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Will Risa or Dick make it? Survey says…

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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.

That is the good news. The bad news is that, in terms of voter preference, Hontiveros (a friend since college days) is actually doing better now than in 2010.

In January 2010, 12 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for her. This rose to 14 percent in February, and fell down to 11 percent in March. Contrast these numbers with 2013: In January, 25 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for her. The proportion held steady in February, and then rose to 29 percent in March. And yet she remains outside the prospective winners’ circle.

What does this mean? Mindful of certain limitations—the surveys’ margin of error, changes in population, dissimilarities between survey choices and actual votes, my own shortcomings as a political journalist and so on—I can hazard a few guesses.

As far as voter preference is concerned, she did not suffer from her absence in Congress, after three terms as Akbayan party-list representative. The conventional wisdom (which I agreed with) was that being away the past three years from the legislative limelight had forced Hontiveros to fight for name recall and favorable awareness all over again. But in the 2010 elections, 23.87 percent of Filipino voters who went to the polls voted for her; last month, 29 percent of a random sample of Filipino voters said they would vote for her.

In other words, she did not lose much of her political capital between 2010, when she stepped down from Congress, and today. The case can even be made that, despite withering criticism from members or supporters of the “other” Left as well as from some anti-RH groups, Hontiveros had actually added to her political standing.

Is it enough to win her a seat in the Senate? Perhaps one way to answer that is to look at the level of voter support for the lowest-ranked winning candidate in every election since 1995, the first time 12 seats were at stake.

In 1995, Nikki Coseteng placed last, with 32.8 percent. In 1998, Tessie Oreta brought up the rear, with 24.7-percent support. In 2001, Gringo Honasan came in 13th, winning the right to complete the last three years of Sen. Tito Guingona’s term, after Guingona was appointed vice president. His share of the vote: 37.7 percent. In 2004, reelectionist Pong Biazon landed in 12th place, with a 32.42-percent share. In 2007, Migz Zubiri was declared the 12th winner (although he resigned four years later in the face of Koko Pimentel’s imminent victory in the Senate Electoral Tribunal); his share of the vote was 37.3 percent. And in 2010, TG Guingona edged out Hontiveros; 26.94 percent of voters who went to the polls voted for him.

It would be nice to conclude that, in presidential election years, the voter-preference threshold for winning a Senate seat is roughly one-fourth, while in mid-term elections it is approximately one-third, but the record will not back such an elegant formula. Instead, my main takeaway is simply this: In nonpresidential years, the senatorial threshold is much higher. And that therefore even candidates who have retained their political capital have a higher obstacle to hurdle in 2013.

We can test our notion by considering former senator Dick Gordon’s numbers.

He is doing better than Hontiveros in the SWS surveys. In the January 2013 poll, he came in at 14th place, but dropped to 17 in February and improved marginally to 16-17 in March. His voter preference numbers are quite robust: 36 percent in January, 31 percent in February, 33 percent in March.

In contrast, his numbers in 2004 (a presidential election year) showed a lower level of voter support. In January 2004, 26 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for him; the proportion fell to 23 percent in February, went back up to 26 percent in March, slipped to 25 percent in April and rose to 29 percent in May 2004. (In the actual vote count, 38.74 percent of voters who went to the polls voted for him, placing him in the first five.)

So it is possible to argue—and I am in fact making the argument—that in the last three years, between the end of his first term in the Senate and today, and despite Gordon’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2010, he lost very little of his political capital. But 2013 is a mid-term election; even if Gordon were rating 38.74 percent today (that is, his actual share of vote in 2004), he would still place (just) outside the Top 12. A sobering conclusion, but perhaps a spur to greater action.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. Email: jnery

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