Opinion surveys and voting-preference polls: The big difference


I’ve been a big critic of opinion surveys, especially when newspapers report them as banner headlines—a practice not just done anywhere else in the world.

The reason is that while opinion polls are legitimate research tools, to mystify their findings as  “the voice of the people” or as representing objective truth is to utterly misunderstand what they are.

For instance, a poll of 35,000 Americans that showed that 68 percent of them believed that “angels and devils are active in the world” doesn’t in any way mean that such creatures exist. A billion people saying they exist can’t make them exist—just as that number of humans in medieval times believed that the world was flat, even if it was a globe.seven out of 10 Americans believe in such creatures simply means that American culture – Sunday catechism classes, fairy tales, even movies – has ingrained such strong belief in fantastical creatures in them.

As a toddler you were told you had a guardian angel so you wouldn’t have to wake your mom in the middle of the night; as a student in a Catholic school you were taught that devils were fallen angels; and as an adult you got engrossed in such blockbuster movies as “City of Angels” or “Constantine.”  Now, when the pollster comes along to ask you if you believe in angels, what do you think you would say?

Percent of Filipinos voting for Binay and Roxas, Philippines and per major region, based on Sept. 7-11 interviews of 1,200 respondents, Laylo and Associates

Percent of Filipinos voting for Binay and Roxas, Philippines and per major region, based on Sept. 7-11 interviews of 1,200 respondents, Laylo and Associates

Opinion polls merely quantify people’s current views — false or not, utterly fantastical or not — on issues, or, on their choice consumer products, as these have been formed by culture and media.  People do not get their ideas about issues from thin air, as European scholars like Jurgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu have expounded.

In modern mass society, people get their ideas on issues almost solely, after childhood, formal education, and peer-group talk, from media. This is especially in countries where poverty bars the majority from getting accurate information and even having the intellectual tools for rational evaluation of an issue.

Nowhere are opinion polls so abused as in the Philippines. It has even been weaponized and used with lethal force several times by this Administration.

 The trick

I wrote the following on January 12, 2012  — more than two years ago — in my column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer when I was still with there.

“This trick of using polls by President Aquino’s propagandists involves the following steps.

  •   First, publicize an allegation by a cooperative journalist or by an ally in Congress about an issue, get Congress to investigate the allegation, have a subservient press run it as banner stories for consecutive days, with “outraged” opinion writers rousing people’s passions.
  •  Second, undertake a poll on the issue, when people have just been barraged in the press by the allegations. Voila! The poll findings that so and so is corrupt, the result of the press barrage in step one, are proclaimed as “public opinion.”
  •  Third step: Publicize the poll widely, so that the bandwagon effect comes into play.

I gave as examples in that column this Administration’s campaigns against former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes (who tragically couldn’t take the assault and committed suicide), former Ombudsman Merceditas Guitierez, and Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Remember newspapers, a TV network, and a news website’s screaming headlines a month before the Senate decision?  SWS: “Anxious Pinoys want Corona convicted” (Rappler);  “SWS survey: 73% want guilty verdict for CJ,” (ABS-CBN): “73% prefer Corona conviction, says latest SWS Survey (Inquirer).”

The pattern I wrote about two years ago is certainly familiar, isn’t it?

It is the same modus operandi of this Administration in its successful project to put the three opposition leaders – Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla – to jail.

It is obviously using the same set of weapons – media “exposes,” Senate investigation, and opinion surveys – to torpedo Binay’s bid for the presidency in 2016. “Lumang style bulok,” as street lingo would describe scams.

Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations’ polls so far — involving the fall in Binay’s trust ratings — are just the preliminary barrages, as Aquino’s operators are still evaluating if Senator Antonio Trillanes’  demolition job was successful.

After a few more Senate hearings, expect Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations –non-profit firms, by the way — to publish surveys on how many Filipinos believe that Binay has a vast hidden wealth, and that he is a crook.

Voter-preference polls
However, there is one particular poll that has much legitimacy:  Voter-preference polls.  In fact, opinion polls originated in the US in the late 19th century as “straw polls,” a dry-run of sorts of an election in which a group of people cast their ballots for candidates in an unofficial and non-binding manner.

Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper in the 1900s then adopted statistical techniques such as sampling to make voter-preference polling a regular feature in US politics, as a means for candidates to adjust their campaign tacks. Only much later would polling be used to quantify people’s opinions on any subject under the sun.

It is a bit ironic that in the Philippine setting, it was the dictatorship that started the practice of opinion polling, since without a free press, the strongman Ferdinand Marcos didn’t have any instrument in measuring what people thought of his “reforms” and his authoritarian rule.

These first opinion polls in the country were undertaken by Mahar Mangahas (of SWS fame, of course) and Jose “Pepe” Miranda, who, after a spat with Mangahas, broke away to form Pulse Asia. Both ran their polls in the “Social Indicators Project” of the Development Academy of the Philippines in the second half of the 1970s to 1981. But these were confidential, with an intelligence colonel at the DAP personally bringing Mangahas and Miranda’s findings straight from their offices to Marcos’ study room in Malacanang.

