Surveys and public opinion

For many senatorial candidates who take elections seriously and exert great effort to address the important issues of the day, it must be terribly frustrating to be confronted by the results of preelection surveys. Nothing seems to matter except sheer media exposure and possession of a familiar name in order to score high. The preference for incumbents leaves one wondering if the Filipino electorate is content with the way things are.

My view is that surveys of voter preferences should be taken for what they are—no more than a form of public opinion. As such, they reflect no distinct rationality.

One should not be misled by their vaunted scientific character. The science of surveys resides not in the opinions they synthesize but in the methodology that is used to gather these. It is pointless to try to figure out the logic behind the preferences they report. There is none. Indeed, their rational content, if any, would pale in comparison to the opinions of a well-informed taxi driver.

The personal commitment behind these survey preferences cannot be very high, which is probably why they tend to manifest wide swings over short periods. Survey respondents typically do not get the chance to reflect upon or articulate the reasons for the choices they express. Their responses to questions therefore do not have the saliency that opinions given in the context of a conversation would usually have.

It is thus disturbing to note that preelection polls have acquired a place in our electoral process that seems to outweigh all other forms of public opinion. They have become the arbiters not just of “winnability” but also of political merit. In the absence of public forums in which party programs are sharply differentiated and issues are debated, what stands out as the sole reason for voting for a particular candidate is that he or she ranks high in the surveys.

It is not uncommon for the major parties to drop many deserving individuals from their list of potential candidates because of their poor performance in surveys. This only shows that the strength of political parties or coalitions depends not so much on their programs of government as on the personal drawing power of their individual candidates. There is no other way of making sense of the weird composition of the respective senatorial slates of the Liberal Party and United Nationalist Alliance for the 2013 elections.

The legitimate value of surveys lies in the information these can provide to candidates as they formulate their political messages and map out their campaign strategies. Good survey data could show the places where they are weak, the age groups they need to reach out to, the most salient social issues they should be addressing, etc. But such information is better obtained through deeper probing. And certainly, one would rather keep this to oneself than to have the whole world know about it. Yet the results are made public.

Do surveys create a bandwagon effect? I think so. But perhaps the more important question is why. To begin to answer this question, we must repeat what we said earlier: Surveys are a form of public opinion. Indeed, this was what the Supreme Court used as justification when, sometime ago, it threw out a petition to ban the publication of survey results a few months before an election. To grant the petition, the high court argued, would be to curtail freedom of speech.

An intelligent electorate should know better than to be influenced by survey results. That would be akin to trading one’s own judgment for the unexamined “likes” of a randomly chosen crowd. Listen to the few forums on television where better-known politicians are pitted against the newcomers. One can instantly see how better prepared some of the new challengers are, and how much more sense they often make compared to the veterans.

Going over survey results, one is left wondering how respondents arrive at their choices. But no one questions public opinion. The results always seem so obvious and so natural that they need no further elaboration. The tragedy of it all is that surveys, when done well, are often not too far away from the actual electoral outcomes.

Public opinion, says the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, “plays the same role as tradition in earlier societies: to offer something to which one can adhere in a way that saves one from reproach.” It is always easier to go with public opinion than to contradict it. Indeed, one would have to have strong convictions to go against public opinion, or tradition.

For all its opacity, public opinion nevertheless serves as a mirror for politics. It gives politicians a glimpse of how voters perceive them, no matter how imprecise or fragmentary this may be. Politicians don’t expect public opinion to give them a picture of the way things really are. They don’t ask if public opinion is rational or irrational. For them, it is enough to know how they appear in the public eye in order to decide how they should act.

Public opinion, however, is not arbitrary. It follows its own rules of formation, and these are largely shaped by the dynamics of the mass media. It is these that political strategists seek to grasp as they try to manage the public images of their clients. They know that the mass media, in Luhmann’s words, “live off discontinuity, off the events of the day; but also off reports that underline the innovative value of opinions, fashions and misfortune.”

If all this is true, then perhaps no one is more hopeless than a political neophyte who talks and acts like a traditional politician, or an old hand who can offer nothing new or different.

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