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Why surveys dishearten Miriam

“Why is it that when universities are asked, from left to right, it is Miriam? But if commercial surveys are conducted, I’m not even there,” said Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago during a tour of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. It reminded me of the question raised by the general campaign manager of then presidential candidate Gilbert Teodoro in 2010: “How can 2,000 voters represent the sentiments of an electorate made up of 50 million people?” Teodoro then ranked No. 1 in all the universities in which he spoke, and the students who said they would vote for him numbered in the tens of thousands.

Given that Santiago and Teodoro have the most impressive academic credentials among their respective rivals, Santiago may be the choice of the majority of university students as Teodoro was in 2010. But then it could also be asked how 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 university students can reflect the sentiments of 50 million voters.

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Understandably, Santiago is “disheartened” by the surveys. She has fared very well in campus surveys and mock polls, including the one done in her alma mater, UP Diliman. She was the choice of 405 out of 710 respondents, or 57 percent.

But if she wishes to improve her standing in the polls and garner the largest number of votes on Election Day, she has to broaden her audience. She has made, at this writing, only 10 public appearances, mostly in universities. She has to speak to other sectors of Philippine society—the farmers in Central Luzon, the factory workers in Calabarzon, the fishers in Southern Mindanao, and many more. She must speak in the language they understand, not in her pedantic and condescending way.

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The people interviewed by the major pollsters Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia reflect the sentiments of the entire electorate. SWS interviews usually 2,400 respondents; Pulse Asia has increased its number of respondents from 1,800 in previous years’ surveys to the present 4,000. Unlike the university students interviewed by the camps of Santiago and Teodoro, the respondents of the two major pollsters are representative of the entire voting population because they closely resemble that population in all aspects.

They represent every demographic classification of the electorate: Ilocano and Ilonggo, Tagalog and Tausug, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, educated and uneducated, urban dweller and rural folk, farmer and fisher, white-collar employee and factory worker, Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Iglesia ni Cristo, informed and ignorant, politicized and apolitical, etc.  This is made possible by the use of a combination of sampling methods.

If survey respondents are heavily from one segment of the population, such as Metro Manila university students or people from the fishing villages of Southern Mindanao, the results of the survey would not reflect the voting preferences of the entire population.  The great majority of university students belong to the middle class and upper-income groups, are 18-22 years old, single, highly educated, well-informed by mass media, and highly politicized.  Their choice of candidate differs markedly from those of rural folk and the uneducated.

Eugene Burdick, a professor of political science, wrote in 1964 a political fiction novel, “The 480.” It is about a breed of political experts who believe that a presidential candidate can be promoted to voters like a brand of toothpaste. The political professionals promoting a candidate use computers to run massive simulations to determine the sentiments of subgroups of people with regard to certain issues.

The title is taken from the number of groups—party affiliation, geographical location, religion, gender, age, level of education, occupation, etc.—that computer simulations use to break down the American electorate.  The available technology at the time was the IBM digital computer which used punch cards as the primary medium for the input of data. The card had 480 digital information holes.

The Philippine voting population is not broken down into 480 subgroups as the subgroups are not as diverse and disparate as those of the American electorate.  The major pollsters break down the voting population into much fewer subgroups.

Veteran campaign strategists closely monitor the results of independent surveys, adjusting their strategies according to what the surveys suggest. We see this in Sen. Grace Poe’s change of campaign slogan. Because Mayor Rodrigo Duterte had dislodged her from the top rank in the polls with his sole promise of ridding the country of criminal elements in three to six months, Poe now goes around promising to clean out the dregs of society in a shorter time. Her stand on the issue of burying Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani and on the issue of the coconut levy funds being released directly to coconut farmers changes according to who make up her audience.

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Santiago’s anticorruption platform may resonate with the university students, but not with the people in the countryside who till the soil and scour the waters from dawn to dusk. They are much more concerned with what social services and financial support Imperial Manila can provide them. Besides, Santiago lost her credibility when it comes to corruption issues as she took the wrong side of history in the impeachment trials of then President Joseph Estrada and then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Oscar P. Lagman Jr. is a political activist and longtime observer of Philippine politics.

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TAGS: Election surveys, Elections 2016, Gilbert Teodoro, Miriam Defensor Santiago
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