There is a huge difference, though, between opinion polls and voter-preference surveys, as professional pollsters would know.

Ask somebody’s opinion if he prefers Coke or Pepsi, Colgate or Close Up and he tells you his choice with ease, even in a cavalier manner.  If he were hooked up to a polygraph, there wouldn’t be much change in his physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, breathing and skin conductivity. It’s the same, really, if you ask him if he trusts Aquino or this government official.  Or not.

But ask him whom he will vote for mayor or President, and he spends more time thinking about the question, and a polygraph would show significant changes in his indices.  This is because it takes him some effort to respond to what is really a “straw vote,” and he takes seriously the fact that no matter his station in life, he has just one vote.

Psychic commitment
Believe it or not, Filipinos take that vote quite seriously – whether it is their psychic way of getting back at this leader they hate for their unimproved quality of life, or if they feel that it is their responsibility who their leader in the next three or six years should be.

Voter-preference polls, in effect, require a “psychic commitment” on the part of the respondent, which mere opinion polls do not.   Voter-preference polls correspond to a particular action a respondent will do in the future, which is to cast his vote.  An opinion on something, on the other hand, corresponds to no such action.  To use a concept in philosophy, voter-preference polls have an intentionality which opinion polls do not have and which often represents a respondent’s idle thoughts, as permanent as will o’ the wisp.

This is the reason why pre-election polls – except, of course, for the epic fiasco of a poll predicting Thomas Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in 1948 – have been so accurate in forecasting actual winners. This is the reason why former President Arroyo had very low trust ratings in 2004, but was consistently the winner in voter-preference polls in the months leading to the May elections.

That is the reason why I chose the voter-preference poll made by low-profile but brilliant pollster Pedro Laylo to accompany this column.

FB: RigobertoTiglao


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  1. You undoubtedly noticed the unusually low number of “undecided” respondents, unusual because it’s early in the election period. That’s really bad news for the side that comes up short in the preferences, because those voting preferences typically do not change. The only change in those numbers in successive polls comes from “undecided” voters making up their minds.

  2. I am an American citizen and a permanent resident here in the Philippines, residing here since 2002. I obviously have no dog in the pros/cons battles in the press dealing with the Presidency but regarding opinion polls of all types it is commonly accepted in the technical world that it is possible to make statistics say whatever conclusion is desired. For example, statistical sample size carefully selected from a group/community/province that will yield the desired result. In addition, location of sampling can skew the result. Unfortunately, the media make be guilty of running with the numbers without thoroughly checking source and validity prior to accurately reporting to the public. Certainly, the gullibility of the general public is a much abused trait utilized by politicians of all stripes.

  3. Our electoral system is really crazy. We allow anybody to aspire for president of our country to boast to the whole world our adaption of democratic ideals dictated on us by the US. Even if psychologically unfit, his filing of candidacy is allowed and approved. That’s why a certain Racuyal, who was psychologically unfit, was a perennial candidate during the era of two-party system. Good that because of the two-party system, party conventions were able to foist well-deserving party candidates, and of course with sterling qualities and excellent state of mind. If the shipping line utilize available means at their disposal to select the best applicant to man their ships, why do we allow just anybody to man our ship-of-state? By being able to read and write, anybody can file his candidacy as long as he can prove to be financially capable. It is quite possible for our country to elect a moron or violently psychotic as president that will take charge of the nations’ ship-of-state. And for this just plainly to follow that irrational democratic ideals of equal opportunities for all citizens.

  4. Congrats on your choice of pictures and charts for your column, bagay na bagay kay Binay he looks like he’s behind bars, same with Roxas.

  5. Polls can be manipulated, paid or depends, the best way to choice a candidate not by polls but by looking at his performance and true persona. Most candidates present angelic before election but after elected vilified. Binay is worst corrupt old dog politician. He will milk the country cash and bring this country in deep trouble if elected SN2016 is the best solution.

  6. This is obviously in defense of Binay whose ratings are falling. Like you, I believe that surveys are rigged to manipulate public opinion. But unlike you, I don’t believe that GMA won the presidency against FPJ. The Garci tapes and the famous response of “noted” by Mr Sharon Cuneta cannot be disputed. The Times has the most remarkable collection of writers, probably the best in the industry I must say, and that is why it is my favorite newspaper. I do not expect you writers to be perfectly objective, but when it comes Binay, ano ba talaga ang pinangako ni Binay sa inyo at maski ano nalang tungkol sa kanya KAYA NIYONG LUNOKIN ? For whatever this is worth to you, I believe that a coup has taken place inside the Liberal Party. They have finally realized that the Demented One is not going to endorse Roxas, so those who have pitched their tent in his camp- including it seems de Lima-have decided to take matters into their own hands and are now bringing your candidate down. Your candidate is finished, although believe or not, I want him to be president because it is his incomparable and incurable greed combined with his legendary chutzpah that is needed to finally take down this regime and start the country anew. Its the yellow regime, not only the turd, that must be flung out of power. Since Im sure you know even if you wont admit it, that its that foreign power that controls the Smartmatic computers that will select -not elect- the next president, then think for a moment if they will really select this hard-to-sell, bungling, pork barreled effete of an aristocrat when there are the political virgins like but not necessarily limited to Grace Poe and Manny Pangilinan who are untouched by pork barrel and other corruption issues but are just as compliant to Superpower whims and wishes. Im not endorsing any American stooge for president mind you, Im just trying to open your eyes to the realpolitik that should include the American factor that you guys always overlook..

