The Long View
News from unusual places
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:33:00 04/07/2010
IN THE MUSICAL “CHICAGO,” Renee Zellwegger gets some tips from Richard Gere on how to charm the public with some razzmatazz and razzle-dazzle. Today, the final leg of the national campaign gets in gear and much of it will revolve around you, the viewer, as spectator: in particular, as a media consumer. Everyone is dying to know what you think, because what you think can make or break the candidates. And how do the pros claim to know how you think? By means of those regular snapshots of your opinion, known as the surveys.
And this points to a very human need: we want to know not only what’s happening, we all love to gaze into crystal balls. Is that what surveys are? At best they can only give us a snapshot: a frozen moment in time, based on a representative sample of the population. We take surveys all the time: we ask people what they think. In politics, it’s useful to know what a lot of people are thinking. This is public opinion, and our media have been trying to figure it out since 1933, when the Philippines Free Press pioneered mail-in questionnaires to its readers. The question: Do you support or reject the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act? The mail-in survey reflected public opinion as it played out in elections that year: the public was overwhelmingly anti.
In 1938-39 as the proposals to amend the 1935 Constitution kicked off, the Philippines Free Press again engaged in mail-in surveys to ask its readers what they thought. At the time, the surveys showed support for a national Senate and for creating the Commission on Elections, but unease over changing the presidential term from six years to four years with reelection, the unattractive lady in this editorial cartoon. As a snapshot of public opinion, this proved useful to the advocates of amendments who managed to carry through the amendments by 1940.
Fast forward to the 1960s and public opinion polling had made quantum leaps in scope and methods. This was a time when the political landscape had already shifted from the old machines led by wrinkled old veterans. Instead, a more media-savvy, populist politics had taken root. It had been heralded by Ramon Magsaysay’s election in 1953 and the election of movie idol Rogelio de la Rosa to the Senate four years later, followed by his abortive but spectacular run for the presidency in 1961. In 1963, it seemed he’d make it to the Senate again.
That election year, as Nick Joaquin wrote in his article, “Ayos na ang Buto-Buto,“the polling firms became news for the reasons former Sen. Francisco Tatad objects to surveys today: they predicted who’d make it to the Senate and those tagged as losers screamed bloody murder. Not least because one survey firm got it badly wrong.
Still, public opinion polling has become part of the toolkit of modern governance. Going into the mid-term elections, President Fidel V. Ramos commissioned a survey with perhaps the biggest respondent base ever, many times over the usual samples used. It was a secret survey to take the public pulse on what were winning issues, and with the information from it, he propelled his party to a sweeping win.
More recently, presidential candidate Joseph Ejercito Estrada has shifted from pooh-poohing the surveys to chuckling that it’s better to start slow and go upwards as the campaign goes on. The fact of the matter is, the surveys matter to all the presidential candidates. Each survey that comes out from the reputable firms gives an insight into what is working and what’s failing in their campaign.
Even the administration, which publicly dismisses surveys because they reveal its unpopularity, has been an enthusiastic commissioner of surveys. It even had its own in-house survey supremo, once a top honcho in SWS.
The dramatic turns in other candidates’ fortunes can also be tracked in terms of whether the surveys show them moving upward or downward as the surveys take place month after month and week after week. The moment a survey comes out, political operators start planning how to react by means of the mass media.
Several years ago, the Institute of Philippine Culture of the Ateneo de Manila University already had focus groups with poor voters, which showed that for them, the media were already the top source of influence in voting decision.
The Manila Standard Today has been doing regular polling throughout the campaign period, and besides the candidates’ numbers, it asks many interesting questions. Let’s take a look at this question: What is the most helpful means in deciding whom to vote for?
In terms of national elective positions, taken as a whole, they show mass media is king. Nearly half say it’s news on TV. Almost as many say it’s ads or commercials. A third, with 38 percent, say news that someone has visited one’s area. Ask yourself: Does this mean you saw the candidate, or heard that the candidate dropped by? And also, how did you hear about it? Chances are, from media. A third are influenced by debates and less than a quarter by news in the papers.
About 83 percent say TV. Less than 10 percent say radio, only 2 percent say the papers.
But here’s the clincher. What then are the top trusted sources of news? Two out of three won’t surprise you: “TV Patrol,” and its rival, “24 Oras.” But the third top trusted source of news is “Wowowee.”
The question then becomes: Is one citizen’s definition of a news source very different from that of others? The figures can apply to radio, where Bombo Radyo and DZRH find themselves as trusted news sources together with Love Radio on FM; or to the broadsheets, where the Inquirer and Manila Bulletin are in the company of the tabloid Bulgar.