Exit polls and their social context

If a stranger came to your house at the end of election day to do an exit poll, what are the chances that you would reveal to this person how you voted?  The Social Weather Stations said that 8% of its exit poll respondents gave no answer when asked who their choice for president was.  It is not clear whether these voters left the slot for the president blank or they simply refused to answer.

My own guess is that the number of people who would hesitate to reveal their votes to someone they did not know is probably higher than 8%, probably higher this year than in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1998, and probably higher too among those whose choice for president was not the incumbent President Gloria MacapagalArroyo.

An ideal respondent in an exit poll would be someone who tells an interviewer how he or she voted, without being defensive or fearful about his or her choices.  Field researchers take pains to explain the purpose of their study and the confidential nature of responses precisely to put their informants at ease. A respondent’s sense of vulnerability is however not always appeased by such assurances of confidentiality. Anyone who has done field interviews in this country would tell you that especially with sensitive topics, Filipinos tend to be less than forthright in their answers. They would search for a cue from the interviewer, hoping that the latter’s facial expression or tone of voice would lead them to the “right” answer.

This is no one’s fault or mistake.  It is just the result of a social order in which the powerlessness and vulnerability of the many constrain them to be guarded with their thoughts and actions.  I suspect that one would have to be a diehard FPJ fan to admit to a stranger that he/she voted for him in the last election, knowing that to do so may leave one’s self open to aggravations.

First is the likelihood of being ridiculed for making the “wrong” choice in an election that has been prominently billed as basically a contest between an ignoramus and a doctor of economics.  The average Filipino is very defensive about his own lack of education, though he may quietly insist that formal education is not the equivalent of wisdom.  Second is the danger of being identified as a partisan for the opposition, and thus excluded from the largess that the administration party has been giving out to various communities.

This brings us to an essential difference between other post-1986 elections and the one held last May 10.  There was no incumbent president desperately seeking reaffirmation in both the 1992 and 1998 presidential elections.  Neither Cory Aquino nor Fidel Ramos assiduously courted votes for their anointed candidates by paying a so-called “down payment” in social services using unprogrammed public funds, the way Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did in 2004.

It is difficult to imagine that our hypothetical exit poll respondent would be unmindful of these possibilities.  The GMA patronage machinery penetrated the remotest barangays in the country.  This is evident in the roadside billboards that mushroomed in every nook and corner of the archipelago a few weeks before the election.  They were put up along main roads by the country’s supposedly non-partisan barangay captains under the direction of the Department of Public Works and Highways.  As the administration’s point men, these local officials keep a good map of the political leanings of every household in their territory.  They determine which households are eligible for emergency employment, water connection, scholarships, PhilHealth cards, palay seeds, etc.  They can make a needy household pay for supporting the “wrong” candidate.

All these can pollute the data collected by exit pollsters.  Not even the best sampling design, which is the hub of every good survey, can fully neutralize these social factors.  Of course, the validity of an exit poll is ultimately proven by how well it predicts the actual results.  Exit pollsters in many developed countries build a reputation for accuracy by being able to calculate the actual distribution of votes from a small sample in election after election.  But these are societies in which the manipulation of actual election results is unheard of or has been completely ruled out.  In these countries, the final results are taken at their face value, and rightly used as basis for validating exit poll or survey findings.

It seems to me spurious to claim validity for exit polls in a country like the Philippines where election results are routinely contested and challenged for their accuracy.  Without reliable final results against which to check them, exit polls by themselves would have no leg stand on except the reputation of the polling firm.  It is the height of absurdity that in our country exit polls are used to confirm the validity of election results, rather than the other way around.

I would be the first to vouch for the integrity and objectivity of the SWS, but I would caution against taking exit poll results at face value and using these to validate actual election outcomes.  Is it farfetched to think that even now the final tallies of the recent election are being manipulated so as to make them match the exit poll results? The dark reputation of many of the present commissioners of the Comelec and the legendary capacity of our politicians for dishonest activity feed this suspicion.  But that is a reality we cannot hope to erase except by the vigilance of a willful nation and the modernization of our political life.