A consensus in the making

Even if the case that Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon has filed against survey firms Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS) is, in the words of SWS President and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas, “ridiculously sloppy“, one of the more disturbingly resonant assertions that Gordon has advanced in his various tirades against surveys—when is he not working himself up into a histrionic fit over some other topic—is that these tend to condition the minds of voters.

It must be conceded, of course, that such a contention cannot be discarded out of hand—it would be foolish to insist that surveys have no impact whatsoever. Consider, by way of anecdotal data, the faith that not a few people have developed in the findings put out by the relatively unknown The Campaigns & Image Group (CIG), which professes to be an independent polling outfit catering to multinational companies and foreign investors. When journalist Ellen Tordesillas published the results of a CIG survey conducted from April 1 to April 5 in her blog, an astute commenter observed that CIG had been overefficient—after all, Tordesillas said she had received the findings from CIG on April 4. Unless CIG has managed to invent a time machine—in which case CIG owner Aniceto “Abbey” Canturias should be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physics posthaste—there are only two ways it could have produced its results one whole day before the survey period ended, neither of which helps the credibility of the company: the first is extrapolation, and the second is etchos.

There is also empirical evidence showing that opinion polls do affect the electorate, but the much-deplored bandwagon effect is only one of several effects that have been identified. There are studies indicating an underdog effect, which involves people adopting the minority view, while others suggest that there is a projection effect, which means that individuals project their intended vote onto their expectations regarding the outcome of the elections. None of these effects, each of which arises from the interaction of several factors, are necessarily mutually exclusive of the rest. In addition, as political scientists Richard Nadeau, Edouard Cloutier, and J.-H. Guay aver in their study on the bandwagon effect in Quebec, “Measuring a phenomenon is only a first step towards understanding it.”

In claiming that survey results somehow bamboozle voters into casting their ballots for the leading candidate, Gordon displays condescension toward, if not outright contempt of, the very people that he seeks to lead, including those who presently support him. To conceive of voters as essentially vassals to—and victims of—pre-election polls is to ignore their capacity for discernment and to deny them agency, reducing them from human beings to automatons. To think of the Filipino people as irredeemably stupid is to be irredeemably undeserving of the power to represent them.

Resorting to the most simplistic of arguments is not an especially surprising move from a senator who believes that the problems of Philippine basic education can be solved by giving every student an Amazon Kindle, as if academic excellence could somehow be caught, like a virus, from exposure to reading materials. One has to wonder, however, what happened to the man who was considerably more sober about unfavorable news in the 2007 elections. Whereas administration senatorial candidate Prospero Pichay accused major media organizations of trending in their reportage of unofficial quick counts, Gordon attributed the strong opposition showing to “widespread dissatisfaction”, saying, “Obviously there is resentment against this administration. The people are not satisfied. They are impatient, they want change…” It is precisely this long unsatisfied desire for meaningful change that makes the 2010 national and local elections so important.

One of the few true statements that the hardworking and prayerful Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has made over the course of a presidency distinguished by the widespread distrust it has elicited was this, from (what would seem to be) her last State of the Nation Address back in July: “There is much to do as head of state to the very last day.” What she has done since then has been to engage the country in a version of Spite and Malice, a form of competitive solitaire in which a player secures victory by discarding all of his or her cards—that is, whoever is left with nothing wins. Macapagal-Arroyo, however, follows a slightly different set of rules: in her last-ditch efforts to lay waste to the institutional system of the nation, she hopes to ensure that whoever wins in the contest to succeed her will be left with nothing.

These elections, then, do not merely constitute a routine exercise in citizenship, but as a referendum against one of the worst and most repressive regimes that the Philippines has seen in its short history, and the results of pre-election surveys, which have shown remarkable consistency and durability across several reputable polling firms and periods, ought to be understood not as a grand conspiracy to give one candidate an advantage over the rest, but as the manifestation of a broad consensus among individuals who, to borrow a phrase from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, can “think feelings and feel thoughtfully”, and are capable of choosing for themselves the person who can be best trusted to serve and to lead the country well.