Business World : Fear a factor in voters’ preference surveys

News & Interviews
7 June 2021

By Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. | Business World

Some political observers have written off any genuine opposition candidate as winner for president in 2022. They base their forecast on the results of the latest Pulse Asia survey. The survey revealed that Vice-President Leni Robredo ranked only No. 6 in terms of voters’ preference.

Only 7% of the 2,400 respondents interviewed during the period Feb. 22-March 3 expressed a preference for her. Five other probable candidates ranked higher than her. They are Sara Duterte (27%), Bongbong Marcos (13%), Grace Poe (12%), Isko Moreno (12%), and Manny Pacquiao (11%). The others named in the survey were Bong Go (5%), Jojo Binay (3%), and Alan Peter Cayetano (2%).

While Grace Poe does not belong to the President’s political party, she has in her many years in the Senate voted in favor of his agenda more often than against. Mayor Isko Moreno also belongs to another party but he has expressed admiration for President Rodrigo Duterte.

Social Weather Stations, the other major public opinion pollster, has not conducted a similar survey. As far as I know, neither has it conducted a survey on people’s satisfaction on President Duterte’s performance since a year ago. SWS used to do it every quarter.

I tend to think SWS decided to stop doing satisfaction surveys because civil society in general has cast doubt on the validity of survey results. Respected newspaper columnists have difficulty accepting the President’s high satisfaction rating in surveys — 92% sometimes — given the true state of the nation. After all, President Duterte himself had admitted his failure to fulfill his campaign promises of ridding the country of the drug menace, eradicating corruption, reducing street crime, ending the contractualization of employees, and keeping the price of rice low.

Many political pundits have also found it hard to reconcile the high ratings of the President with the various issues surrounding the administration’s poor response to the pandemic while Vice-President Leni Robredo fared badly when she has been rolling out her own assistance to those affected adversely by the lockdown without help from the administration.

Among the issues levelled against the administration were allegations of massive corruption against executives of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., the inadequacy of the country’s communications system for the new teaching method the pandemic situation requires, and the spending of P349 million for the beautification of the Baywalk alongside Roxas Boulevard when the government has claimed it no longer has the resources to give financial aid to those who lost their job or livelihood due to the lockdown.

Netizens are more blunt on what they think about those surveys on the performance of the President. Some say SWS has been co-opted by the President and that Pulse Asia is “doctoring” the findings to gain the goodwill of the President.

I do not think so.

This is not in defense of SWS and Pulse Asia. I have no connection with them and never had. This is more in defense of public opinion polling. I have a working knowledge of public opinion polling. I was with Robot Statistics, the country’s first independent public opinion pollster/market research firm and Gallup affiliate, in the early 1960s. It was my first job.

I learned at Robot Statistics how respondents to public opinion polls are drawn at random so that the entire lot (it is called the sample in public opinion polling) is representative of the voting population. SWS had briefed me some time back on how they draw their 1,500 respondents. Pulse Asia has several times described on television their sampling method. SWS’ and Pulse Asia’s sampling methods are in accordance with accepted general practice in the field of public opinion polling. That is why the results of their surveys have been borne out by the results of the general elections.

In 2016, the two pollsters projected Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo as the winning presidential and vice-presidential candidates. They even got the rankings of the candidates for the top two positions right.

However, I believe that in these times, results of surveys on voters’ preference for presidential candidates and on the performance of President Duterte do not reflect the true sentiments of the respondents. President Duterte has shown a disdain for opposition to his agenda and to criticism. That disdain is evidenced by the woeful fate of Senator Leila de Lima, Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno, former Senator Antonio Trillanes, journalist Maria Ressa, and ABS-CBN, bitter critics all of the President.

Survey respondents could be afraid of saying something negative about him or are reluctant to say something favorable to his critics and political opponents. Interviews are conducted face-to-face. The respondent’s name and address are written by the interviewer for purposes of verification of the interview by survey auditors. However, the respondent may be suspicious of the true purpose of the interviewer, a total stranger to him.

In fact, SWS found out through its July 3-6, 2020 National Mobile Phone Survey that 51% of Filipinos agree that “It is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

In an interview with a newspaper reporter late last year, Pulse Asia President Ronnie Holmes admitted that fear, though difficult to measure, cannot be ruled out as possibly influencing survey results. He said you can’t rule out the possibility that there are some people whose prevailing sentiment is apprehension or fear.

According to Mr. Holmes, Pulse Asia interviewers record the “nonverbal behavior” of survey respondents such as the time it takes a respondent to answer questions, if he showed apprehension, or appeared to be assessing the interviewer. However, the interviewers’ observations are not shared with the public.

Because of the prevailing atmosphere of fear, respondents may not express their true sentiments. The latest Pulse Asia survey on voters’ preference for president may not be of value to any candidate, even to Mayor Sara Duterte. Strategists of the 1Sambayan might would do well to not place significance on results of polls during this election period.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.