January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

Much ado about numbers

Surveys were first used in the 1953 presidential elections and they have been an invaluable — but not always infallible — guide to candidates ever since.
Senator John Osmeña (right), shown being endorsed by Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. in 1998, is confident he will win another Senate term because the surveys say so.

Senator John Osmeña (right), shown being endorsed by Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. in 1998, is confident he will win another Senate term because the surveys say so.

SENATOR John Osmeña is certain he will win again in the May elections. The numbers say so, he crowed in an evening talk show, where he whipped out the results of a poll he had commissioned the survey outfit Social Weather Stations (SWS) to do last year.

The survey, which ran from August 30 to September 14, 2003 showed the grizzled politician from Cebu ranking third to fourth in the lengthy list of probable senatorial candidates. He fared particularly well in Mindanao (he placed second), and among the men, as well as among the D and E classes.

With the numbers squarely behind him, Osmeña didn’t have to go begging any political party to draft him. Instead, the parties came knocking on his door. He is now part of the administration’s K4 senatorial slate, supposedly after exacting a pledge that it would back his son John Henry Gregory’s (‘John-John’) candidacy for the governorship of Cebu.

Osmeña belongs to the fast-expanding tribe of politicians that knows the value of checking out — even commissioning — well-executed surveys before embarking on risky and expensive undertakings like gunning for public office, thanks chiefly to the accuracy with which local scientific public opinion polls have predicted the outcome of elections. But politicians have found other uses for polls, such as gauging the mood of the public on a particular issue or measuring the impact of a campaign message, so much so that Philippine politics could be said to have become much like a legal version of jueteng — a numbers game. Of course, survey firms would probably balk at that description, since they are always dead serious about their work, which they emphasize is no game of chance.

To be sure, there are many misconceptions about surveys. As it is, many people still find it hard to believe that a small sample of 1,200 respondents can accurately predict the outcome of an election. But independent survey organizations have repeatedly demonstrated that this can be done. The SWS’s final pre-election survey for the 1992 presidential race, for instance, showed Fidel Ramos and Miriam Santiago in a close fight (26.8 percent to 25 percent). The one it did in the 1998 elections showed Joseph Estrada pulling away from his opponents (33 percent).

The results of the SWS polls were just a few percentage points off the official count by the Commission on Elections (Comelec). The outcome of its exit poll for the presidential race, first conducted in 1998, was even closer to the official count.

Contrary to what many people assume, elections surveys are also hardly new in the Philippines, having been around since the 1950s. The difference is that in the past, the surveys were not published as they are now.

A research done by top SWS honchos Mahar Mangahas and Linda Luz Guerrero identifies George Cohen as one of the pioneers in opinion polling in the country. Robot Statistics, the firm Cohen founded, did confidential election research in the 1953, 1961, and 1965 elections by conducting polls in key cities. The results were pretty accurate such that when Cohen found the surveys showing his client, President Diosdado Macapagal, would lose to Ferdinand Marcos in the 1965 elections, he decided against disclosing the results in public. That year, Mangahas and Guerrero write, “fearing the hostility of Ferdinand Marcos, the 1965 winner,” Cohen emigrated and Robot closed.

But there were Filipino pollsters of note at the time, too, and they engaged in open or nonconfidential polling, according to Mangahas and Guerrero. Enrique T. Virata, a statistician from the University of the Philippines, ran a Quezon City mail survey in 1957 that foresaw the victory of Carlos P. Garcia. Political scientist Jose V. Abueva, also of the UP, conducted a Manila poll that predicted Marcos as the winner in the 1965 elections. The media did some polling as well. In the 1969 race, for example, Weekly Graphic magazine undertook a readers’ poll that saw Marcos leading his opponent Sergio Osmeña Jr.

THESE DAYS, politicians are increasingly relying on surveys at different stages of an election. Early on, surveys help candidates decide to run or not by indicating to them not only people’s awareness of them but, more importantly, their “electability” or “desirability.” Mangahas cites businessman Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr. and Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Bayani Fernando as examples of candidates who dropped out of the race after they didn’t do too well in the polls. Cojuangco, who ran for president in 1992, was being egged to do so again, while Fernando was mulling a run for the vice presidency in the upcoming elections.

