Do the President’s high ratings reflect reality?

The recent Pulse Asia survey results that showed President Duterte getting a 91-percent approval rating in spite of the shambles the country is in during this pandemic befuddled Ceres Doyo. She said in her Oct. 22 column that the seeming contradiction between the favorable rating of the President and her own expectations may be explained by quantum mechanics. She quoted Gary Zukav, who wrote: “The new physics, quantum mechanics, tells us clearly that it is not possible to observe reality without changing it. According to quantum mechanics there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture.”Sociologist Randy David, meanwhile, wrote in his Oct. 11 column that to interpret people’s actions and their communications, one has to immerse oneself in the life of the community. He cited the misgivings of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on surveys, and quoted him as saying that “surveys assume… that giving an opinion is something available to all,” “that all opinions are of equal value,” and that “putting the same question to everyone assumes that there is… agreement on the questions worth asking.”

I, too, believe that results of public opinion polls, in these times, do not reflect reality. I wrote about it in this paper in December 2018 when I found it incredulous that amid the high cost of food, joblessness, and widespread criminality at the time, President Duterte still got a high satisfaction rating of 70 percent in the Social Weather Stations survey in the fourth quarter of 2018.

As a former practitioner of public opinion polls, I turn to the works of authorities in the field, Robert L. Kahn and Charles F. Cannell of the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan. In their book “The Dynamics of Interviewing,” they wrote that language is always ambiguous as to the exact proposition it indicates. Each individual interprets the question from his or her own unique experience and personal viewpoint. As a result, the respondent’s interpretation of the question may be different from another person’s understanding. When it comes to national or political issues, the frame of reference is likely to be characteristic of sub-groups.

The question asked of SWS respondents was: “Please tell me how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with the performance of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines.” Each respondent’s frame of reference for the word “performance” must have been based on his or her personal circumstance: geographical location, economic class, educational attainment, etc. Coming from different circumstances in life, Ceres, Randy, and I have an assessment of the President’s performance different from those of the respondents of the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys, as well as from each other.

Kahn and Cannell suggest that to ascertain the frame of reference within which a respondent answers a question, the interviewer should ask the respondent why he or she feels the way he or she does about a certain topic, in order to make explicit the frame of reference from which the question was answered. One way of controlling the frame of reference is to incorporate in the question some specific frame of reference.

The SWS and Pulse Asia respondents are given a list of possible answers to choose from. So as not to appear ignorant of political issues, many respondents just choose what they think is a good or safe answer. I have suggested to SWS’ Mahar Mangahas (I have met him, but not his counterpart at Pulse Asia), to follow up SWS’ multiple-choice question with an open-ended question, like: “What in particular makes you satisfied with the President’s performance?” Asked such a question, most respondents would be stumped, I think.

The number of those unable to answer an open-ended question should then be included in the results of the survey, for such widespread ignorance of political issues would reflect reality. Sadly, my suggestion has fallen on deaf ears.

Then there is the element of fear. I touched on it in another article here last year. I wrote then that since the President has shown a proclivity to be harsh on those who reproach him, survey respondents could be afraid to say something unfavorable about him.

Accordingly, because of fear and because of the ambiguity of the questions, opinion polls may not be reflective of reality.

Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has long been a keen observer of Philippine politics. He was in charge of public opinion surveys of Robot Statistics, the Gallup Poll affiliate, in the early 1960s.

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