MANILA–If opinion surveys were to be interpreted, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. could become the first president to win by a majority vote under the country's multi-party system post-1986.
The son of the late dictator received a 53% voter preference in a survey by pollster Pulse Asia last December 2021. With 20% of respondents choosing Vice-President Leni Robredo, Marcos was ahead by 33 percentage points. The survey was conducted with 2,400 respondents between December 1 and December 6, 2021, or nearly 2 months after Marcos filed his certificate of candidacy to run for the country’s highest office under the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas.
Pulse Asia executive director Ana Maria Tabunda said her agency has not seen such a big lead post-1986, which begs the question: “Why is Bongbong Marcos popular among Filipino voters?”
‘Experienced, yet approachable underdog’
According to Narvacan town, Ilocos Sur, Mayor Luis “Chavit” Singson, who supports Marcos, the former senator’s popularity could be explained in part by 2 things: his nearly 30-year political career, and the repeated attacks on his family’s reputation after they were ousted in February 1986.
“Naging underdog na siya na ’yun ang naging epekto. Wala nang naniniwala sa mga panira sa kanila, matagal na matagal na,” Singson told ABS-CBN News.
The more criticisms and rumors are leveled against Marcos, the more his popularity seems to grow, Singson said.
“Aside from underdog, well-qualified naman si BBM [Bongbong Marcos]. Well-experienced, naging vice governor siya, governor, congressman, senator, so marami na din exposure at experience,” he added.
The mayor said Marcos avoids engaging in politicking, especially when it comes to retaliating against critics.
“Ang ano lang niya, konti lang naman sinasabi niya. ’Yung unity, pagsasama, pagkakaisa para sa ating bansa, para makarecover tayo ng mas madali. So mahirap kasi, ang politics kasi batuhan ng putik eh, so maganda ito maging majority president siya,” Singson said.
Another aspect to Marcos’ popularity is his approachability, Singson added, describing him as being “hands-on” when it comes to helping address local issues and attributing that trait to his political experience.
“Kasi ang importante sa mga tumatakbong presidente, kailangan local sila para maintindihan ng taumbayan,” Singson said.
“Talagang malalapitan. Unlike others na pagka nasa opisina na, di mo na malapitan.”
Mantle of change
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, political analyst Tony La Viña, a former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said the main reason for Marcos’ popularity can be traced to what his campaign has succeeded in projecting relative to the other candidates.
“S’yempre may combination naman of factors. But, for me, this is not about even Marcos [historical] revisionism winning, di ba?” La Viña said. “It’s the failure of the other campaigns to articulate a better future under them than under Marcos.”
“This is not about whether they offer a better future or not,” he added. “It's about the people perceiving them to offer a better future.”
For La Viña, Marcos has successfully gained the reputation of being a man who can change the Philippines, just like Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III in 2010, Joseph Estrada in 1998, and actor Fernando Poe Jr. when he nearly beat President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004.
“Lahat ng mga successful presidential candidates na ’yan, basically they came in and said, ‘We will change the Philippines for the better’,” La Viña said. “And si Bongbong Marcos has done a good job, whether it’s true or not, of being perceived like that.”
La Viña added that Marcos’ popularity is also due to his “Solid North” followers plus Duterte supporters.
“Hindi ito rocket science. It’s really just a combination of two groups of voters. Marcos voters and Duterte voters are together in one vote right now,” he said.
“Kung tanggalin mo kahit half ng Duterte supporters from Marcos, ang maiiwan nalang kay Marcos 25 (percent plus) 12, (equals) 37-38 (percent).”
La Viña said part of Marcos' success has been the whitewashing of the Marcoses’ past.
“Through social media, through revisionism of the Marcos legacy, through just constant positive news about him in circles. In limited circles, micro-targeted groups of people have really bypassed the anti-Marcos ecosystem,” he said. “The anti-Marcos ecosystem did not see this coming.”
And the core of this problem, he said, is that people choose what they like to follow on social media, which allows the pro-Marcos community to grow even bigger.
La Viña also said the country's electoral politics is also too personality-oriented, with voters asking these questions when assessing who to vote for:
- Do I like them?
- Are they nice?
- Kilala ko ba siya? (Do I know them?)
- Ngumingiti ba siya? (Do they smile?)
- Nakaka-aliw ba siya? (Are they entertaining?)
“Generally, it’s just too subjective,” La Viña said. “So if you ask me, the reason why we’re at this stage is because our politics is so personal. It is personality-based, it’s so family-based. It’s so subjective, it’s very difficult to use objective criteria to make a decision.”
He said voters should instead be asking questions such as: “Is this good for the country?” “Is their platform good?” “Do they have good ideas?”, all of which are not easy to answer.
“And so hanggang gano’n, ’yung politics natin, you will always have a Marcos, a Duterte,” La Viña said. “I mean even, you know, even for example President [Noynoy] Aquino, he won not because of himself, but because of his mother [Cory] who had just died.”
High reach, low-key
The approachability Singson cited as one of Marcos’ qualities may have been fostered in part by the candidate’s massive online presence, specifically through his vlogs on YouTube, according to a marketing analyst.
