From overachieving mayor to election laggard, what went wrong with Isko Moreno?

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 15 2022 01:24 AM | Updated as of May 16 2022 03:24 AM

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Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso is set to return to his life as a private citizen in July after losing his presidential bid in the 2022 national elections. Photo from Isko Moreno Domagoso's Facebook Page

MANILA - If the quest to become the 17th president of the Philippines was a war, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso started his campaign with a full arsenal.

He has an inspiring Cinderella man life story, the charisma from his years as a matinee idol, a solid portfolio of projects under his first mayoralty term, and millions of social media followers. He had a well-respected aide trusted by other politicians, and a veteran campaign manager known for winning 2 earlier presidential elections.

But after 6 months of wooing voters across the country, Domagoso finished in 4th place with only 1.9 million votes. His campaign faltered and faded after key political endorsements never came, and volunteers and supporters abandoned him. 

"Isko Moreno started on a high note after he won as Manila mayor in 2019," said Joyce Ramirez, an imaging and branding expert for commercial and political clients.

"His official Facebook was very active, posting at least 10-12 updates daily showing action and results," she said.

But running for president after a single mayoralty term "was a mistake from the get go," she added.

"All these earlier successes may have gone to his head because of his successful 'prototype' aka his record of success in the City of Manila."

While the Aksyon Demokratiko standard bearer is known for giving the capital city a facelift, Moreno or Domagoso has yet to become "a strong political brand name" in the Philippines, Ramirez said.

"Like it or not, political dynasties are very strong in the Philippines. The last name is everything," she said.

Even Domagoso's Senate slate was "too thin" with neophyte candidates who have yet to establish strong recall among voters, she noted.

Domagoso's official Senate ticket was composed of Moro civic leader and former Otso Diretso candidate Samira Gutoc, nurse-teacher-entrepreneur Carl Balita, and TV legal show host Jopet Sison. Former Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones later joined as a guest candidate.

For political analyst Ramon Casiple, while Domagoso's campaign was being steered by Lito Banayo, the veteran campaign strategist who was part of the successful 2016 campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Manila mayor lacked a crucial weapon the former Davao local chief executive had: the support of provincial leaders and alliances.

"He wasn't able to amass a critical political force to successfully undertake a national campaign," Casiple told ABS-CBN News Digital in a text message.

"Different from Duterte, who was able to wield national networks, political alliances, sufficient resources and media capabilities during his run for the presidency," he said.

FAILURE TO CONSOLIDATE POLITICAL FORCES

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Aksyon Demokratiko presidential candidate and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso delivers a speech in Manila as Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan on May 2, 2022. Photo from Isko Moreno Domagoso's Facebook Page

A lot of the senatorial candidates who eventually ranked high in the 2022 elections initially wanted to be a part of Domagoso's slate, but later changed their minds after the Manila mayor demanded that those under his team could not join other tickets even as guest candidates, according to a source who was working for one of those lawmakers, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Guest candidate" is a term in Philippine politics used to describe an aspirant who is endorsed by a presidential contender even though he or she belongs to another ticket. It is a common practice among Filipino politicians who share similar advocacies or would simply want to honor blood relations or close family ties with candidates from a different group.

"Domagoso wanted his senatorial candidates to exclusively endorse him as president," the source said.

"At first, it seemed to be a noble cause. But a lot of big names were discouraged to join his team after he waived this condition when President Duterte declared his intention to run for senator."

Several stalwarts from the Liberal Party and other long-time political parties were also in talks with the Manila mayor in the first half of 2021, and were even helping him prepare for his presidential run, said a source privy to those meetings.

Aside from Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto and former Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice, other political giants who were ready to back Domagoso withdrew their support after the resignation of Cesar Chavez, the mayor's long-time chief of staff, the source said.

"Some key members of the Liberal Party and some officials from other parties were coordinating with Domagoso through Chavez," the source said. 

At least two governors who were ready to support Domagoso were also "offended" by the way Banayo's political group handled the negotiations, a close aide of a governor from the Visayas told ABS-CBN News Digital in a phone interview.

"The coordination with the governor was done in such a manner that offended the governor because it seemed that they were bossing the governor around," the aide said.

"Mayroong isang event sa isang province na pupunta si Isko, para bang pinasasagot nila sa governor [yung event]. Sabi noong governor, para bang inuutos lang sa kaniya," the source said.

"It would have been better if they gave the governors room to host them instead of seemingly forcing their way... It wasn't Isko's fault, but his campaign suffered from it."

