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COMMENTARY

Public opinion surveys have become dysfunctional

05:02 AM May 04, 2019

Having been in the field of public opinion polls early in my career, I am a firm believer in the validity and usefulness of political surveys, at least those noncommissioned surveys of Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia. I have maintained that their election forecasts have been validated by the actual results of the elections. In 2016, the two pollsters correctly projected Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo as the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates, just as they had correctly predicted the outcomes of previous national elections.

Detractors of political polls cite the case of the American pollsters’ forecast of a Hillary Clinton victory over Donald Trump in the US presidential election of 2016, when it was Trump who was declared winner. Clinton actually received more votes than Trump, as the pollsters had projected. But the winner in the US election system is not based on who garners the most votes. The votes cast by electors of the Electoral College determine the winner.

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I may be a staunch defender of legitimate pollsters, but I submit that opinion polls have become dysfunctional. SWS and Pulse Asia have become significant forces in the Philippine political process. They have unduly influenced the outcome of national elections with their surveys. Instead of the campaign managers using survey results as basis in formulating or revising their campaign strategies, as these polls were originally meant for, they are now urging voters to use the survey results as basis for the election of candidates. They are exhorting voters to vote for candidates who place high in the survey rankings, as if voting for the winning candidate has a monetary reward, like betting on the odds-on favorite in a horse race.

That is why some survey groups have emerged and come up with dubious surveys on national and local positions, and the supposed results used to create a bandwagon effect. Sometime in March, a press release from the camp of senatorial candidate Bong Go said that he (Go) placed No. 3 in the ranking of senatorial candidates in a supposed SWS survey. The press release noted that the high spot was a continuous improvement from his previous spot of No. 6, and back in December, from No. 16. However, SWS president Mahar Mangahas said the alleged survey was not theirs.

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In 1959, Robot Statistics, the first and, at the time, the only independent research firm in the Philippines, released the results of a survey on the candidates for Manila mayor and vice mayor immediately after the polling places had closed, when the survey results could no longer be used to create a bandwagon effect. The survey findings, which showed Arsenio H. Lacson and Antonio J. Villegas as the winning candidates for mayor and vice mayor, respectively, were released through an extra edition of the afternoon daily newspaper The Daily Mirror.

It was a bold move on the part of Robot Statistics to release the survey results just hours before the official election results became known. Villegas was the opposition party’s vice mayoral candidate. Had he lost to the running mate of the very popular Lacson of the majority party, Robot Statistics’ credibility would have been destroyed forever.

In 1965, the firm also projected the reelection of President Diosdado Macapagal. The story is that the raw data showed Ferdinand Marcos the winner, but Macapagal put pressure on the firm’s owner, who was stateless, to declare otherwise.

The other reason surveys have become dysfunctional is that survey results may not reflect the true sentiments of the respondents and may only mislead the voters. As President Duterte has shown a proclivity to reward those who praise or please him and to inflict harshness upon those who reproach or oppose him, survey respondents could be afraid to say something not favorable to him, his policies and his candidates, especially the anointed ones—Bong Go, Bato dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino.

Interviews are conducted face-to-face. The respondent’s name and address are known to the interviewer. The interviewer’s true purpose may be suspect to the respondent. Most respondents may be inclined to give answers pleasing to the President.

Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s. He was in charge of public opinion polls at Robot Statistics, an affiliate of Gallup Polls, in 1960-61.

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TAGS: Commentary, Duterte, Elections, Lagman, political, Public opinion, pulse asia, surveys, SWS
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