As of January 31, the Bongbong Marcos YouTube channel had about 1.8 million subscribers and it has had a total 83,197,298 views since it was created on November 11, 2009.
For Steve Michael Medina Moore Jr., marketing expert and admissions external relations head at De La Salle College of Saint Benilde, Marcos’ vlogs have played a part in endearing him to Filipinos as a “normal guy” who enjoys the same things they do.
“Kung titignan mo ’yung mga vlogs niya, kung mapapanood mo, may mga times wala siyang pinag-uusapan. Hindi niya dinidiscuss ’yung about platforms niya. Sometimes, he's talking about the usual things na isang normal na tao na ginagawa, ’yung mga nakikita natin sa mga vlogs,” Moore said.
“There’s no politics involved, OK? It’s just light. It’s very normal, it’s very light and somehow we can relate to that. Na someone like him, a Bongbong Marcos, kilala sa pulitika, kilala sa buong Pilipinas, normal din pala at gano’n ang mga ginagawa.”
Moore raised as an example a vlog he watched where Marcos talked with his son, Sandro.
“They’re talking about the food that they’re eating, and these are the usual content na ginagawa din ng mga influencers,” Moore said. “Nafe-feel mo na parang he doesn't want to talk about politics; he’s just a normal guy like us, di ba?”
Moore said part of the appeal of his common-folk vlogs is because Filipinos have grown tired of what they normally see in advertisements made by other politicians.
“Like, for example, a politician tumutulong sa mahirap doon sa picture, sa visuals, an official promising na there will be progress and yun yung kanyang platform, something like that,” he said. “I think they’re tired of it. I think people right now are very mature in the sense na alam nila kung it's just an advertisement na para ipromote lang ’yun. Kasi nga ano na siya eh, gasgas na siya.”
Yet, this “normal” image seems to not preclude an air of mystery forming around Marcos, despite his past. Moore said all that the public usually hears about Marcos are the accusations leveled against his family, such as their supposed ill-gotten wealth, but nothing much about the man himself.
“Si Leni [Robredo] visible din kasi nga vice president di ba and the vice president is doing a lot of projects, no? Si Senator [Panfilo] Lacson nakikita mo din siya every day. Nakikita mo siya sa mga hearings. But when you look at Bongbong Marcos, parang limited, eh,” Moore said.
And since the public had no idea of Marcos’ own personal side, Moore said the former senator’s team seems to have used this to their advantage. He explained that Marcos was feeding the public the perception that he was the “ideal” candidate, while still maintaining a level of mystery that his rivals do not have.
Despite Marcos’ past and the criticisms leveled against him now, Moore said that based on how the former senator has been performing in surveys, his team has successfully “repackaged” him in the eyes of the public.
He also cited Marcos’ decision to be “low key” in his presidential campaign relative to the others.
Aside from refusing to engage in negative campaigning, Moore noted that Marcos’ advertising has been minimal compared to other candidates. Though he also espouses content similar to his rivals, such as talking about changing the country or making the country grow, those ads have been relatively few and far between.
“Kung titignan mo, ’yung kay Leni ang dami eh, ang dami niyang advertisements. Same goes with Isko, di ba? Halos kung titignan mo, si Leni and si [Manila Mayor] Isko [Moreno] sila ’yung maraming advertisements,” Moore said.
A report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism showed that Robredo spent P14.1 million on Facebook between August 4, 2020 and December 31, 2021. Marcos, meanwhile, did not record any ad spending on Facebook during that period.
“But I think he’s also exploring other platforms. Katulad ng vlog. ’Yung vlog, napaka-powerful nu’n. Kung titignan mo ’yung engagements ni Bongbong na mataas and consistent siya,” Moore said. “Please take note that he’s been doing this before pa siya mag-announce ng kanyang presidency. Matagal na ’yun.”
‘Generic, but well thought-out campaign’
Marcos’ lead in early election surveys shows that whatever the former senator’s team is doing, it’s bringing him results. Dr. Francis Lawrence De Jesus, chair of the University of Santo Tomas’ Department of Marketing Management, said this could be the hallmark of a well thought-out plan that was laid out long before anyone else planned to run in the elections.
“His current political marketing path has been clearly defined, well thought of, and has been in the works before everyone else. I don’t have the data to support that, but that’s how the outcomes are looking,” De Jesus said.
Bongbong the messiah?
For Jayeel Cornelio, director of Ateneo De Manila University's Development Studies Program, Marcos has packaged himself to Filipinos not only as a man who can bring great change to the country, but as a messiah.
“He is a messiah, because the original messiah was murdered, was crucified. And now you’ve got a new messiah who's coming back to life and he's going to complete everything that the first messiah failed to do,” Cornelio said.
The sociologist said this fits into a Christian narrative familiar to Filipinos, which is also helped by Marcos’ association with his father's era.
“In a nutshell, he is going to bring us back to the good old days that his father once led the Philippines in, the golden age,” Cornelio said when asked what Filipinos see in the younger Marcos.
According to Cornelio, the so-called “golden age” Marcos promises is a fantasy that is not historically valid. But fantasies need not be historically accurate, they only need to offer people hope.
