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Opinion surveys and voting-preference polls: The big difference

I’ve been a big critic of opinion surveys, especially when newspapers report them as banner headlines—a practice not just done anywhere else in the world.

The reason is that while opinion polls are legitimate research tools, to mystify their findings as “the voice of the people” or as representing objective truth is to utterly misunderstand what they are.

For instance, a poll of 35,000 Americans that showed that 68 percent of them believed that “angels and devils are active in the world” doesn’t in any way mean that such creatures exist. A billion people saying they exist can’t make them exist—just as that number of humans in medieval times believed that the world was flat, even if it was a globe.seven out of 10 Americans believe in such creatures simply means that American culture – Sunday catechism classes, fairy tales, even movies – has ingrained such strong belief in fantastical creatures in them.

As a toddler you were told you had a guardian angel so you wouldn’t have to wake your mom in the middle of the night; as a student in a Catholic school you were taught that devils were fallen angels; and as an adult you got engrossed in such blockbuster movies as “City of Angels” or “Constantine.” Now, when the pollster comes along to ask you if you believe in angels, what do you think you would say?

Percent of Filipinos voting for Binay and Roxas, Philippines and per major region, based on Sept. 7-11 interviews of 1,200 respondents, Laylo and Associates

Opinion polls merely quantify people’s current views — false or not, utterly fantastical or not — on issues, or, on their choice consumer products, as these have been formed by culture and media. People do not get their ideas about issues from thin air, as European scholars like Jurgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu have expounded.

In modern mass society, people get their ideas on issues almost solely, after childhood, formal education, and peer-group talk, from media. This is especially in countries where poverty bars the majority from getting accurate information and even having the intellectual tools for rational evaluation of an issue.

Nowhere are opinion polls so abused as in the Philippines. It has even been weaponized and used with lethal force several times by this Administration.

The trick

I wrote the following on January 12, 2012 — more than two years ago — in my column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer when I was still with there.

“This trick of using polls by President Aquino’s propagandists involves the following steps.

First, publicize an allegation by a cooperative journalist or by an ally in Congress about an issue, get Congress to investigate the allegation, have a subservient press run it as banner stories for consecutive days, with “outraged” opinion writers rousing people’s passions.

Second, undertake a poll on the issue, when people have just been barraged in the press by the allegations. Voila! The poll findings that so and so is corrupt, the result of the press barrage in step one, are proclaimed as “public opinion.”

Third step: Publicize the poll widely, so that the bandwagon effect comes into play.

I gave as examples in that column this Administration’s campaigns against former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes (who tragically couldn’t take the assault and committed suicide), former Ombudsman Merceditas Guitierez, and Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Remember newspapers, a TV network, and a news website’s screaming headlines a month before the Senate decision? SWS: “Anxious Pinoys want Corona convicted” (Rappler); “SWS survey: 73% want guilty verdict for CJ,” (ABS-CBN): “73% prefer Corona conviction, says latest SWS Survey (Inquirer).”

The pattern I wrote about two years ago is certainly familiar, isn’t it?

It is the same modus operandi of this Administration in its successful project to put the three opposition leaders – Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla – to jail.

It is obviously using the same set of weapons – media “exposes,” Senate investigation, and opinion surveys – to torpedo Binay’s bid for the presidency in 2016. “Lumang style bulok,” as street lingo would describe scams.

Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations’ polls so far — involving the fall in Binay’s trust ratings – are just the preliminary barrages, as Aquino’s operators are still evaluating if Senator Antonio Trillanes’ demolition job was successful.

After a few more Senate hearings, expect Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations –non-profit firms, by the way — to publish surveys on how many Filipinos believe that Binay has a vast hidden wealth, and that he is a crook.

Voter-preference polls
However, there is one particular poll that has much legitimacy: Voter-preference polls. In fact, opinion polls originated in the US in the late 19th century as “straw polls,” a dry-run of sorts of an election in which a group of people cast their ballots for candidates in an unofficial and non-binding manner.

Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper in the 1900s then adopted statistical techniques such as sampling to make voter-preference polling a regular feature in US politics, as a means for candidates to adjust their campaign tacks. Only much later would polling be used to quantify people’s opinions on any subject under the sun.

It is a bit ironic that in the Philippine setting, it was the dictatorship that started the practice of opinion polling, since without a free press, the strongman Ferdinand Marcos didn’t have any instrument in measuring what people thought of his “reforms” and his authoritarian rule.

These first opinion polls in the country were undertaken by Mahar Mangahas (of SWS fame, of course) and Jose “Pepe” Miranda, who, after a spat with Mangahas, broke away to form Pulse Asia. Both ran their polls in the “Social Indicators Project” of the Development Academy of the Philippines in the second half of the 1970s to 1981. But these were confidential, with an intelligence colonel at the DAP personally bringing Mangahas and Miranda’s findings straight from their offices to Marcos’ study room in Malacanang.

There is a huge difference, though, between opinion polls and voter-preference surveys, as professional pollsters would know.

Ask somebody’s opinion if he prefers Coke or Pepsi, Colgate or Close Up and he tells you his choice with ease, even in a cavalier manner. If he were hooked up to a polygraph, there wouldn’t be much change in his physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, breathing and skin conductivity. It’s the same, really, if you ask him if he trusts Aquino or this government official. Or not.

But ask him whom he will vote for mayor or President, and he spends more time thinking about the question, and a polygraph would show significant changes in his indices. This is because it takes him some effort to respond to what is really a “straw vote,” and he takes seriously the fact that no matter his station in life, he has just one vote.

Psychic commitment
Believe it or not, Filipinos take that vote quite seriously – whether it is their psychic way of getting back at this leader they hate for their unimproved quality of life, or if they feel that it is their responsibility who their leader in the next three or six years should be.

Voter-preference polls, in effect, require a “psychic commitment” on the part of the respondent, which mere opinion polls do not. Voter-preference polls correspond to a particular action a respondent will do in the future, which is to cast his vote. An opinion on something, on the other hand, corresponds to no such action. To use a concept in philosophy, voter-preference polls have an intentionality which opinion polls do not have and which often represents a respondent’s idle thoughts, as permanent as will o’ the wisp.

This is the reason why pre-election polls – except, of course, for the epic fiasco of a poll predicting Thomas Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in 1948 – have been so accurate in forecasting actual winners. This is the reason why former President Arroyo had very low trust ratings in 2004, but was consistently the winner in voter-preference polls in the months leading to the May elections.

That is the reason why I chose the voter-preference poll made by low-profile but brilliant pollster Pedro Laylo to accompany this column.