In the first place, John Nance Garner’s famous quip (the US vice presidency is not worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” he said) may have had some traction during his time as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second wheel; it does not apply to the United States today. Al Gore reinvented the office, and the imperial Dick Cheney used it as base to assert an over-aggressive executive.
Secondly, the charge of political irrelevance does not apply with as much force to Philippine politics. Even the famously self-effacing Sergio Osmeña continued to dominate Visayan politics under Manuel Quezon’s shadow. And ultimate political power was also always within sight. Since the Commonwealth era, six of the country’s 12 vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency: Osmeña, Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Published on March 10, 2009
It is a commonplace in Shakespeare studies. Tudor England labored under a so-called stigma of print, when publication using the then-new printing press was thought to be, well, “baduy”. Manuscripts remained the preferred mode of publication, in large part because they were, by nature, elitist. Only the best “read” them.
That, at least, is how the theory works. The phrase comes to mind, because the death rattle we hear from the newspaper industry suggests it may prove useful in a new context, in an afterlife. In our increasingly digital age, will stigma attach anew to publication-by-printing-press?
I can only agree, of course, when colleague Conrad de Quiros describes the background against which we must come to terms with the death of many newspapers. “Newspapers may go, but not so news and not so reading.” The instinct for news, the human capacity for reading (a capacity largely untapped, until the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther’s revolutionary appeal for the Christian faithful to read the Bible for themselves) made newspapers both necessary and possible.
But the question we must ask ourselves, especially those of us in the Philippines caught in right-of-reply absurdia, is: What kind of news? What kind of reading?
Published on February 10, 2010
To the discussion of political first principles and the debates over policy details, engaged citizens must add one more task to their permanent to-do list: get down and dirty about the practice, the reality, of politics.
And the reality is: We already know who our next president will be. Or more precisely, who among a select five or six Filipinos will win the 2010 elections.
A look back at four pre-election surveys conducted by Social Weather Stations (December 1996, December 2002 and December 2008, plus a summary of its July 1991 poll) suggests to me that while the set of prospective presidential candidates for 2010 is still relatively loose, the subset of possible winners is very tight indeed.
I am of course wary of placing more weight on the survey results than they can (or were designed to) bear. But having followed previous campaigns closely, I would like to suggest the following reading that makes intuitive, practical, sense.
Tables, actually, lifted from the Social Weather Stations site.
Kabayan, Loren, and Manny Villar lead the list of voters’ presidential preferences in the December 2008 survey (note, though, that respondents in this poll could “vote” thrice).
In the December 2002 survey, Roco and FPJ shared top honors, with Kabayan and GMA running not too far behind.
Published on December 18, 2007
A couple of days after the poll group Pulse Asia released additional results of its October 2007 “Ulat ng Bayan” survey, I rang up Ana Maria Tabunda, its executive director. She confirmed my initial guess that the three questions on “corruption-related issues” (as she described them in the cover letter to the second release) were “riders” — that is, additional questions proposed by survey subscribers. (The use of the term, if I am not mistaken, is borrowed from legislative practice.)
The use of riders is standard, of course, as even those in Malacañang who now deny the very possibility of science (a denial Randy David warned us about last Saturday), would have to agree. Riders help make opinion polling a little more cost-effective; at the same time, because the main survey is completely its responsibility, Pulse Asia can claim, as it does, that it “undertakes Ulat ng Bayan surveys on its own without any party singularly commissioning the research effort.”
But even riders are subjected to the same strict standards of survey design and analysis. Dr. Tabunda was emphatic on this point. The questions from ex-senator and regular survey subscriber Serge Osmeña could not be included in their original form, she said. It was only after Osmeña signed off on Pulse Asia’s revised version that the questions (available online, as footnotes in the tables of findings) were included in the October poll. As I hope all reporters learn in their first few months on the job, there is a science even in the phrasing of questions.