My recent series (in three parts) on PH public opinion polling focused entirely on the work of SWS and Pulse Asia with respect to the 2016 elections, and the comparative ratings of prospective and declared candidates for high office.
I meant to add a fourth column to the series, which would focus on presidential job approval ratings, in order to complete the picture of public opinion research in the country.
This column tackles this final topic of the series.
In the earlier parts, I concluded that SWS and Pulse Asia twisted and kneaded public opinion into a pretzel; in this fourth part, I submit the finding that the two pollsters conduct job approval polls in a way that pollsters in America and Europe will not comprehend.
The leading survey organizations in the US and Europe design, structure and conduct their job approval surveys under a nearly uniform standard. They all describe their ratings as job approval ratings.
The only explanation for the SWS-Pulse Asia’s free-wheeling style is that their survey subject is President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd, who is different, eccentric, and weird.
The US system
In the United States, presidential job approval ratings were introduced by George Gallup in the late 1930s to gauge public support for the President of the United States during his term. An approval rating is is given to a president based on responses to a poll in which a sample of people are asked whether they approve or disapprove of his handlingnof his job.
A typical survey question asks:
“Do you approve or disapprove of the way Benigno BS Aquino 3rd is handling his job as President?”
Like most surveys that predict public opinion, the approval rating is subjective. However, the approval rating is generally accepted as a statistically valid indicator of the comparative changes in the popular mood regarding a president or public official.
In the Gallup Daily, the Gallup organization tracks daily the percentage of Americans who approve or disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as president. Daily results are based on telephone interviews with approximately 1,500 national adults; margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Rasmussen Reports also conducts a presidential tracking poll.
Other pollsters, like Roper and Pew Center, conduct regular surveys on Obama’s job approval.
Responses from respondents are uniformly tabulated according to three answers: approve, disapprove, and no opinion.
The difference between approve and disapprove answers in the given survey is denominated as the index approval rating.
PH pollsters in a different universe
SWS and Pulse Asia exist in a different universe from US pollsters.
They rate public perception and approval of the President and other top officials in their own fashion.
They give the traditional job approval rating new and descriptive names and tags.
SWS calls its job rating a “satisfaction rating.”
Survey respondents are asked whether they are “satisfied” or “dissatisfied” by the President’s job performance. It is no different from a market research test of a new soft drink or food product. SWS denotes the difference between satisfaction and dissatisfaction answers as “the margin of satisfaction” rating of the President.
For its part, Pulse Asia’s approach is to appear to do more in assessing public opinion.
It attempts to do two surveys at once with the same respondents during the same survey period. The two are:
1, an approval rating survey; and
2. a trust survey.
By undertaking a trustworthiness survey on top of the approval survey, Pulse Asia looks public-spirited.
In fact, all it does is ask the respondent this added question: Do you trust or distrust President Aquino as president?
The difference between trust and distrust responses is then recorded as the trust rating of the President.
By introducing these new tags, SWS and Pulse Asia effectively take their surveys out of the traditional job approval survey. They confuse the public about what it is exactly that they are reading.
Indispensable to Aquino during crisis
SWS and Pulse Asia have been most useful to President Aquino during the biggest crises of his presidency, when his approval ratings plunged to record lows.
Among these crises are:
1. The government’s response to supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan, when government was heavily criticized for its incompetence and insensitivity.
2. The President’s acccountability for the Mamasapano incident/massacre, wherein 44 elite commandos of the Philippine National Police were killed by Muslim rebel forces.
3. The administration’s authorship of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which the
Supreme court ruled as unconstitutional, and cost P150 billion of public money.
4. The bribery by the administration of members of the Senate, in the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
In each of these crises, public anger and disapproval of the conduct of the President rose to their fever pitch. But through clever survey methodologies and deft question wording, SWS and Pulse Asia have been able to come up with consistently high satisfaction and approval/trust ratings for Aquino.
Media as key to reform of PH polling
There is a basic unreality to Aquino’s job approval ratings, when set against the problems and the quality of governance. The public does not believe them.
The true believer in these ratings appears to be Aquino himself, who takes them so seriously he now boasts about non-existent reforms and achievements. Lately, he has taken to railing against people who, he claims, are grabbing credit for his achievements.
The real remedy to the dishonest surveys of SWS and Pulse Asia is serious competition from honest-to-goodness pollsters.
There are professional public opinion research firms in the country, which conduct highly respected market research for top companies. But they are loathe to tackle public affairs research because of sleaze.
Media organizations, in my view, hold the key for reform in public opinion polling in the Philippines. Since the media provide oxygen to SWS and Pulse Asia by publishing and broadcasting their survey results, they can force them to follow strict ethical guidelines.
In the US, media organizations like the New York Times enforce a strict code that survey firms must comply with before they will report survey results. They regularly commission surveys themselves.
The moment the media commission professional and honest surveys, SWS and Pulse Asia will be forced to shape up and change their ways.
Then can we the people see opinion polls that reflect what we think and what we feel about our leaders and the burning issues of the day.