DISGRUNTLED FOOT SOLDIERS

It wasn't only a cavalry of governors who turned their backs on Domagoso, but also several volunteers - election foot soldiers - who were supposedly dissatisfied with the way they were being treated by the so-called "inner campaign circle."

After Chavez left, "we could not penetrate the campaign team," said a source who used to head a volunteer group for Domagoso.

"Para kaming nasa labas ng bakuran... Simpleng kung kailan pupunta si Isko sa isang lugar, hindi sa amin sinasabi agad," the source said.

"The clique of the campaign manager and his immediate generals made it something like kami dito, diyan lang kayo," the source said.

"Magsasabi ka na, 'May tao kami diyan, puwede kaming tumulong.' Ang isasagot sa iyo, 'It’s being taken care of,'" the source added.

"Half a million na volunteers, nakatengga."

When several volunteers asked for additional posters to mount in their barangays, Domagoso's campaign team declined to give provisions, the leader said.

"Hindi daw namin kailangan dahil tatanggalin lang daw... Pero kahit pinakasikat na kandidato, gumagamit pa din niyan (posters) because that is the way of consolidating your mass base," he said.

"May grupo na they can offer their time and everything, but they are dirt poor so you have to support them somehow," the source said.

Domagoso's campaign team also thumbed down allowance requests for campaign watchers, saying their camp would instead rely on the volunteers of allied local candidates.

"Parang iaasa sa iba ang mga watchers, sa mga posibleng kandidatong makatulong. Pero knowing na maliit ang grupo mo, hindi naman malawak ang Aksyon, paano ka dedepende sa mga supposedly alyado mo?" the source said.

"Hindi ganoon ang totoong labanan. There are no free lunches unless 'yung mga sobrang fanatic," he said, noting that there are some 85,000 clustered precincts that had to be covered.

"Kung naging tapat lang na, 'Gagastos tayo ng hundreds of millions at wala tayo niyan. Ano ba tingin ninyo? Baka naman...', then our hearts could have softened na talagang wala, gawan natin ng paraan."

"The idea of wanting to win and doing things to win are two different things. We cannot be hopeless romantics because election is science, perception and logistics."

By the tail end of the campaign, several volunteers switched their support from Domagoso to Vice President Leni Robredo, but the Aksyon Demokratiko standard bearer's camp downplayed the exodus, saying the group was only a small faction.

The source from the volunteers' camp blamed a lack of close communication between their ranks, as well as with the main campaign team for the disarray within Domagoso's base.

"Before, sobrang warm. Hindi mo mafi-feel na second-class citizen kayo at latecomers. Walang ganoon," the source said.

"During Cesar Chavez’s time, okay kami kasi we talk... Nakakakita kami ng, 'Ito tayo, ito ang laro natin'. Ito [ngayon without Chavez] hirap na hirap kami."

"Biglang suddenly, naging stiff na. Watch your move, don't say bad words against the powers that be," the source added, without identifying any campaign official.

"What makes me uncomfortable is ito ba 'yung magiging sirkulo niya (Domagoso) sa Palasyo? May problema ako doon."

"Kung ngayon pa lang na low numbers ganiyan na 'yung attitude, they have the gall to say na, 'Tayo mananalo and forget about those small groups of people,' paano ito?"

Aside from Chavez, there were also other departures from Domagoso's camp, said Ramirez.

"His advertising think-tank also abandoned him for another candidate," said the publicist, referring to the agency behind the "Ako Si Isko" campaign.

"That already speaks volumes: His inner circle is in disarray... You cannot win as President if the candidate has a very disorganized team," she said. 

"I don't think there was an external reason for his downfall... [It was] An utter display of implosion."

ABS-CBN News Digital reached out to Banayo and Domagoso for comments, but both have not responded as of posting time.

WHY DID CESAR CHAVEZ LEAVE?

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Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso delivers a statement via a Facebook Live video, while his then-chief of staff Cesar Chavez hovers near by on May 7, 2020. Photo from Cesar Chavez's Facebook page

In his official statement in mid-October, Chavez said he was resigning as Domagoso's chief of staff weeks after the Manila mayor filed his certificate of candidacy.

The long-time aide cited an offer from a radio company to return to his broadcasting career, and also said he wanted to attend to some health issues and family.

That month, Domagoso denied rumors of infighting that led to Chavez's departure, but at least 3 sources privy to discussions within the mayor's camp claimed otherwise.

One of the sources said that Chavez, who enjoyed the trust and confidence of political bigwigs, tendered his irrevocable resignation as Domagoso's chief of staff as early as August 30, 2021 after being eased out of meetings.

"Since Lito's [Banayo] team came in, Cesar was no longer being included in key meetings, including negotiations with Sen. Manny Pacquiao and unity talks with Vice President Leni Robredo," one source said.

