The Manila Times : Of momentum and turning the tide: Surveys as litmus test of fanaticism and bias

12 April 2022

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

THE March survey conducted by Pulse Asia, released last week, showing former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. maintaining a wide double-digit margin of 32 percent over his closest rival Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo has practically become a sorting hat, dividing the pragmatic from the blindly hopeful and the idolatrous. It has also become a clear indicator of political bias from many in academe and in mainstream media.

The facts were clear. Marcos Jr. kept his wide margin despite shedding 4 percent, maintaining his significant lead in all geographical regions and socio-economic classes, and despite a 9-percent increase in the preference ratings of Robredo. While this led to a net decline of 4 percent in the margin between them, such was still significantly beyond the margin of error.

It was, however, very revealing how people spun the results. Robredo supporters, a cohort that just a week ago, debunked scientific surveys and preferred Google trends and social media metrics and that derisively referred to Pulse Asia as "False Asia," celebrated with jubilation. They were quick to label her 9-percent rise as the beginning of the turning of the tide.

This bold bravado is expected from the partisan crowd. What is, however, terribly disappointing is how many in the mainstream media bannered the results. The bias in favor of Robredo was simply so obvious that one doubts if there was even any attempt made by editors to remind themselves that they were supposed to be fair journalists not opinion writers and certainly not partisan spinners. The focus of most news was the decline in Marcos Jr.'s numbers and the rise in Robredo's, obviously sidelining the fact that there was still a wide margin between them. What the Pulse Asia survey results had effectively done was to provide the final rope to many mainstream media organizations to hang their supposed balance and fairness.

It was also equally disappointing to watch some people from academe, especially those whose disciplines entail the propagation of scientific understanding of political behavior, including political surveys, to join the spinning. Any pretense of being on the side of science left the scene for these academics when they spoke of a momentum working in favor of Robredo. It is one thing to express political preference grounded on solid academic concepts and theories, and on empirical data. But it is totally different when one expresses bias that appropriates academic stature to legitimize a partisan spin while pretending to be scholarly.

This is particularly most vivid when one speaks about a momentum that would be enough for Robredo to overtake Marcos Jr. A fair, objective analysis of electoral mathematics would reveal that this can only happen if Robredo's numbers rise exponentially in a J-curve pattern. This kind of behavior would ensue only if the scenario is like a marathon where one runner can make a sprint independent of the efforts of the other runners enough to overtake them.

However, this is not what prevails in electoral contests where nature is a zero-sum game, where gains of one equal the sum of the losses of others. In this scenario, any momentum of one candidate would not be independent of how other candidates will play their campaigns in the final stretch of the race. The only way an exponential rise in Robredo's numbers can be achieved is if the other candidates will all surrender and play dead. Marcos Jr., with his wide margin, would be stupid not to deploy countermeasures to check the rise in Robredo's numbers. Similarly, other candidates would do the same. In fact, the camp of Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso has claimed that he is the one who is gaining on Marcos Jr., contrary to the Pulse Asia survey results.

One of the most egregious claims made by some people from academe is the allegation that surveys, including that of Pulse Asia, are not reliable in predicting trends in election outcomes. All it takes is to check the past performance of Pulse Asia to debunk this. In March 2004, Pulse Asia survey yielded a three percent edge of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo over Fernando Poe Jr.; in March 2010, Benigno Aquino 3rd had a 19 percent edge over Joseph Estrada; and in March 2016, Rodrigo Duterte enjoyed an 11 percent margin over Mar Roxas. Arroyo, Aquino 3rd and Duterte all won and became president. In the same period this March, Marcos Jr. had an even higher margin of 32 percent over Robredo.

It is indeed disappointing that some in mainstream media and in academe, two institutions in society that are expected to be truth tellers, abandon this commitment in the altars of partisanship. Spinning survey results to weave myths and even create illusions of victory should be left to those who work in the employ of political campaigns and to their political base. It should never be the business of mainstream media and the academe.

Our role is to educate voters to read surveys as mere sources of data that are informed by science, even as we should never be constrained by them in making our choices. I read the Pulse Asia survey result as an indication that the majority of the Filipino people appear not to have the same opinion as I have in terms of their preferences. If there is any effect on me, it is to even make my voice heard by voting for someone despite his having a zero chance of winning.

I believe that we cannot change our politics by simply scrambling to change the way we behave politically only during elections, by suddenly becoming nicer to people we usually treat badly. We cannot achieve political transformation by spinning survey results to feed our convenient narratives. We have to begin treating survey results as a diagnosis of the structural challenges that we face about our political culture, political institutions and the way we make our political choices.