Election surveys

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 6, 2019 - 12:00am

Public opinion polling is an important exercise in a democracy. Properly done, it provides a snapshot of how citizens feel at any moment in time. This is how our officials hear the real voice of our people in between elections.

But recently, the reputation of opinion polls has sunk quite a bit. Many surveys use unscientific polling methods and seem to intentionally skew results to support a candidate or one side of an issue.

Unfortunately, even the more reputable polls have been questioned not just by partisans, but even by observers with no ax to grind. The principal issue is: who financed the exercise.

It is a valid question because a nationwide poll, involving 1,800 respondents, costs at least P4 million. One can also pay for a rider or a couple of questions added to a regular survey of a polling group for half the cost.

Pulse Asia, for example, conducts quarterly Ulat ng Bayan surveys. The same is true with Social Weather Station. These regular surveys measure public sentiments on issues such as peace and order, corruption, state of poverty, etc. The surveys are financed by subscribers who get a copy of the reports and given a face-to-face discussion of the results by the survey company’s panel of academics who undertook the research.

But there are times when survey groups do commissioned surveys paid for by a candidate or supporters, companies, or industry groups.

When the survey is done with the academic standards expected of the folks at SWS or Pulse Asia, it should not matter who pays for the survey. The results should still be a good measure of how people feel about candidates or issues.

What bothers many is that recent surveys have strikingly different results. In the past, voter preferences didn’t vary too much in surveys done by SWS and Pulse Asia.

I am worried that suspicion of sponsor candidates driving results is starting to hurt the credibility of public opinion polling. What makes SWS and Pulse Asia credible is the assumed academic indifference to the results.

Public opinion polls are essential to democracies, so that probably implies the public always has the right to know the results. Anyone who commissions a survey about a public issue or election preferences should be ready to let the public know the results even if it doesn’t favor his interest.

But that’s not the way it works in the real world. SWS and Pulse Asia have agreed to hold results as confidential and the client may or may not decide to release results, timing of release, and in what form.

Last weekend, a survey supposedly conducted by SWS showed senatorial candidate Bong Go magically appearing in the upper half of the senatorial candidate preferences. In fairness to SWS, they have not confirmed they did that survey. 

Up until then, Go was outside the top 12. But, if you are a betting man, you would put your money on Go being a sure winner. Go is a proxy for the President and a vote for or against Go is a vote for or against Duterte. Expect Duterte to make sure Go wins.

But the campaign season has not officially started and someone like Go isn’t expected to jump from being virtually unknown to a pacesetter that quickly. One analyst estimates the jump to be equivalent to 10 million votes. Not even his shameful use of government facilities and disaster relief operations could have given him enough exposure to do that. 

Is the survey result reliable? Well, it is supposed to be SWS, so normally I would say yes.

But there are those who are not too sure. The survey field work was supposedly done from Jan. 23 to 25, but released Feb. 2. It normally takes two to three weeks to collate data for a sample size in a nationwide survey. Exit polls are done almost overnight in presidential elections, but we are just talking president and vice president and not 60 or so names of senatorial aspirants.

Based on experience, it is safe to assume this is a commissioned special survey and the client leaked the results. Otherwise, I would have received a press release on it from SWS. But SWS has not denied doing that survey. 

More bothersome are rumors that SWS has signed up not just Bong Go, but also Cynthia Villar, Bong Revilla, and the Liberal Party as survey clients.

I have the highest respect for SWS and Mahar, and I constantly defend him and SWS from accusations that he is biased for Grace Poe because he is her uncle. I am also more than sure Mahar will not compromise his academic reputation nurtured through many decades.

In the same way, even if one of the owners of Pulse Asia is a cousin of P-Noy, I trust the academic integrity of Ronnie Holmes and Ana Tabunda who are responsible for the design and implementation of their surveys.

Perhaps, the rules ought to be changed.

I am against suggestions to gag surveys during elections because the public has the right to know. But perhaps, survey organizations shouldn’t take money from politicians even for professional services rendered. It taints them and tarnishes their credibility.

Otherwise, it should be made mandatory for survey groups to disclose who financed their surveys. The public must be given the opportunity to hedge their acceptance of survey results by letting them know who paid to get the survey done. Total transparency is best.

The way it is now, the credibility of public surveys is on the line. It will be bad for our democracy if this way of measuring public sentiment is lost.

In the meantime, we can take most pre-election surveys as irrelevant to our task of choosing candidates worthy of our trust.

If at all, we should be appalled that these surveys show former senators tainted with corruption or have not performed well in previous terms are among the favorites. Knowing this should inspire us to work harder to educate our fellow citizens to vote for the best regardless of what current surveys say.

Otherwise, we deserve our pitiful state.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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