, October 22, 2021

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Putting Surveys back on the Pedestal


  •   5 min reads
Putting Surveys back on the Pedestal

"YOU WOULD THINK THE EDUCATED would have respect for research. Anybody who needs to sell anything depends on the reliability of the dipstick. We rely on its precision for everything else in our lives, why not during elections?"

Imagine a communications man as one whose gun belt has two holsters: creativity — craft, art, wordsmithing genius — is what is drawn from one holster; science — sense, deduction, mathematics — from the other.

Like all advertising professionals, I swear by research, and swear to the integrity of research companies (the known, the established, the recognized, not those stirred from hibernation or manufactured during election seasons). But in every political campaign season, surveys are maligned and demonized, the companies accused of corruption and mind conditioning.

If you're wondering whether the senatorial surveys were accurate, the results are clear: Except for one name in one survey in one election year, all candidates predicted to win in three senatorial elections won.

“Pulse Asia’s surveys showed a more striking picture. All 12 senatorial hopefuls who topped the final surveys conducted before each election day (2010, 2013, 2016) won the race” (Pauline Macaraeg; Esquire Philippines).

The last survey before the May 13th election predicted who would most likely make it, and Pulse Asia drew a line under the viable names. If you woke up the day after the elections and were surprised at the results, that means your disregard for the science of statistics is utter.

The surveys showed that while ‘awareness’ for Otso Diretso candidates grew, conversion to a willingness to ‘vote for’ them did not happen. The election results show that Colmenares, Ong, Manicad, Gadon, candidates with virtually no television advertising, did as well or better than Otso Diretso candidates, and Otso did have advertising, complemented with daily and heavy media coverage -- screaming headlines -- from an inordinately supportive news industry. And then there's social media, which, as we all know, is more representative of civil society, and skews to yellow.

Now there are many good political analysts in the country, and I am sure the LP heard them all; they heard the wisdom of the well-meaning and the concerned, people who wanted them to win.

What went wrong with Otso Diretso? A refusal to obey marketing principles and to listen to surveys.

Not relying on surveys is like moving in strange territory with blinders, making decisions based only on what is visible.

Candidates are no different from supermarket products; to become successful brands and fly off the shelf, there must be consent and consensus. Consent needs a viable brand story; consensus requires ample storytelling. I believe Neri Colmenares and Willie Ong can legitimately say funding was all that was required to win. Their stories were powerful and clear as day. You knew them and what they stood for. Otso Diretso, though, was just an angry bunch. Outside of Aquino and Roxas, they were unknown. They all had one tenor and spiel: livid and only ‘Anti-Duterte’. And, as Caloocan congressman Edgar Erice, Mar Roxas's campaign manager, said, "the harder you hit Duterte, the lower you go".

They should have listened to him; they should have hired him.

Neri Colmenares and Willie Ong can legitimately say funding was all that was required to win. Their stories were powerful and clear as day.

You would think the educated would have respect for research. Anybody who needs to sell anything depends on the reliability of the dipstick. We rely on its precision for everything else in our lives, why not during elections?

I proffer three reasons for this cyclical repudiation and demonization of surveys:

The first is the cordon sanitaire

Candidates are normally surrounded by supporters, and a roomful of avid listeners, day after day, can distort one's sense of reality. The crowd becomes a cordon sanitaire, keeping out truth and sobriety. Candidates would do well to hire what I call "Step-backers", people who can keep an eye askant, who can "step back" every so often, watch the campaign with big picture clarity, and, his honesty hired, tell the candidate what the roomful of supporters won't.

The second is obstinacy

A senatorial candidate told me that he did not believe in surveys. And so I could not be of help to him.

For all intents and purposes, not relying on surveys is like moving in strange territory with blinders, making decisions based only on what is visible.

Some campaign people repudiate election research, spend heavily on the wrong medium, focus on rallies and provincial sorties, believing in outdated ways. Then they take on the pose: feign wisdom, and accuse the science of statistics as being mind-conditioning instruments.

And then there are advisers who don’t want to listen to “old fogies”, they want to do things differently (this, I hear, was prevalent in 2019: Call it the Malaise of the Smug Young. There were many kids telling opposition candidates that you could run a campaign — that you could actually win a senate seat — via social media).

The third is the crowd

“But the rallies were mammoth!”

“Eddie Villanueva said he is confident, considering the millions who attended his Makati rally, that he will win the elections, adding that ‘this is why we do not believe in the surveys of the two companies that are usually commissioned by political parties here — because the more than three million human bodies can indicate the real results’, wrote Sol Jose Vanzi in 2004, during Villanueva's first stab at the presidency.

Now a Bro. Eddie Villanueva political rally was an experience unlike any other. A throbbing yellow sea of supporters from all classes, singing, dancing, arms raised, eyes shut, with the fervor of prayer. It was the same everywhere it was staged. The question was oft repeated: Why were their rallies incredibly large? And why did he fare miserably at the polls?

Villanueva voters were especially enthusiastic, the sort politicians dream about. They excitedly joined every single radio poll. Instead of expecting campaign funds, they bankrolled neighborhood operations, printed posters and handouts, bought T-shirts and buttons. They gathered kith and kin and trudged kilometers to attend rallies.

Hold a rally in an area of strength ‘and they will come’, a multitude strong in faith, disciplined and sturdy, lasting well into the night -- a dramatic spectacle.

It is easy for a candidate to get inebriated by the love and adulation, and believe in his invincibility and impending political triumph. “The mostly-Christian Luneta rally crowd was arguably the biggest assembly in Philippine religious and political history,” to quote another pastor and friend and supporter of Bro. Eddie.

(How did he fare in the end? "Among the Jesus is Lord followers, 44% were for Villanueva, 24% for GMA and 23% for FPJ." And that is research that is as accurate as an election: it was an exit poll. Lest the point is missed, allow me to restate: Not even half of Bro. Eddie Villanueva's flock voted for him. Research would have surfaced that fixable problem).

My good friend Mercy Abad, erstwhile head of TNS Trends, the multinational company that used to do the fieldwork for both SWS and Pulse Asia, offers a piece of advice to candidates:

“No matter how large the rally, there are always more people who did not attend."

Hold a rally in an area of strength ‘and they will come’, a multitude strong in faith, disciplined and sturdy, lasting well into the night -- a dramatic spectacle.

“This is not the result we hoped for”, Otso Diretso candidate Florin Hilbay was quoted as saying. That Hilbay would be last of the lot should have been palpable on the ground. But, no, the ground deceives; the ground gives you a different sense of things.

THE VALUE OF SURVEYS to candidates is immeasurable: they know when and where they are weak; there are hints on what to do. Its value to the country is immense: here is a check mechanism, something with which to compare election results.

I think the last election just put surveys back on the pedestal... on an even higher one.


This article was first published as the author’s column in the Manila Times


Vincent is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists, causes and candidates. He is co-founder and counselor for advertising, public relations, and crisis management of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through vpozon@me.com.


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