First of three parts
First off, I want to state for the record that I do not work or side with any political party or presidential candidate in the 2016 election.
I do not work for the Aquino administration or the opposition, or any political organization.
My loyalty is strictly to my country and to my work as a writer and journalist, whose output I am glad to say is welcomed for publication by The Manila Times.
As a change of pace from my recent focus on the disqualification case of Sen. Grace Poe and her citizenship, I start today a new cycle of columns on the subject of Philippine opinion polling, because I am profoundly disturbed by the current controversy over the latest voter preference survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS), and the unconscionable role that political pollsters play in our democratic politics. I worry that the Filipino electorate and the nation will once again be mercilessly manipulated by pollsters in this new election season.
The release of two SWS survey reports covering the same period this September has been followed by the release of the latest survey by Pulse Asia.
From years of watching the work of these two survey firms, and that of others, I am convinced that there is in this country a crisis of trust in public opinion polling. There is reason to doubt the integrity of the surveys being shoved before us.
I open this series with a discussion of certain deplorable practices and two glaring examples of the polling being done by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), because it is the one on the frying pan today, and it has been more flagrant in manipulating the numbers.
I have kept in my files an account of one survey conducted by SWS in December 2013 that I thought would be useful for future commentary. Like many citizens at the time, I thought the results were manipulated, incredible, and finally enraging.
Now, with the uproar over the latest SWS poll on voter preferences for the 2016 elections, I believe it is timely to retrieve the files and attempt a broad commentary on SWS opinion polling.
The two surveys, taken together, show a pattern of dishonesty and commercialism. They reflect an intent to manipulate – to serve the interest and desire of clients who commissioned the surveys – which is totally at variance with ethical norms.
(1.) December 2013 SWS survey on President Aquino’s handling of Yolanda disaster
In a survey conducted from Dec. 11 to 16, 2013, just one month after supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan struck East Visayas and other parts of the archipelago on November 8, 2013, SWS reported that President Aquino’s approval ratings in Yolanda-affected areas reached 73 percent (with a net satisfaction rating of +54), which was higher than his score in outside-calamity areas of 69 percent (+48).
SWS said the survey involved face-to-face interviews with 1,550 adults in Metro Manila (300), the balance of Luzon (300), the Visayas (650) and Mindanao (300). Note how Visayas respondents, who were most affected by the typhoon are swamped by the numbers of those who live outside the calamity-stricken areas.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. was stunned by the survey results. He intoned:
“It is gratifying that those who suffered greatly appreciate what their President and government have done to ease their pain and alleviate their plight despite the shortcomings and challenges still being hurdled.”
In pointed contrast, the British charity Oxfam said that more than two months after the disaster the situation had become “a disaster on top of an already catastrophic disaster.”
Oxfam country director Justin Morgan noted that foreign donors had generously committed $331 million to the response but the UN’s shelter budget is severely under-funded at 24 percent of what is needed, meaning close to 400,000 people will not receive adequate temporary housing unless more money is delivered.
The SWS survey drew widespread anger and criticism from residents and their families in Yolanda-stricken areas.
Eden Chua-Peneda, Tacloban City councilor, said that Aquino’s “rehabilitation program is nowhere to be seen” in Tacloban and in the other affected areas.” She cast serious doubt on the survey’s integrity.
Laureta Chu, a young media professional in Manila who comes from typhoon-hit Tanauan, Leyte and led various relief services for her hometown and Eastern Visayas in general, expressed dismay in her Facebook account and challenged the SWS to answer several questions.
“Who are these happy people that are satisfied with the way President Aquino ran the relief operations in Leyte? Where do they live? Are these the homeless living in tents, or the homeless living in those beautiful, international standard-conforming bunkhouses?”
What East Visayas residents and the media did not immediately notice was the fact that in order to achieve the high approval rating of President Aquino, SWS designed the survey sample in such a manner that the number of respondents from East Visayas formed only a small percentage of the total number of respondents, and that the majority came from unaffected areas.
In effect, SWS surveyed people who were in no position to know what President Aquino and the government actually did for the areas struck by Yolanda, or how typhoon victims were actually faring in the aftermath of the typhoon.
If SWS has any integrity at all, it should disclose who commissioned that survey. It should reveal that the administration commissioned and funded it.
President Aquino got the result he wanted, so he could show the nation that he was not as incompetent and unfeeling in the face of the disaster as he had initially projected himself to be, with his infamous remark to one complaining Leyte businessman, “You are still alive, aren’t you?”
The stories from Ground Zero of Yolanda were simply too devastating to be shoveled under the SWS survey. They screamed to be told to the nation and the world.
2. SWS Survey of September 2015
The methodology used in the Yolanda-related survey in December 2013 bears a striking resemblance to the methodology used in the SWS survey conducted this September.
In a survey conducted from Sept. 2 to 5 among 1,200 respondents nationwide, SWS reported that Ms. Grace Poe maintained her hold at the top of other prospective presidential bets since the second quarter of the year, with a 47percent rating.
Mar Roxas, who proclaimed his candidacy on July 31, surged by 18 points — the biggest improvement — to second place at 39 percent.
Vice-President Binay, meanwhile, slipped to third with 35 percent.
What was striking about the survey methodology was that the respondents were not asked outright who was the candidate they preferred or would vote for if the elections were held today. They were asked to list three whom they see as most suitable to succeed President Aquino.
The net effect of this pick-three methodology was to drive up the rankings of certain candidates, depending on who the SWS wanted to push forward.
The spectacular surge of Roxas in the survey is a telltale sign that the Liberal Party most likely commissioned it. It cannot be explained except by a deliberate effort to prop up his rating.
As in its previous surveys, SWS maintained the fiction that this survey was commissioned by Business World.
In fact, BW did not fund the survey at all.
Reaction to the survey was uniformly skeptical and distrustful.
When even candidates favored by the survey results expressed consternation over the pick-three methodology, SWS beat a hasty retreat and released the results of a survey that it purportedly conducted simultaneously on Sept 2-5. For this one, the respondents were asked to pick only one candidate from the list.
In this second survey, SWS reported that Poe, Binay and Roxas were in a statistical tie, with Poe garnering 26 percent ; Binay 24 percent; and Roxas, percent.
The second survey did not assuage the anger of many about the earlier survey result.
In fact, public skepticism became more intense when SWS sent out one of its officers to explain its pick-three methodology.
Leo Laroza, SWS director for survey data library, said the pick-three poll was intended to give the respondents freedom to list their presidential candidates as they desire, without feeding them names or forcing them to give three.
Then he foolishly revealed that SWS has been using the methodology since the 2007 elections. He might have added that SWS has been getting away with it.