“Everyone dies,” Ronald Holmes reasons nonchalantly, shrugging off death threats he has received over the years. He has also been warned that his phone is possibly tapped. “Our disposition has become that it’s par for the course, it’s part of the job,” says the president of Pulse Asia Research, one of the most prominent organizations conducting election surveys. “I doubt very much whether someone would really go to the extent of shooting the messenger literally. They do shoot the messenger, but in a figurative way.”
Election survey results are not always taken well. “When they’re down they criticize you, when they’re up they praise you,” he says, revealing the usual candidates’ reactions. On several occasions, dissatisfied parties have submitted petitions to the Commission on Elections to stop the publication of pre-election surveys. Pulse Asia had to face some court cases, too.
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Explaining the results of the surveys is the biggest challenge of Holmes’ job. He claims election stress gives him excruciating backaches. “Not as bad now. In 2013 and 2016, I could barely walk after the elections.”
It is often alleged that the survey results are used to condition the minds of the voters, and they have been blamed for ruining a candidate's chance to win. “The primary factor that influence voters would really be news about candidates, advertisements of candidates, the influence of family, relatives, and friends; billboards and posters, and the influence of religious leaders. And then only after that would surveys come in,” he asserts.
How did he know? They conducted a survey, of course.
Some say survey outifts like his are propaganda machines financed by candidates (or their supporters) who land in the top spots of these polls. “There’s no entity that commissions our national surveys, we conduct them on our own,” states Holmes. Pulse Asia obtains their funds from subscriptions. “What is published in our survey is just a small amount of what is contained in it. If you are a subscriber, you get a briefing and the report. We drill it down to the more specific social demographic attributes: age groups, linguistic groups, working groups,” he elaborates. During peak season, subscription is about P300,000 per survey.
Others attack Pulse Asia for the sample size they use which is a mere 1,800 out of roughly 60 million voters. “The best explanation given so far by statisticians would be if you want to test for certain illnesses, when you get a blood test, you don’t draw out half of the blood that flows in your body. You draw out only a sample of the blood and that already allows anyone who does the diagnosis to conclude as to what ails you or whether there’s an ailment.
"So it’s a question of the procedure. If the procedure is something that is systematic and scientific, regardless of whether you draw a smaller sample then you can argue that it would be representative of the total, of the universe,” justifies Holmes.
From preparation to reporting, a survey requires about three weeks. Formulating the questionnaire takes longest because the phrasing is tedious. “Our fellow academics can question and criticize us if it’s leading.”
Being a teacher helps Holmes in the arduous task of getting people to understand the surveys—methods and merits alike. He has been with the Political Science department of De La Salle University for the past 34 years. He became president of Pulse Asia in 2008 but has been part of the company since it was established in 1999. “Because the founder of Pulse Asia, Pepe Miranda, was my teacher in UP,” he explains.
Pulse Asia stands on the premise that providing the public with a voice is necessary for democracy to thrive. “What you normally see in any political system is the elite expressing their opinions. Our belief is that there is a need to also see, examine, and collect the perspective of the public. It may not be something that we share but we can not in any way dismiss what the public is saying. And if you do have those two groups expressing their views, hopefully, that will create a space or opportunities for dialogue, for deliberation. Democracy requires dialogue, it’s not single-mindedness. People with competing views should be freely able to express their view and listen to the views of others.”
Photographs by Medal Elepaño