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Have SWS and Pulse Asia been telling us lies?

Second of two parts

That would seem to be the case because, for one, they force respondents – many of whom haven’t decided yet – to pick a candidate in their voter-preference polls many months before elections, thus eliciting unconsidered choices that can change the next day, based often on who’s the topic in media at that time.

Grace Poe-Llamanzares’ meteoric rise as a viable presidential candidate is mostly due to this phenomenon.

When respondents are forced to pick their bet for the next election when they haven’t really decided yet, they’ll choose a novelty figure over those who have been in their field of attention for some time. That’s in the structure of the mind – evolution’s survival programming. Add the ingredients of a mestiza complexion and being the daughter of a legendary movie idol, and the novelty is given a rocket boost.

Social Weather Stations and PulseAsia polls more often conceal the fact that 35 percent to as much as 50 percent of respondents haven’t decided yet which candidate to vote for at the time the survey is undertaken, or who do not have any opinion on the topic being asked about.

Given such questionnaires, which do not provide an “I don’t know” or “I haven’t decided yet” choice, and upon prodding by the pollsters, these types of respondents magically vanish in their reports. Both SWS and PulseAsia amazingly report “undecided/don’t know” responses at just 2 percent of the sample.

This is not just my opinion but the conclusions of so many scientific studies on the nature of opinion polling in the US and Europe.*

As a critic of polls, George Bishop (2005) pointed out, paraphrasing the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: “The practice of polling mistakenly assumes that everyone is politically and intellectually competent enough to interpret the questions the way pollsters and journalists do, and that all people must have an opinion on such matters.”

As printed in Asher (2012)

The reason why they don’t report this basic flaw in polls, called the problem of “nonattitudes,” is that it drastically weakens the predictive power of polls, and therefore, its price in the market, and thus, their very livelihoods.

The 35 percent of respondents who normally haven’t decided whom to vote for, months before elections, or do not have any opinion on the survey’s topic, would also make irrelevant a ±3 percent margin of error in the usual poll with 1,200 respondents.

Margin of error
To illustrate, in the SWS recent poll, which reported that 26 percent would vote for Llamanzares, the margin of error means that the real figure could either be 23 percent or 29 percent. However, this is nothing compared with what could happen if just even half of the 35 percent undecided voters chose Jejomar Binay, whose 24 percent rating could rise by 18 percentage points to 42 percent.

Such defective polls, though, are still useful, and have legitimate uses. For one thing, a candidate would know at least where he ranks, even in such a flawed poll. If you were Roxas, for instance, you’d know that the P257 million in TV ads you spent worked to push your ratings from 10 percent to 20 percent.

What has made and will make the SWS and PulseAsia polls undermine democracy, i.e., distort the will of the people, is that they do not allow respondents to reply that they haven’t decided yet, and thereby, force them to make decisions basically at the flip of a coin.

In doing so, they conceal the fact that 35 percent of the respondents haven’t decided yet on whom to vote for, and portray their poll as reporting the decision of the electorate at the time of the poll.

Tycoons who normally fund politicians’ election campaigns in this country decide the amount of their donations based on the candidates’ SWS and PulseAsia ratings.

The media will portray – as the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN are already doing – the leading candidate as the likely winner. Then they devote more time and space coverage to the leading candidates, boosting their name recall and thus, their chances of winning.

Consider the media coverage of Mrs. Llamanzares – would she have gained such media mileage if SWS hadn’t put her at the top of the list in its clever but professionally unethical poll that asked respondents who they thought were the “best leaders to succeed Aquino?” (Unlike presidential preference surveys, this flawed poll allowed a respondent to choose three personalities, who of course, included Llamanzares even if the respondents had also picked Roxas or Binay. The percentages, however, are interpreted by readers as their voter-preference ratings.)

It is a troika subverting democracy and manipulating voters’ minds: flawed opinion polling, media and the elite.

Product of mechanism
Benigno S. Aquino 3rd’s victory in 2010 was made through this mechanism. Taking advantage of the public sympathy generated by his mother Cory Aquino’s death in August 2009, and exploiting superstitious, medieval notions that leadership is passed on through blood, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star then ran front-paged feature reports on him as much as ABS-CBN did in its own way on TV and radio – increasing Aquino 3rd’s name recall.

SWS then conducted its “best-leaders-to-succeed” poll, which had 60 percent of the respondents picking the mediocre congressman and senator – implying that he could get as many votes if he ran for president.

SWS, with its flawed polls, reported that Aquino 3rd was way ahead with 44 percent in the presidential preference polls by December 2009, and 42 percent by January. Tycoons (and the middle class) were fooled by SWS and PulseAsia and bet their big money on Aquino, which even the billionaire Manuel Villar couldn’t match.

Unwittingly, PulseAsia and SWS provide us with some quantification of those among the respondents who have no opinion on a particular survey topic, and are bold enough to tell the pollsters so.

In PulseAsia’s polls, the percentage of those who say they are undecided or have no opinion on rating the government on selected national issues ranges from 30 to 38 percentage points.

In SWS’ polls, perhaps reflecting the pollster’s skill in forcing respondents to give a reply even if those people don’t have any idea on a particular topic, the average percentage of those ‘undecided’ on their level of satisfaction with the president’s performance is about half that of PulseAsia, at 14 percent.

Another SWS poll revealed the extent of the undecided or “don’t-know” problem in Philippine opinion polls. Commissioned by the Asia Foundation, the SWS’ polls about the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in March 2015 (after nearly a year of debates in Congress and as discussed in media) showed 83 percent of respondents from across the entire country reporting that knew only little and almost nothing about the proposed law. How could the opinions, whether for or against the proposed law, of 17 percent be taken as representative of the people’s voice?

Yet, both SWS and PulseAsia regularly release polls that show 50 percent or more of the respondents in the D and E classes are satisfied with Aquino’s handling of the peace talks with the MILF, or in his handling of foreign relations, in fighting inflation, and “ensuring that oil firms don’t take advantage of oil prices.”

These are illusions of public opinion SWS and PulseAsia shamelessly concoct and disseminate.

*See: Moore, David, The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth behind the Polls, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012); Bishop, George, The Illusion of Public Opinion: Fact and Artifact in American Public Opinion Polls, (US: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); and Asher, Herbert, Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know, (Washington, D.C.: 2012)