Second of three parts
Despite my skepticism and distrust of public opinion polling as conducted in this country by SWS and Pulse Asia, I am a believer in the value of opinion polling to electoral politics, and to governance.
Modern opinion polling has advanced greatly in both reliability and importance, since the time when US pollsters erroneously called the Dewey vs. Truman presidential contest in 1948 in favor of Dewey, and some newspapers mistakenly trumpeted the news that Dewey had won. Truman won, and he went on to become one of the great presidents of the US.
Tracking public opinion – the main function and business of opinion survey firms – is today a major component of democratic politics in countries wherever free elections are held.
In democracies, opinion polling is indispensable for political parties and candidates during an election year, as a means for selecting candidates who would have the best chance of success in an election, based on their favorability ratings.
Opinion polling is also vital in governing for a government and a leader in power, because surveys provide them with the means to assess public attitudes toward the problems of national life, and about the voters’ deepest concerns; and to monitor public attitudes of either approval or disapproval for the government in power.
The mass media also rely a lot on public opinion polls in their work of reporting and analyzing the news and assessing developments and trends.
Polls integral to political campaigns
Today polls and focus groups are an integral part of political campaigns and decision-making. No political campaign can sensibly carry out an electoral plan or fashion political strategy without taking the pulse of public opinion. This they can do by either commissioning their own private polls, or by doing it on the cheap by simply riding on the publicized surveys.
Some people who pretend to know politics scoff at pubic opinion polls as being unreliable and generally biased. They think survey results are always bent to support the agendas and interests of individuals and organizations who commission them.
What is troubling about Philippine opinion polling today is that when politics is the client and the subject, PH pollsters become mercenary and unscrupulous.
Questions about public opinion polling are again at the forefront today beause we are in the cusp of national elections which will place on the ballot thousands of public offices, including the presidency.
Polls as tools for propaganda
Some years ago, I was in a conversation at my Makati office with an officer of a top poll survey firm. I was dumbfounded by a remark he made that their outfit could teach candidates for national office how to raise their approval ratings in poll surveys, and how to win election.
I just tucked the remark in my memory, because at the time I was in semi-retirement from journalism and was engaged in another occupation. The farthest thing in my mind then was to reform the ethics of public opinion polling in this country.
I take a different view today because poll surveys are playing an unhealthy role in our democratic politics today, and the 2016 elections are a watershed for the nation. Instead of serving as information guide for parties and candidates on public opinion, polls are now being deployed as a tool for propaganda, political warfare, and campaign fundraising.
Things would not be so bad if pollsters do not lend themselves to this perversion of opinion polling.
Things would not be so bad if the media do not serve as passive conduits of manipulated surveys. Where in the United States, media organizations commission their own surveys during an election year. here in the Philippines, the richest media organizations, like GMA TV, ABS-CBN, Manila Bulletin and Philippine inquirer, just wait for SWS and Pulse Asia to toss to them their crap research.
US pollsters measure favorability
The disservice of local survey firms is brought to bold relief when we compare what top US poll survey firms do with what PH poll firms do.
A comparison is timely today because the US is on a run up to its own presidential election in November next year. Presidential campaign politics is top of mind in the US today, just as we can hardly talk of anything else in this country today.
Since early this year, US pollsters have been tracking the favorability ratings of prospective presidential candidates, both Republican and Democrat. Big survey outfits like the Gallup Organization does daily tracking polls, and provide rolling averages of candidates at any given time.
US pollsters ask survey respondents, registered as either Republican or Democrat, how they view individual candidates, whether favorably or unfavorably, or whether they don’t have an opinion. The results of the interviews, usually done by telephone call in the US, are then tabulated.
To take one example of a US poll survey that I reviewed, the Gallup US Daily survey, it has a random sample of 2,374 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of sampling error is plus/minus 2 percentage points. The survey also has separate samples of national adults who identify or lean Democratic or Republican.
The survey report is a model of simplicity. It reports in the case of all candidates their favorable ratings over a given period.
Alongside each candidate, Gallup records the candidate’s favorable rating, unfavorable rating, no opinion, and net favorable rating (which is simply the margin between favorable and unfavorable responses.)
Based on the table of favorable ratings, the reader quickly gets a reading of how each candidate is registering with voters, and who are fading away.
PH survey firms chart a horse race
SWS and Pulse Asia do not produce a similar favorability rating of candidates, because they sex up the coming elections as a horse race, even though prospective candidates have not yet filed their certificates of candidacy, and the campaign does not begin until February.
Amazingly, both survey firms insist on including in the survey the names of individuals who have no wish to run for president at all. This is designed to boost the rating of sure candidates, who usually are the ones paying for the survey, and cannot afford to stay away.
SWS and Pulse Asia do not provide a view of how the public views prospective candidates, whether favorably or unfavorably. They focus on asking respondents whom they will vote for if the elections were held today, even though the elections are still far away and candidacies are still not known.
The surveys become really grotesque when SWS employs its pick-three methodology, which no self-respecting US survey firm will ever use.
The surveys of Pulse Asia become grotesque when they purport to measure public support for prospective senatorial candidates. This is a totally commercial operation financed by senatorial aspirants. How can citizens out there know who is running for senator? Senator Vicente Sotto already topped this crazy poll a decade ago because he is advertised on TV daily in the noontime show Eat Bulaga.
Some political analysts believe that the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys are being sustained by the so-called top three — Binay, Poe and Roxas – who are interested mainly in keeping their names in the spotlight so that campaign donations and pledges will trickle to their campaigns.
The public are never the wiser of what is really going on, because the media, the supposed guardians of public opinion, never think to ask or investigate. They just relay the manipulated surveys to the public.
Well, here in The Manila Times, I have investigated and I will ask questions until this contest is over.