Monday, February 08, 2010

Like betting on prizefighters

This is my column today.

The question that everyone inevitably gets asked at social occasions nowadays, whether surreptitiously as if it were a matter of national security or blatantly as if it were one’s obligation to announce it to all and sundry, is this: Who is your candidate for President?

It is possible of course—although I highly doubt it—that the social circles I move in do not typify Philippine society. Based on my observation, most people who are asked the question are still unsure about who they are voting for. Of course there are those who have already made up their minds and proudly proclaim their choices but they represent a minority.

But most people I know give non-committal answers—they often provide two names. “I’m choosing between this and that candidate.” Some provide stronger indicators by saying “I am strongly leaning towards this candidate.” But the sense I am getting is that people are still deciding; most people haven’t really made up their minds. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that many people are not being truthful when they answer because they don’t want to be judged.

Unfortunately, although I have the feeling that it is waning now, there is this strong moral judgment against people who pick candidates who are not aligned with certain supposed moral precepts.

Who then are these people that comprise the respondents of all these various surveys?

I am aware that they qualify the survey questions with the statement “if elections were to be held tomorrow.” But surely, the people doing the surveys detect the hesitation and the uncertainty in the faces and responses of the respondents.

I am not knocking down surveys in general. I certainly find it hypocritical when certain political groups proudly proclaim the results of surveys when it benefits them and then shoot surveys down when the results do not suit them.

I believe that surveys play an important role in the electoral process and in a democracy. At the very least, they provide a strong indicator of the pulse of the people. But as the admonition goes, statistics are like lampposts. They should be used the way a sober man does which uses them to guide his way home. The problem is that most use statistics the way a drunk uses lampposts in a stupor—as a crutch or support to prevent him from falling down.

Thus, I join the chorus of people demanding for more responsible treatment of the results of surveys. I am concerned that survey results are being used indiscriminately as if the statistics are already a substitute for actual elections. In fact, I am alarmed that surveys are now being used deliberately and rather unethically to create a strong bandwagon effect. I am aware that certain groups are now capitalizing on results of surveys and tailor-fitting their campaign strategies to harness the results of these surveys.

When I expressed this concern at a forum recently, I was told that a professor from the University of the Philippines is spearheading a similar advocacy armed with empirical data and a more methodical approach. I wish more people would take up the advocacy, particularly those who are in a position to influence more people. We need to explain the results of surveys better. We need to enlighten people that an election is not about voting for the most popular candidate but about voting for a candidate one believes in.

The immediate consequence of the bandwagon effect being propped up and pushed strongly—unethically, I must stress—by certain political parties is that the electorate seems intent now on choosing candidates very much similar to the way people bet on prizefighters. There is now this whole preoccupation with choosing candidates who, in their minds, are sure winners, or at least have the strongest possibility of winning. People seem intent on casting their luck on front runners as if voting for a losing candidate is now anathema.

We will have to pay dearly in the future if this phenomenon is allowed to continue.

Just last week I attended a family affair where the dinner conversation naturally meandered towards politics. It was just a matter of time of course and when the inevitable question finally got asked, I noted that most people in our table were still undecided. When I said that I was leaning towards a certain senator who is not faring well in surveys, most people agreed with me that it was a good choice but cautioned me that my vote will get “wasted” because my candidate is not going to win based on the results of surveys. I argued my case, of course.

Votes will get “wasted” if they are not cast in favor of candidates who are sure to win based on surveys? I have never heard a more preposterous idea!

The elections are still a good three months away and anything can still happen. In fact the campaign season has not even officially started yet. As it is we’re already seeing shifts in the popularity ratings of certain front runners. Senator Noynoy Aquino, for instance, does not come across as invincible today as he did a few months ago, does he? It’s not fair and certainly not wise to count out candidates who are not rating well in surveys.

And it’s not as if surveys are 100 percent predictive. They are snapshots of the political landscape at a given time; such landscape may change everyday. This is not just wishful thinking. It has been known to happen many times.

But over and above anything else, we must remind people that elections are not about picking the most popular people. They are about voting for the candidates that one thinks and believes are best for the job. This could mean the most competent, the most qualified, the people we strongly identify with.

Otherwise, we might as well cancel elections and let Pulse Asia, Social Weather Stations, and the rest of the companies who are in the business of conducting surveys decide among themselves who should sit in MalacaƱang, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and in various provincial and local government offices.


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