    • I’m sorry but I do not share your opinion that PGMA did not win in 2010.

      Consider the following religious/churches that went solid-voting for her:

      1. INC
      2. PBMA
      3. Kingdom of Jesus of Pastor Quiboloy
      4. Catholic Church

      Consider the following influential political clans that carried her:

      Albanos and Dys of Isabela, Abads of Batanes, Suarezes of Quezon, Cojungacos and Aquinos of Tarlac, Mendozas, Silverios, Alvarados, Pagdanganans, Roqueros, Sarmientos, Robeses of Bulacan, Pinedas of Pampanga, Rectos of Batangas, Linas of Laguna, Vinzons of CamNorte, Alfelors and Andayas of CamSur, Lees and Ortises of Sorsogon, Salcedas of Albay, Khos of Masbate, Javiers of Antique, Defensors, Tupases, Drilons, Garins and Syjucos of Iloilo, Roxases of Capiz, Osmenas, Martinezes, Yaphas, Kintanars, Salimbagos Gullases and Garcias of Cebu, Apostols, Caris, Petillas, Velosos and Romuldezes of Leyte, etc, etc

      All of the major political parties cast their lot with PGMA:

      Lakas-NUCD, LP, NP, PDSP, NPC and other larger parties

      Civil society and cause-oriented organizations like BAYAN and AKBAYAN, either did not support FPJ or campaigned FPJ.

      I believe that PGMA defeated FPJ by 1 million votes in Cebu. I believe that Pampanga carried its favorite daughter.

      The A segment of the population believes that an FPJ presidency iwould be nightmare so they bpoured their money to PGMA’s campaign. The B and C segment is in unision in despising Erap who open supported FPJ’s run.

      And a large portion of the D and E crowd felt betrayed by Erap’s actions.

      And finaly Ping Lacson as if to make sure the opposition will lose, divided the opposition votes by running.

      There’s your explanation why FPJ did not and could not have won the 2010 elections.

  7. These survey are systematic way to create a trending among the masses, sometimes it become a tool for cheating. With the pcos that no one really knows how the machine counted the real votes, the survey becomes the validator. I hope a law should be passed that election survey sampling should minimum requirements of 100 thousand respondents so it will make it more expensive for any political figure and personality.

  8. mr tiglao, if you have that voter-preference polls during the 2010 campaign season, pls publish them so we can know what the voters were thinking then as compared to the result of the hocos pcos count. thanks

  9. yes, mr. tiglao, opinion surveys don’t prove the reality of an allegation but they show public sentiment precisely because that’s what they’re meant to do.

    i really don’t understand this need to defend an obvious thief who refuses to answer allegations.

    i side with you on GMA because at least GMA did not actually dip her hands into the cookie jar. it was her husband, son, and political allies who did the stealing. she was a hardworking woman who had the problem of being held up by the tradition of patronage politics and the need to defend her legitimacy.

    in the case of binay, he’s a very obvious deceit. i won’t say “thief” because that’s not something i can prove.

    • So if I am reading you correctly about GMA then Aquino is also completely honest because of all the billions that he stole (diverted) from the budgets, he did not keep anything for himself. He only used the money for bribes?

  10. Voter-preference is a choice whom shall it allow rule over one’s body. It is a matter of life and death like picking a bed mate for years to come therefore the choicer choice is true from its heart.
    A choice between bibingka or banana is just a choice for fun with out effect on life. It is like choosing a glass with half water if it is half full or half empty. The choice does not matter anyhow. Opinion poll with question like, “Do you think Aquino is retarded?” Any answer will do but it does not reflect reality as compared to “Do you want Aquino to rule over you?” the answer is surely NO, which is acceptable as really true.

  11. I am now 74 years old and at my age, I already have witnessed several presidential elections in the Philippines. At that time when I was younger there used to be only two
    political parties Nationalista and Liberal .It was a lot of fun going to the polling prescints
    to cast your vote. At that time too you were assured that the candidates for president to choose from had no outstanding and unresolved offenses like hidden wealth or kickbacks
    etc. But now I am disappointed to learn that even candidates with outstanding and unresolved cases of plunder, hidden wealth and kickbacks, are allowed to file their candidacy for president. Isn’t that scary?

    • Yes,very scary..And to think that Machines could make a Clueless and Under achieving Legislator our President,beats the crap out of me.

    • You have a valid concern, this is the reason why the Philippine Constitution must be changed and the requirements for one to run for public office especially those who wants to be congressman, senator, vice-president and president must be raised to levels of importance and responsibility. We cannot go on choosing undergraduates or high school graduates or persons with questionable mental aptitude to run for high office just like what is done now.

    • This is not a reason to change the constitution. Mr. Tiglao emphasize that surveys are used as tool to damage somebody’s reputation.