Understanding senatorial preferences

Not a few have asked how we can make sense of the senatorial preferences expressed in recent surveys leading up to the 2013 elections. What seems to be the basis of these preferences? Is it all about “name recall”? How much value is attached to political programs and visions?

My usual answer is that I am as baffled as they are about the choices that our people make. These preferences don’t seem to be anchored on any serious understanding of what a senator’s functions are, or on a thoughtful examination of the candidates’ qualifications and record, and, least of all, on any idea of the kind of legislative leadership the country needs at this time.

I have before me the results of the most recent Pulse Asia survey released last Feb. 8, with four months left before Election Day. The official campaign period has not begun, and candidates have yet to explain their programs in public forums, but already, respondents are filling up, on average, eight of the available 12 senatorial slots. “Virtually all of the probable winners,” the survey notes, “are either former or current members of Congress.” The odd person in the winning circle of 12 is Nancy Binay, who is ranked No. 4, just below the sure winners—Loren Legarda, Chiz Escudero, and Alan Peter Cayetano.

Binay has not previously run for, or occupied, any public office. Her political experience is limited to her having served as personal assistant to her father, current Vice President Jejomar Binay. She is not known to have taken any stand on any national issue that is likely to be debated in the halls of the Senate. Yet she enjoys an awareness rating of 88 percent that is significantly higher than that of former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. With an awareness rating of only 79, Jun, the son and namesake of the popular president who died in a tragic plane crash, is currently ranked at No. 17.

It is obvious that Binay’s astounding feat in preelection surveys draws solely from the magic of her father’s name. In this, she’s not alone. One could say the same thing for Juan Ponce Enrile Jr., JV Ejercito Estrada, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, and Edgardo “Sonny” Angara.  Perhaps it is not so much that voters mistake them for their fathers, as they positively associate them with the images of their famous namesakes.

But why does name recall work for them and not for Magsaysay who was a senator until three years ago? I think there is a simple answer: the late President Magsaysay lived in the 1950s, and despite his abundant presence in children’s textbooks and peso bills, he is a remote figure to the young generation of Filipino voters. For all its saliency, the name “Magsaysay” is linked with the past.

On the other hand, Benigno “Bam” Aquino, the namesake and look-alike of the martyred Sen. Ninoy Aquino, might have a better chance of improving his survey ranking as the elections draw near. He is now at No. 13, three rungs above the 16th place that he occupied in the December Pulse Asia survey. One might hold up the same hope for Grace Poe, whose more deliberate pairing with her iconic father, Fernando Poe Jr., in recent media adverts has pulled her from No. 17 to No. 14. Grace has been able to combine this name advantage with her effective projection of herself as a young sweet woman of serene intelligence.

Name recall is clearly important but, by itself it does not guarantee “winnability.” Jamby Madrigal, who conducted a maverick campaign for the presidency in 2010 and was a senator until six years ago, has an awareness rating of 90 percent. She was at No. 13 in the December 2012 survey, and has slid down to No. 16 in the January 2013 survey. Former Sen. Dick Gordon also ran for president in 2010 and has maintained a high public profile as head of the Philippine National Red Cross. He enjoys an awareness rating of 88, but remains at No. 15, still outside the winning circle. Former Sen. Ernesto Maceda, an old hand in Philippine politics, having served in various capacities in successive administrations, has an awareness rating of 82 percent but languishes in the surveys at No. 19.

Voters have short memories. The younger they are, the more impressionable they tend to be. Their impressions, mostly based on sound bites and fleeting glimpses, do not last long either. Three years out of the limelight, a politician who fails to etch a strong presence in the public memory is as good as forgotten. But those who manage to leave a deep mark on the people’s consciousness are rewarded by a lingering loyalty. Think of politicians like Legarda, Escudero, Cayetano, Trillanes and Honasan. The mere mention of their names conjures, rightly or wrongly, images of vitality, eloquence, audacity, etc.

One would have thought by this same token, that the young activist social democrat Risa Hontiveros, who figured prominently in the anti-Arroyo rallies and almost made it to the Senate in 2010, would by now be among the top senatorial choices for 2013. It is a puzzle that she is not. She possesses all the qualities that young people seem to admire in their leaders—brightness, courage, compassion for the downtrodden and articulateness. What seems to spell the difference is that in the last three years she was not in the public eye. It is time now to remind the public that this is the same bright and brave woman they almost made senator in 2010.

Today’s voters are mostly young, lower middle class, and with the benefit of no more than a high school education. What the surveys suggest is that they are not interested in the candidates’ party affiliations, or what they stand for, or whether they think they can meaningfully contribute to the discussion of issues at the Senate. They are dazzled by form rather than by substance, a fact that makes television all the more the true battleground of national elections.

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