They may change views on candidates, but converting them into votes is another thing
MANILA, Philippines—It wasn’t too long ago when Manuel Villar Jr. was the clear leader in presidential surveys. The July-August 2009 Pulse Asia survey showed him enjoying 25 points. The second placer, former President Joseph Estrada, was behind with 19 points.
In the same survey, most of the voters said their 3 main criteria in selecting their candidates are:
* track record, 25.3%
* perception of being “pro-poor,” 20.3%
Interestingly, these are the same qualities that Villar had been claiming he possessed.
Two months later, or when Sen. Benigno Aquino III belatedly joined the presidential race, the percentage of voters looking for these qualities dropped:
* track record, 14%
* perception of being “pro-poor,” 12.2%
Voters drastically shifted what they were looking for in a presidential bet. The voters said they want a candidate who is “clean” or “not corrupt.”
In the survey period July to August 2009, this trait accounted for only 6.3% of voters preference. By October 2009, this zoomed to 21.2%. It has remained on top of the preference list ever since, reaching 26% in the March 2010 survey period.
Villar dropped to 19 points in the October survey. Aquino got a sensational 44 points, changing the equation of the 2010 elections.
Aquino has since been leading in presidential surveys. Villar got close in January, but only to gradually lose points again.
So what changes voters’ minds?
Free and paid media
Pollsters and media strategists interviewed by abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak attribute these shifts in preferences to the combined influence of “free media” and “paid media.”
Free media refers to news coverage, where candidates get publicity for free. Paid media refers to political advertisements that candidates get to air or print in media outlets for hefty fees.
A January 2010 survey commissioned by the Manila Standard Today shows that news and ads—49% and 45%, respectively—are the voters’ sources of information about the candidates.
Pulse Asia chief research fellow Ana Tabunda said that news and ads affect the trait that voters look for in a candidate.
“Survey results are always a combination of many factors. It’s not just the political ads. News is also a big factor.... Our politics is personality-based. That is why it shifts like that," Tabunda said.
She said the impact of ads is most pronounced in the case of Villar, and the impact of news is most pronounced in the case of Aquino.
Based on these conclusions, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak analyzed 6 surveys of Pulse Asia from July 2009 to March 2010, the leading candidates’ political ads, and the major news items during the same period. The result is an uncanny connection between the ads that came out and the qualities that voters said they were looking for.
‘Pro-poor’ easiest to portray
Media strategist Marilou Tiquia said that the power of political ads is it allows candidates “to introduce a new side” or harp on a particular image that they think would endear them to voters.
Soon after the 2007 senatorial elections, Villar came out with ads where he harped on the “pro-poor” theme. In one ad, he appeared with construction workers that showed him helping them cement houses. The ad had the slogan “Para umahon sa hirap, si Manny Villar na (To rise from poverty, go for Manny Villar).
Tabunda said this image is the easiest to portray. “The easiest is—if he could come out as believable—is to be pro-poor,” she told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.
Tabunda said being pro-poor is easily portrayed through concrete actions, such as paying for a couple's wedding, giving houses, or paying for a funeral. They are very visual and easily relatable, she said.
“People can easily identify with whoever is in the ad because almost everyone is either poor or thinks of themselves as poor,” she added.
But any ads won’t work. Tiquia said it has to be skillfully done to be believable. Although ads can affect a person's reasons for voting, it is not enough to sway a person into choosing a candidate.
“[The ads] may change your perspective of a candidate, trust him a little bit more or increase the awareness, but the conversion itself is another thing,” Tiquia said.
It wasn’t just Villar who played on the pro-poor image. Before the July 2009 survey, Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay and Manuel Roxas also came out with pro-poor ads.
Tabunda said what made Villar's ads believable—and therefore, effective—was because he had a true story.
“He really did live in that house. He knows how to talk even street lingo,” said Tabunda, referring to Villar's ads showing where he grew up in Tondo, Manila.
Villar had to change track in August, when the death of former President Corazon Aquino gave her allies the idea of convincing her only son to run for president.
Before her mother’s death, Senator Aquino was not a sensational national figure. In all his 9 years as congressman and 3 years as senator, Aquino has not held any major leadership position. But he was able to dislodge Villar from the top spot.
Tabunda said media’s tribute to President Aquino as honest, loving, and motherly played a role in “conditioning” the minds of Filipino voters into favoring Senator Aquino.
“I think that the real intention there is to contrast Cory [Aquino] with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo,” Tabunda said.
At that time, Aquino was yet to come out with ads.
“In the case of Noy (Aquino), his mother died. There is that condition that is ripe for the taking,” Tiquia said, referring to the October 2009 Pulse Asia survey where Aquino topped the survey even without ads.
Tabunda said: “Filipinos miss someone who loves them. Poor, rich—she (former President Aquino) treated them equally. She was honest, no graft and corruption that time. Media has a big end there.”
In the same survey, 2 out of 10 voters, or 21.2%, wanted a candidate to be “not corrupt” and “clean”—qualities associated with President Aquino.
It was a shift from the previous survey where only 7.1% and 6.3% preferred candidates who are “not corrupt” and “clean,” respectively.
Managing the news
Villar’s camp knew this power of good publicity. In several occasions, his camp came out with ads to latch on a raging issue or to counter negative news about him.
In July and August 2009, Villar tried to “manage” the media. In the Senate, he pushed for health assistance and repatriation of abused OFWs. (See Villar’s press releases: Villar and OFW in a coma, 7 Oman OFWs need more help and Villar repatriates 3 'unlucky' OFWs).
Simultaneously, Villar’s camp came out with ads on OFWs. The ads showed OFWs crying and waiting at the airport. Villar showed up hugging the distressed OFWs, then they exited the airport together.
In the July-August 2009 Pulse Asia survey, 11.8% perceived their candidate to be helpful to the OFWs. The preference for this trait inched up to 12% in the October 2009 survey
“The ads will reinforce the issues (already present),” Tabunda said.
Villar also used ads to counter the negative impact of the corruption allegations against him with regard to the C-5 road “double insertion” controversy.
Two ads that kept running during the period was the testimonial of comedy king Dolphy that Villar has not put one over on anybody, and Villar's 30-seconder where he says he's not seeking the presidency to get richer.
“Marami pa ring naninira sa kanya. Sa pagkakakilala ko kay Manuel Villar, siya’y taong may integridad, may malasakit sa kapwa, totoong tao,” Dolphy said in the ad.
After the actor's ad, Villar came out, pointing out that wanting to be president is part of his lifetime "panata" or vow to help those who have nothing in life. “Kung talagang gusto ko yumaman, babalik na lang ako sa pagka-negosyante.”
Tabunda said Villar’s ads succeeded in cushioning the negative impact of the controversy. (See related story: Erap, not C-5, caused Villar’s survey drop)
In an interview with ANC’s Dateline Philippines, Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes said news of Villar’s alleged alliance with the administration might have also contributed to his 4-point drop in the March 2010 survey. However, he told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak that this needs further study because there were other issues at that time.
“I can’t pin down changes in preferences of a candidate to just 1 perceived cause, especially since the alleged endorsement was not headlined compared to the headlines that hovered around the time we did the survey,” he said.
The latest Pulse Asia survey shows that Aquino is ahead of Villar by 12 points.
A little over a month before Election Day, Holmes said a lot of things can still happen. The campaign period for local elections has only begun.
“If elections were held last March, he (Aquino) would be ahead. But no. It is bound to change on or before May 10 for a number of reasons,” he said. (abs-cbnNews.com/Newsbreak)