The surveys predicted an Estrada victory in 1998.

The surveys predicted an Estrada victory in 1998.

After the campaign rolls off, surveys continue to play an important role by pinpointing geographic and other demographic areas in which candidates are strong or weak so they could readjust their campaign strategy, including recrafting their message. Political strategist Lito Banayo recounts, for example, how the opposition got really worried when pre-election surveys in Metro Manila for the snap elections showed Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino’s margins eroding during the campaign. Banayo, who was with the Aquino campaign at the time, recalls, “I was afraid that if the campaign were extended two more weeks and the trend continued, we might lose the elections because Metro Manila was Aquino’s bastion of strength.”

But Aquino’s handlers, led by Aurelio German and Teddy Boy Locsin, quickly retooled the campaign and came up with her famous speech before the Manila Rotary Club. Rebutting her opponent’s claim that she was a mere housewife who knew nothing, she said, “Talagang wala akong alam: wala akong alam sa pagnanakaw, wala akong alam sa pagpapatay, wala akong alam sa pangungurakot (I really know nothing: I don’t know how to rob people, I don’t know how to kill, I don’t know how to raid the country’s coffers).”

In the 1992 elections, marketing expert Anthony Abaya says Aquino constantly monitored the survey results to determine how her handpicked candidate, Fidel Ramos, was faring against LDP official bet Ramon V. Mitra. The Mitra camp, which had hired an U.S. firm to countercheck the local poll results, was dismayed to find that the then speaker of the House fared no better in their self-commissioned survey. Like the locally supervised surveys, Mitra placed only fourth.

Ramos, Abaya says, relied heavily on surveys to define the issues of his candidacy and his public projection during the campaign. The heavy emphasis on his role in the Edsa revolt, for example, exemplified in the campaign slogan “Ed sa 92” coined by Abaya, was partly due to the surveys, which showed what Abaya calls a “subliminal attachment to Edsa.”

Surveys matter just as much to campaign financiers as to candidates. “Surveys hardly affect votes, but they are going to affect contributions — pera (money), pagod (effort), volunteer work,” Mangahas said in one talk show. Money will surely not find its way to a candidate who is falling behind in the surveys.

Political analyst Antonio Gatmaitan says survey results four weeks before the elections are the most awaited by funders. “A candidate (who does not do well in the survey) may be deprived of funding,” he says. “It will prevent a candidate from pushing (through with) his plan.”

Just as valuable these days are day-of-election or exit polls. The SWS, which started conducting exit polls in 1992 for the ABS-CBN television network, surveys voters who have returned to their homes, in private, rather than outside the voting centers, in public view. The exit poll gives an even clearer picture of winners and losers than pre-election surveys. Some people feel that the publication of the exit polls minimizes cheating and puts cheaters in national focus. But Gatmaitan says the effects are “minimal.” Cheating-the result of institutional weaknesses of the electoral system-will still take place, he says, although the maximum cheating capability encompasses only five percent (about two million) of the votes. Quips Gatmaitan: “It’s a mechanically difficult undertaking.” But the Supreme Court apparently sees it differently. In a 2000 decision that struck down attempts to prohibit the publication of election surveys, the court said that “exit polls-properly conducted and publicized-can be vital tools in eliminating the evils of election-fixing and fraud.” It also declared that “the holding of exit polls and the dissemination of their results through the mass media” as being covered by the freedom of speech. “Hence,” the court said, “Comelec cannot ban them totally in the guise of promoting clean, hoenst, orderly, and credible elections.”

THE BIGGEST misconception of the public — and the biggest fear of politicians (especially those who post poor showings) — about surveys is they would have a bandwagon effect or the reverse, the underdog effect. The bandwagon effect means the results of election polls put social pressure on some of the undecided voters to vote for the side that is expected to win. That’s why some politicians have batted for the nondisclosure of survey results to the public. Pollster Pedro ‘Junie’ Laylo, however, remarks, “I haven’t encountered a definitive study on the bandwagon effect on the Philippines.”

