DURING Stephen Sackur’s much-viewed interview of Sen. Antonio Trillanes on HARDtalk, the BBC journalist declared that President Rodrigo Duterte enjoys a high approval rating of something like 75 percent.
The President’s job approval could probably be that high, but it is one of the holes in Sackur’s and BBC’s journalism on the Philippines that it was totally unknowing that there is no known public approval rating of President Duterte in the country. There is none, because in fact, the country’s leading opinion survey firms (SWS and Pulse Asia) do not survey the public on whether they approve or disapprove of Duterte’s job performance.
They avoid the question of job approval; they have asked instead about either satisfaction (SWS) or trust (Pulse Asia).
Sackur was bewildered that Trillanes could not find it in his heart to say a kind word about Duterte or his policies, when the man has an approval rating that British statesmen would die for.
But Trillanes was too slow to recognize the opening. He was content to play patsy to Sackur all night. Were he more alert and better informed, he could have applied a jujitsu move on his BBC inquisitor, by putting him on the defensive. He could have asked in return: Where did HARDtalk get this bogus statistic? Can you cite one survey that says DU30 enjoys this stratospheric rating?
With a little time, BBC researchers will no doubt come up with the name of the pollster: SWS. But this outfit dispenses a satisfaction rating, not an approval rating.
Satisfaction not the same as approval
Sackur, a native English speaker and Cambridge- and Harvard-educated, plainly knows that satisfaction is not the same as approval.
I have turned my English dictionaries and Roget’s Thesaurus over and over, but they nowhere suggest that the two words or concepts are synonymous.
“Satisfaction” means the fulfillment of a desire. Or a reparation for a wrong done.
“Approval” means agreement, sanction, favorable opinion, or commendation.
Why does SWS in its surveys ask about satisfaction, instead of approval of job performance, or support for presidential policies?
Why does this Filipino opinion researcher persist in using its satisfaction angle in measuring public opinion on presidential performance, instead of the near universal approval/disapproval method of inquiry which is used by almost all pollsters in advanced countries.
The Philippines is the only country, and Filipinos are the only people, in the world who are asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with their President. With this survey angle, the President or any public official is treated like a meal, a dish or a fruit which we consume, or perhaps a person who is in our employ or an object of affection.
I have long wondered why against standard opinion research practice, SWS insists on its idiosyncratic terminology and method. Is it just to appear different from Western opinion researchers? Do Filipino social scientists really approach opinion research in this odd fashion?
Latest SWS survey
If the previous SWS survey was a huge endorsement of the Duterte government, the latest survey of the outfit takes him to outer space.
The new second-quarter SWS survey, conducted on June 23-26, 2017, finds the Filipino public even more satisfied or fulfilled by their President. Almost eight in 10, or 78 percent, of 1,200 respondents said they were “satisfied” with Duterte’s performance, against only 12 percent who said otherwise. Ten percent were undecided.
In the new survey, Duterte reached a record-high satisfaction rating on his performance. He received a net satisfaction rating of +66 for the second quarter of 2017, up by three points from his +63 score in the previous quarter.
This net rating is the highest the President has received since October 2016, when SWS first surveyed public satisfaction with his performance after he acceded to the presidency on June 30, 2016.
Why public satisfaction
I suspect that SWS surveys public satisfaction instead of approval of job performance for two reasons:
First, because what it really wants to do is conduct a popularity survey, like in an election poll. It wants to measure the President’s personal popularity or public standing.
Second, because SWS wants to avoid surveying public approval or support for specific public policies and policy ideas of the Duterte administration.
Imagine yourself as a respondent in an SWS survey who is asked the following:
1. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the martial law policy of President Duterte?
2. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with martial law in Mindanao?
3. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the war on drugs?
The questions make no sense. You wouldn’t know how to answer.
But in advanced countries, opinion polling on public policies is regularly conducted to determine the level of public support for specific public policies.
My beef with SWS is that its research refuses to perform the public service of measuring public opinion with respect to specific policies of President Duterte, especially the more controversial ones?
This leads me to the disquieting conclusion that the SWS satisfaction rating is designed for misdirection.
The point may be to divert public attention away from approval to fulfillment or contentment.
I have been working in the field of policy studies for over two decades, but I have not seen until now social science this engrossed with satisfaction.
Survey on martial law
Significantly, in its second quarter survey, SWS also conducted a survey on public attitudes to martial law alongside its survey on public satisfaction with Duterte’s job performance.
The firm said that the survey questions about martial law were non-commissioned, and were included on SWS’ own initiative and released as a public service.
The big tell here is that the satisfaction survey is commissioned; although it does not say by whom.
In the martial law survey, nearly six in 10 Filipinos, who are aware that President Duterte has declared martial law in Mindanao, believe it was the right decision to declare martial law in Mindanao.
Sixty-three percent of respondents rejected the idea that Duterte should also declare martial law in the Visayas.
With regard to martial law in Luzon, 67 percent rejected the notion, 20 percent agreed.
As to martial law in the entire country, SWS did not ask.
What to tell my readers abroad
What do I tell my readers abroad, who inquire about the approval rating of President Duterte?
I am ashamed to offer them the satisfaction rating by SWS. The notion places our country below-Third World. The idea of 78 percent of our people feeling content is surreal.
But Stephen Sackur, the hard talker, was hoodwinked into thinking that a satisfaction rating is the same as an approval rating.