TO paraphrase the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, public opinion survey firms are not all alike; each is different in its own way.
Three opinion research organizations—SWS, Pulse Asia and Financial Times Confidential Research— took turns last month in measuring the Filipino public’s sentiments about President Rodrigo Duterte’s job performance as he was about to complete his first year in the Presidency.
Three different keyholes
No doubt because they looked at the subject from different keyholes and with different objectives, they came up with contrasting findings.
Because of the release this month of the findings of the three research firms, Filipinos today have the rare opportunity to evaluate the surveys against each other.
SWS in its survey measured the level of public satisfaction with Duterte.
Pulse Asia measured the level of public trust in Duterte.
The Financial Times Confidential Research (FTCR) measured political stability or political climate in the Philippines.
None of them engaged in the more familiar preoccupation of pollsters with measuring public approval or disapproval of a public official’s performance at the job.
Improved political climate
I will start my discussion of these surveys with Financial Times Confidential Research (FTCR), because it conducted a more exhaustive survey and came up with a more revealing report.
According to FTCR, the political climate in the Philippines improved in the second quarter of 2017 because President Duterte was able to regain some of the confidence he lost from the poor sector of society based on the quarterly indicators of the FTCR’s political sentiment index.
The index measures political stability in countries that are being tracked by the London-based Financial Times.
FT, in a report headlined “Duterte claws back support among poor Filipinos,” said the index showed political sentiment in the Philippines rose for the first time since President Duterte came to power a year ago.
The FTCR political sentiment index rose 2.2 points to 55.5 from 53.3 in the first quarter, but remained well below its level of 69.4 a year earlier, the report said.
Support among the poor, which had declined in the previous two surveys, regained some ground in the second quarter, it noted.
It added that DU30’s coalition in the legislature thwarted the opposition on many issues, including the government’s war on drugs and the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.
This was the first time that the index, which measures the country’s political climate over the coming six months, has improved under Mr. Duterte, who completed a year in office on June 30.
Political climate in the next six months
The FTCR posed the simple question in the survey: “How will the domestic political climate change in the next six months?” to respondents.
The political sentiment index chart states that an index reading above 50 indicates an improvement while below 50 indicates a deterioration.
FTCR said among respondents, 39 percent of those with annual earnings of P60,000 to P120,000 (or those earning P10,000 or less a month) saw the political climate improving over the next six months which was up from 33 percent in the first quarter.
“Most people in this group fall below the government’s poverty threshold of P108,768 annual income,” the report noted.
Among the poorest income group in the survey, those earning less than P60,000 a year, 35 percent are optimistic, up from 31 percent in the first three months of 2017.
Improving political sentiment gave Mr. Duterte enough political capital to declare martial law in Mindanao on May 23, following the occupation of Marawi City by militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS).
The report added that the next milestone will be the extension of martial law beyond the 60-day limit that ends on July 23.
FTCR said extending martial law to ensure national security in the face of terrorism may backfire as it would show that Mr. Duterte, despite his strongman image, is struggling to end the extremism that has plagued Mindanao for decades.
SWS satisfaction rating for Duterte
In its survey conducted from June 23 to 26, SWS reported that amidst the Marawi crisis and the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, President Duterte attained his highest ever public satisfaction rating.
Duterte garnered a net satisfaction rating of +67, categorized as “very good,”
The survey was conducted through face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adults nationwide.
It found that 78 percent of respondents were satisfied by Duterte’s performance in the second quarter of the year. Only 12 percent were dissatisfied while 10 percent were undecided.
Satisfaction in Duterte’s performance improved across all socioeconomic classes, with the highest rise in satisfaction among the country’s poorest.
Pulse Asia survey: a slippery mess
Pulse Asia’s Ulat ng Bayan survey, conducted in June 2017, is a slippery and confusing mess. Sometimes it talks of measuring trust, sometimes of approval; and sometimes it also slips in the word “appreciation.” It never focuses on a single rating of job performance that would convey a clear idea of public sentiment.
In a statement on the survey, Pulse Asia reported that most Filipinos remain appreciative of the performance of President Rodrigo Duterte (82 percent), Vice President Maria Leonor G. Robredo (61 percent), and Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel 3rd (62 percent).
Meanwhile, House Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez garnered an approval rating of 43 percent and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno got an approval rating of 48 percent.
But then Pulse Asia gives the game away by suddenly talking instead about trust ratings.
Freedom of the press
Whenever Pulse Asia and SWWS are criticized or sued for their erratic polls, their standard defense is to say that they are only exercising their freedom of the press, like other media organizations.
In a book on opinion polling, The Opinion Makers, David W. Moore, a former senior editor of the Gallup poll, reported that pollsters do not report public opinion, they manufacture it.
He described the questionable tactics pollsters use to create poll- driven stories, including force-feeding respondents, slanting the wording of questions, and taking advantage of public ignorance on issues.
Public opinion researchers in the country do not adhere to a code of ethics and conduct that is normally followed in advanced democracies. And our media organizations blindly consume surveys without asking questions.
The New York Times, for instance, has 21 requirements that a survey must hurdle before it will report on the survey.
I think it’s time our media also draws the line. It’s time our pollsters switch to doing an approval survey on presidential job performance, instead of deceiving the public with satisfaction or trust ratings.
With Financial Times Research doing its superior survey on public sentiments, SWS and Pulse Asia will have no choice but to shape up.