The World Association of Public Opinion Research (Wapor) also dismisses such fears, insisting that the effects of election surveys remain minimal and can be seen as completely harmless.

“They can provide a kind of interpretative assistance, which helps undecided voters make up their mind,” acknowledges a joint publication of Wapor and the Foundation for Information called Who’s Afraid of Election Polls? “But the media are full of such interpretative aids, which are usually disguised and exert a subtle influence, whether in the form of journalists’ speculation, politicians’ showy claims to victory, or the selective choice of photos, quotes. Among these judgmental sources, election polls are a relatively neutral and rational interpretative aid.”

On this point the Supreme Court agrees. In its 2001 decision ruling in favor of publishing pre-election surveys, the court rejected the contention that these confuse the voters. Instead, the court said, “To sustain the ban on survey results would sanction the censorship of all speaking by candidates in an election on the ground that the usual bombasts and hyperbolic claims made during the campaign can confuse the voters and thus debase the electoral process.”

A concurring opinion said further: “The provision in dispute does not prohibit paid hacks from trumpeting the qualifications of their candidates. In fine, while survey organizations who employ scientific methods and engage personnel trained in the social sciences to determine sociopolitical trends are barred from publishing their results within the specified periods, any two-bit scribbler masquerading as a legitimate journalist can write about the purported strong showing of his candidate without any prohibition or restraint.”

Thus, so far, the Philippines is among the 36 out 66 countries surveyed by Wapor in 2002 that are without an embargo on the publication of findings from political polls. Of the 30 with embargoes, though, Luxembourg has the longest: 30 days before elections (the count including the voting day itself), survey results can no longer be published.

FOR ALL their wariness about the effects of having the public know the results of political polls, politicians cannot seem to get enough of them. Indeed, although many subscribe to survey outfits (the SWS and Pulse Asia, among others), a handful of politicians have gone as far as having private pollsters.

Laylo, for example, supervises the in-house polling at the Palace. At the SWS where he was once connected, Laylo had handled all of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s accounts since 1994, when she decided to run for the Senate. A friendship obviously developed, with First Gentleman Mike Arroyo standing as sponsor at Laylo’s wedding years later (the pollster married another pollster, Carrie, also formerly of the SWS and now working freelance).

In 1992, exit polls showed Ramos winning by a narrow margin over Miriam Defensor-Santiago (above).

In 1992, exit polls showed Ramos winning by a narrow margin over Miriam Defensor-Santiago (above).

During the Wapor regional conference held here in February, Laylo said that President Arroyo, having a background in economics, prefers to make decisions based on empirical data. But he quickly added that her decision to withdraw and then later rejoin the race for the presidential “was entirely her own” and not based on results of the surveys, which had shown her popularity rapidly slipping.

For the May elections, Laylo insisted that he has no role in campaign politics and continues to focus on governance polls. But an Arroyo adviser says Laylo works closely with a U.S. consultant the president has hired in directing the election surveys for Malacañang

In engaging the services of her own pollster, Arroyo takes after her father. Diosdado Macapagal had sought the assistance of Cohen, along with Donald Muntz, of Robot Statistics. Just like his daughter, Macapagal was not one to always heed their advice. When Cohen and Muntz, for example, called his attention to unpopular appointments he had made to the government, Macapagal was said to have answered back, “I am engaged in a reform movement and must take risks. I am not in a popularity contest. I expect adverse reaction and even hostility.”

Other presidents had their own private pollsters as well. Marcos had several, among them marketing guru Ned Roberto of the Asian Institute of Management. So did Ramos and Estrada, although in fewer numbers.

Ramos relied heavily on Anthony Abaya, who in November 1990 commissioned a survey with 40,000 respondents to determine not only the breadth but also the depth of support for Ramos. The results of the survey, according to Abaya, firmed up Ramos’s resolve to run for president.

Estrada’s local pollster was the Philippine Survey Research Center (PSRC), said to be the first to conduct coincidental TV surveys, radio research and car radio listenership studies. PSRC’s Raul Esteban was with Estrada from his campaign to his incumbency, working closely with U.S. media consultant Paul Bograd.

