FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Something truly strange has happened on the road to May 2022. The frontrunner is also the underdog.

“Frontrunner” might even be a bit of an understatement.

In the latest Publicus survey, done days after the deadline for substitution of candidates, Marcos garnered 56.7 percent voter preference share. This is more than 41 v over nearest rival Robredo. All the other presidential contenders wallow in single digits.

Among the vice presidential contenders, Sara Duterte received 54.4 percent voter preference share. Her nearest rival Tito Sotto received 10 percent. The rest are in single-digit territory.

“Landslide” might also be a bit of an understatement. Maybe “avalanche” would be more picturesque.

If elections were held today, Filipino voters could be electing the first majority president under the current constitutional framework. It could take a while to ponder the trend the surveys indicate.

As in the stages of grief, the first response among supporters of the other camps is denial. They would rather reject what the surveys tell us or pretend these surveys do not exist.

In one online discussion group I participate in, the Leni supporters tend to bristle at the mere mention of surveys. A few of them even turn belligerent. I patiently tried explaining to them that if we do not read the surveys, the only reference we will have is our own wishful thinking.

Some would rather do that, of course. It is infinitely more convenient to retreat to one’s political cocoon or echo chamber as the case may be. Meanwhile, a truly remarkable political reality unfolds outside our windows. We will have to grapple with that reality sooner or later.

An old friend asked what explains the immense lead Marcos enjoyed in the preference surveys. I said I did not know enough to answer that question now. What is happening defies the convenient logical constructs of pundits and partisans ensconced in ivory towers.

A few of my friends draw solace from the fact that briefly, during the 2004 campaign, Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) enjoyed a manageable lead over Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA). But this involved an entirely different campaign dynamic. GMA was sitting president with much of the political establishment supporting her. FPJ was reliant only on the support of ousted Joseph Estrada.

An introvert, FPJ did not reach out to local powerbrokers. He avoided the debates. He offered no platform of government. Eventually, his campaign ran out of resources to keep up the fight.

Grace Poe, likewise, momentarily enjoyed a slight lead in the preference surveys in the 2016 campaign. But she split her constituency with Mar Roxas while Jojo Binay ran a fairly competent campaign alongside them. The race was close until Rodrigo Duterte barged in and altered the game.

At no time did FPJ or all the momentary survey leaders garner anything close to an absolute majority of voters. The frontrunners were clustered close to each other.

The fact that Marcos has now crossed the 50 percent threshold in voter preference tells us that all the other contestants can no longer just try to get votes from one another. They have to mine that huge bank of votes currently leaning towards Marcos, even if this means having him disqualified to short-circuit the process.

This is exactly what Antonio Carpio et al want to do. But doing so could open a political Pandora’s Box.

Marcos has the support of the majority of voters. That is the reality the surveys indicate. He is not some nuisance candidate on the margins with nothing more than a pocket of supporters. Marcos voters are not about to take an extra-electoral resolution of this contest sitting down.

Because he enjoys majority voter preference ratings, Marcos will be the target of all his rivals. They all need his massive bank of votes.

In their first rally together, the Bongbong-Sara tandem indicated the campaign theme they would pursue to defend their majority share of the vote. Sara called on the tandem’s supporters to “protect” candidate Marcos. This is consistent with the theme articulated by the Marcos campaign through social media.

This is a smart theme to articulate. It pictures Marcos as a candidate attacked from all sides by the usual elites. Instead of the overlord the survey numbers show, he is now projected as the underdog.

While everyone will try to shake the laden tree to force it to shed some its fruits, whatever votes might be shaken off will not be distributed evenly to the other candidates. Many of the Marcos supporters I have talked to truly believe their candidate was cheated somehow in the close 2016 contest for the vice presidency. They see BBM as the aggrieved party and are casting a sympathy vote for him.

Therefore, Robredo can expect to get only very little of the votes shaken off the Marcos tree. She is doomed to spend the rest of the campaign battling the narrative she has been a “fake” vice-president.

Marcos, meanwhile, can afford to give up some votes to the least preferred candidates. This will not affect the final outcome.

It is absolute luxury for any candidate to enjoy an over 50 percent share of voter preference early in the electoral period. BBM and Sara will not have to aggressively go after voters inclined towards their rivals. All they have to do is “protect” the share they already have.

Over the past weekend, the Marcos campaign successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters in large caravans occurring simultaneously nationwide. Marcos supporters seem to want to underscore what the surveys are already telling us: this is a lopsided contest.

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