“This is the most opportune time really to deliver a message of hope,” Cornelio said. “Precisely because of the pandemic. That’s [the] one. Yun yung short-term, the pandemic na parang yeah, bumangon tayo muli.”
“Pangalawa, ’yung kanyang message of national unity, national healing. This has been their message for so many years even when he was running for vice president, and even when he was still rising to stardom, so to speak.”
That “national healing” is to move on from the alleged abuses committed during the martial law era and the political rift between the Marcoses and the Aquinos. Cornelio said Filipinos have grown tired of the dichotomy, which he said began in the latter term of Aquino III.
“He (Marcos) capitalized on the negative sentiment or antagonism towards the [PNoy] Aquino administration. It’s a disappointment,” Cornelio said.
“And then of course pasukan mo pa ’yan ng disinformation, right? ‘Buti pa panahon ng tatay namin, noong panahon ni Marcos.’ Is it true? No, it’s fantasy. But that’s what fantasies do. They seduce us. And that fantasy became even more seductive and we’re seeing its culmination in 2022.”
When asked what the younger Marcos’ popularity means for Philippine society, Cornelio said it shows that the country is in need of hope that people have become so tired of divisions in society and the fighting among the elite that they would fall for anybody who promises unity.
“It might be meaningless for us because we’re looking for content and substance, but it matters to a lot of people for whom that fantasy works. And the fantasy of the glorious past can only work if you are disappointed with the present,” he said.
And because of this thirst for hope, Cornelio said Marcos supporters can’t be blamed for rallying behind the presidential candidate.
“Do I penalize people for believing in Bongbong Marcos? No, kasi they’re believing in hope, eh,” he said.
Cornelio added it was up to Marcos’ rivals to offer Filipinos a more compelling vision of the future.
If there are any threats to Marcos’ popularity, the disqualification cases against him at the Commission on Elections (Comelec) are not among them, according to Singson.
“Sa palagay mo, the worst aandar,” he said. “Ang system natin, you have to go to the court again, pagkatapos ’yan ng ilang taon, sa Court of Appeals. After Court of Appeals, Supreme Court. O maski saan ka matalo diyan, you can ask for motion for reconsideration sa lower court, motion for reconsideration sa Supreme Court. In short, aabutin ng siyam-siyam ’yan if ever na may kaso.”
For La Viña, Marcos’ potential disqualification may even strengthen his campaign. According to him, the real threat to Marcos is President Rodrigo Duterte, especially if the outgoing chief executive decides to actively campaign against Marcos.
Singson, however, is not losing hope that the “misunderstandings” between Duterte and Marcos would be cleared up in due time.
“Umaasa pa din kami na sa bandang huli, maiintindihan niya pa rin lahat ’yan, dahil tatay pa rin siya ni Mayor Inday Sara,” he said.
Both Singson and La Viña pointed out that even with Duterte’s possible active opposition to Marcos, Marcos could still win the elections.
“Siguro, the worst is hindi na siya (Marcos) magiging majority president,” Singson said.
As for La Viña: “Winnable pa rin ’yun, ah, pwede pa siyang manalo. But close na [ang laban].”
For Moore, Marcos’ camp has to avoid communication lapses such as the time, he did not appear at a Comelec hearing in one of his disqualification cases.
“Even though you’re leading, if you can widen your lead, widen your popularity, bakit hindi? And it has something to do with the communications team. So you try to avoid those simple boo-boos,” Moore said.
Another factor to consider is that people’s needs tend to change. Moore brought up as an example a possible scenario where the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse before the elections.
“Kung titignan mo, ’yung ginagawa ni Isko right now di ba? ‘I can manage this.’ Kasi look at Manila right now, especially the last 2 weeks,” he said.
“People can see that 'Uy, si Isko nagagawa niya ito’. Mga ganyan. So things might change, [there] may be a turnaround.”
De Jesus said voter preferences can still change in the next 3 months. He said people can be affected by incidents such as Marcos skipping an interview with GMA broadcast journalist Jessica Soho, whom Marcos alleged was biased against his family.
“He’s in a strong position, but the game hasn’t even started yet. The transactions haven’t been dealt with yet, and his strong position right now can easily be changed in the next few months,” De Jesus said in an interview with ABS-CBN prior to the start of the national election campaign period.
“His political journey may experience, or is already experiencing a decline. The question is, will he be able to sustain this particularly strong position all the way until May?”
Far from predictive
Pulse Asia President Ronald Holmes said the December 2021 survey was “far from predictive” of what would be the actual results of the 2022 elections, and that changes in the “voting disposition of the public” should be expected depending on what happens in the election campaign.
History has also shown that those who top early election surveys do not necessarily come out as the winner of the actual polls. For instance, In the Social Weather Stations’ December 2015 presidential survey, then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was the fourth most preferred presidential candidate at 20 percent. Both Senator Grace Poe and then-Vice President Jejomar Binay had shared the top spot, with each of them having 26 percent voter preference.
Marcos is off to a good start in his presidential campaign, but there are still 3 months before Filipinos go to the polls, and between then and now, anything can still happen.