Of course, having their own private pollsters has not stopped some chief executives-like Ramos and Arroyo-from still subscribing to surveys run by reputable organizations such as the SWS or Pulse Asia, or both. Ditto with many other politicians from senators and congressmen down to governors and mayors. Ramos, for instance, once commissioned the SWS to do a poll on coal-fired power plants.

SWS’s Guerrero says politicians find it more economical to include questions in the organization’s monthly surveys of 1,200 respondents nationwide. A closed question would cost only P30,000 and an open question P50,000.

In the August to September 2003 survey Osmeña commissioned, for example, the senator had four other questions asked-the favorability of granting amnesty to the Marcos family and their cronies (Yes, 54 percent; No, 45 percent); the favorability of granting amnesty to Estrada (Yes, 64 percent; No, 35 percent); whether the respondent considers himself/herself a victim of human rights violation of the Marcos administration (Yes, 14 percent; No, 86 percent); and whether the respondent is a personal acquaintance of any victim (Yes, 10 percent; No, 90 percent)..

For its four pre-election surveys from January to April, SWS charges a subscription fee of P400,000. Candidates get not only their standing and trust rating, but are also supplied the demographics, on the basis of which they can fine-tune their campaign strategies.

The SWS also undertakes surveys for special constituencies, ideal for people eyeing local public office. These are more expensive: P800,000 for about 50 questions. The surveys cover 300 respondents and normally take three to four weeks to do, says Guerrero.

THERE ARE a few things going against surveys. Contradictory results are one. Errors are another. A classic example is when surveys wrongly predicted the victory of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 U.S. presidential elections. Harry Truman won. Public opinion polls get further discredited when the results are misinterpreted — or manipulated — by the public, academics, politicians, and the media.

But sometimes, someone’s misreading of survey results benefits the public. Marcos, for instance, apparently misread the results of a survey conducted by the Bishop-Businessmen’s Conference (BBC) in 1985 and, on that basis, called for snap elections in February 1986. The survey had asked 2,000 people, “How many in this locality would vote for Ferdinand Marcos if he runs for President again?” Taking the 52 percent who replied “Many/Very Many” to mean he was assured of a fresh mandate, Marcos announced his decision on U.S. television.

What Marcos overlooked, says Mangahas, was a clarification the BBC had made on its survey report that “these are not estimates of the proportions who will vote for a candidate, and that the score 52-37 was not a voting margin.” Years later, Alejandro Melchor, Marcos’s former executive secretary, would tell Mangahas that “maybe…Marcos failed to understand the true situation, since he was already very sick by then.”

A month before the 1986 polls, Consumer Pulse published its survey findings scoring the race at 45 percent for Marcos and 26 percent for his opponent Corazon Aquino. The polling firm, however, was noncommittal about the results. Filipinos were to learn only five years later about a confidential poll the Asia Research Organization, an affiliate of Gallup International, had done on the week of the 1986 elections. It foresaw a tight race between Marcos and Aquino, at 41 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the SWS and Ateneo de Manila University three months after the elections, which asked respondents who they voted for as president, showed Aquino leading Marcos 64 percent to 27 percent.

Although unrelated to elections, a joint SWS-Manila Standard survey conducted in October 2000 on the “juetenggate” provides yet another interesting case of misreading opinion polls. The survey found that most Filipinos were unsure if the charges of Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson were true or not and were not in favor of President Estrada leaving office. In short, they preferred to give Estrada the benefit of the doubt.

Says Mangahas: “The mistaken thinking of President Joseph Estrada was that the SWS/Manila Standard poll showed popular rejection of the charges of Chavit Singson, leading to his refusal to resign, and instead to tough out the impending impeachment.” The more critical finding, he points out, was that “most people were unsure of the truth, and wanted the issue to be settled by a fair process.”

In the cases of Marcos and Estrada, Mangahas observes, “The misreadings of Marcos in October 1985 and of Estrada in October 2000 were due to hubris rather than to the way the polls were reported.” Looking back, he says these misreadings “led to quicker progress across the Philippines’ bumpy road to better democracy and governance.”