Senator Grace Poe's presidential campaign is in trouble. There’s no skirting that issue.
The latest Pulse Asia survey, commissioned by ABS-CBN, shows her still in the lead, with 26% of respondents’ choice. But Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has closed in, with 25% of the vote. They are now statistically tied, with a 1.5+/- margin of error. Behind them are Vice President Jejomar Binay, 22%, and administration bet Mar Roxas, 20%. Miriam Santiago trails at 3%.
READ: Duterte catches up, ties Poe for lead: ABS-CBN survey
Pulse Asia conducted the survey from March 8-13, when Poe should have enjoyed a big boost from the Supreme Court ruling overturning the Commission on Elections (Comelec) disqualification orders.
READ: Comelec congratulates Grace Poe for SC Victory
Instead, she slipped two percentage points, from her 28% showing in the survey conducted from March 1-6 and released on March 15. (The biggest news then was her bagging the endorsement of the Nationalist People’s Coalition.)
Her current ratings show no fearful exodus. But she was already 26% in February. It means she has been treading the waters, not winning over voters, certainly not the five percent battlefield representing the undecided, none-of-the-above crowd.
In the tight Halalan2016 race, Poe needs to break away, taking some votes from rival candidates and getting the undecided to her side.
The disqualification cases were offered early on as an excuse for the drag in Poe’s numbers. Pundits claimed she would break away from the field with the SC decision.
It’s not happening.
The latest ABS-CBN/Pulse Asia results are even more troubling when ranged beside another survey, that of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Interaksyon, showing 66% of Filipinos supporting the SC decision.
In street lingo, people have “moved on.” Now, Poe has to face the toughest challenge: convincing voters of her merits as a politician. This is the morning after, where she stands under a harsher spotlight.
Duterte, in contrast, has been rising steadily since February – when he was tied with Roxas at 21%.
The mayor’s gaffes (cursing over traffic caused by the papal visit) and outrageous remarks (the threat to kill unionists who won’t follow his order to turn back on their reason for being) were uttered before or right at the start of the official campaign period.
Roxas and administration minions tried their best to cast Davao City as a drug-infested, crime-riddled place. Didn’t make a dent. From day one, Duterte has been confronted with his human rights record -- and has not budged at all.
If it were any other politician, you could mutter, "playing to the crowd."
But Duterte – and I am staunchly opposed to his HR views – has been that way for years and years. He’s not courting people; they’re choosing him as the candidate who, rightly or wrongly, represents their needs and demands.
Whatever economic class they belong to, the mayor's supporters feel threatened by the status quo. Duterte’s supporters chafe at how the powerful circumvent laws while the rest of us stew. They radiate anger against an elite that benefits from widespread corruption and cares little that criminals are baying at people’s doors.
They’re not of the vote-for-the-least-evil variety. They actually believe in his position on human rights. They see crime suspects and other "trouble-makers" as less than human -- or think the real picture is different. (“He’ll follow the law, don’t worry,” one believer told me.) They’re wrong on human rights. But this is a democracy and their votes count as much as mine.
True believers are Duterte’s real weapons. They won't stand back just because you disagree with their choice. They will engage you, they will argue – they’re better behaved these days – they will earnestly sell their candidate. They are also more creative in meme-making. They will record, post and share everything Duterte says, in the best possible light.
And they’re effective. I have non-organized friends who were leery of Duterte in January but are now backing him. They make up the one percentage point among undecideds who've finally chosen a candidate (from 6% in March 9 to 5% in the last survey)
This last, smaller group of Duterte voters falls under "lesser evil" voters. They nod when I talk of human rights. Then they tell me this:
a) PNOY’s administration is also bloodthirsty, they believe Duterte is more amenable to reason;
b) Their non-negotiable is corruption, which strikes out Binay and PNOY’s bet, because they’re tired of double standards; and,
c) Grace Poe’s comments on Aquino as anti-corruption adviser, and her missing out on Danding’s original sin that caused the coco levy mess, make them doubt her anti-corruption credentials.
Following the release of the latest Pulse Asia survey, Poe said: "With about a month and a half remaining in the campaign period, there will be no letup in our efforts to get to the people to explain what Gobyernong May Puso can do for them. We will be steadfast in connecting with the people and earning the highest mandate come May 9."
And there’s the rub. Poe hasn’t really explained well what Gobyernong May Puso" can do for Filipinos beyond the usual motherhood statements and patronage promises no different from that dangled by the administration bet and Binay.
No amount of advertising will help if the candidate herself is seen to waffle on the issue of accountability, for example.
It's no use moaning over being attacked. Everyone is under attack. It's no use claiming media misquotes. If you omit crucial points, ignore the elephant in the room, you lose the message; those who see you as a possible will turn away.
Which is how she lost the opportunity to skewer Mar in the second presidential debates. Who advised Poe that she could tackle Mamasapano and the Zamboanga seige and not bring Aquino into the picture?
Poe must realize that she is as much a protest choice as Duterte, a lesser-evil choice. Her core voters are world-weary but still hopeful; that’s partly the reason for her poor social media showing. What she needs is a clearer definition of self if she is even to hope transforming her sometimes reluctant supporters into true believers.
READ: Poe’s true believers must hustle to brighten Halalan2016 odds.
To do that, her social media people must be able to reach these supporters with unfiltered messages – then let’s see if it’s all just a matter of being misquoted. To do that, it’s not enough to post on her official page. Where’s the engagement? There’s hardly any.
Poe doesn't need to go all out against Aquino. That’s just not her. Duterte isn't going all out against Aquino anyway, not even Binay. But Poe needs to frame her message in clearer terms that highlight what she stands for.
The flood of statements that cause possible voters to go, “oh, s**t!” are costly errors and missed opportunities. Worse, Poe risks alienating her voter base. There’s nothing more tiring to supporters than having to backtrack regularly to mount a defense of a candidate – especially when they also wince at her remarks. Poe must realize that whatever PNOY fans she has on her side are the more critical ones, those who bewailed the silence that came over the reformist camps that helped the incumbent win in 2010. They're not going to defend her blindly.
A candidate at this point of the campaign should be moving forward, not dousing fires that could have been prevented in the first place.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.