"He (Chavez) was being left out and it seemed that he was insulted by that. Who wouldn't be?" another source said in a separate phone interview with ABS-CBN News Digital.

There was one instance when Chavez already convinced a key official from the Visayas-Mindanao area to endorse Domagoso for president, but other campaign team members pushed to forge an alliance with that politician's rival instead, the second source said.

"The rival eventually did not endorse Isko, while Chavez's original choice became one of the first politicians to publicly support Robredo."

"There was an infighting that Cesar Chavez became the casualty of," a third informant, who has also left Domagoso's camp, said.

In a nutshell, Chavez left because there was already a "question of both strategy and interpersonal relationships," the third source said.

"The presidency is not hierarchical. There are power circles that encircle the presidency. These power centers are critical. They make or unmake a president," the source said.

"Kapag bulok ang mga nakapaligid, not to mention, mahina ang discernment ng leader, he or she will be taken for a ride."

Chavez has repeatedly declined to comment on the statements of the three sources.

A friend of Chavez added that Domagoso's long-time aide also advised against the mayor's outburst against Robredo in early October, when the the Aksyon president hurled criticisms against the Vice President for joining the presidential race when she supposedly assured him in earlier talks that she only wants to unify opposition candidates.

"Chavez is a respectable man. He did not agree with that kind of demeanor," the source said.

Domagoso called Robredo a "fake leader with a fake color" and reminded the public of how the opposition's 2019 senatorial slate was "flushed down the toilet" despite the Vice President's endorsement.

Domagoso issued the statements against Robredo after the vice president said unity talks with the Manila mayor bogged down due to his stance on the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos' son and namesake, former Sen. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr., is among Domagoso and Robredo's rivals for the presidency. He is now the presumptive president as unofficial count of votes show he received the highest number of votes.

EASTER SUNDAY PRESS CONFERENCE

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Aksyon Demokratiko presidential candidate Isko Moreno Domagoso attends a joint press conference in Makati on April 17, 2022, where he urged Vice President Leni Robredo to withdraw from the presidential race. Photo from Isko Moreno Domagoso's Facebook Page

Domagoso's tirades delivered during an October 8 press conference in the Mehan Garden in Manila would be the harbinger of a slew of criticisms against Robredo in the coming months.

"When he (Domagoso) went on the attack mode calling the supporters of VP Leni Robredo 'yellowtards,' I think that was the beginning of the end for him," Ramirez said.

"He lost steam very early on. You never insult the Pink supporters as they carry a very large clout on social media. Big mistake," she said.

One of Domagoso's most noteworthy outbursts against Robredo was made during the now infamous Easter Sunday press conference.

Domagoso's camp organized the event at the posh Manila Peninsula in Makati for the Manila mayor and two other presidential candidates to call for clean elections and collectively deny rumors that they would be calling off their presidential bid before the May 9 elections.

But the Aksyon Demokratiko standard bearer surprised everyone - including his own campaign team - by suddenly urging Robredo to withdraw from the presidential race, even though she was the runner-up to Marcos in pre-election surveys.

Domagoso had said that he was just giving the "Kakampinks" a "taste of their own medicine" since they also egged him to withdraw his candidacy as early as October 2021.

"That Sunday press con was a game-changer," veteran campaign strategist Alan German told ANC in an interview in April.

"I don't know what the thinking or the logic behind that Sunday press con was. It affected some candidates - even just the optics - because of the fact that they were going on the mic to say we are the survey laggards but we’re still in the race," he said.

"The overall effect was it left a bad taste in the mouth of so many people."

Domagoso, Sen. Panfilo Lacson and former Defense Sec. Norberto Gonzales - the three presidential candidates who attended the press conference - "were not united in the messaging," German added.

"It caused confusion and discontentment among some of their voters. It made them question the motives of some of these candidates on why they are running," he said.

A day after the Easter Sunday press conference, Lacson clarified that he did not share Domagoso's sentiments, and Gonzales apologized to Robredo.

German said it would seem that "emotions got the better" of Domagoso during that press conference.

"I cannot think of any political campaign strategist or communications strategist who would have advised that press con," German said.

"Number one, he showed his political slip in a manner of speaking, in the way he was very deferential to former Sen. Marcos Jr. and yet very aggressive and adversarial to Vice President Leni," he said.

Days after the incident, Domagoso's vice-presidential candidate Willie Ong also expressed dismay over his principal's call for Robredo to withdraw from the race.

The Manila mayor, however, stood his ground and intensified his attacks, even calling Robredo the "godmother of all bullies."

Political analyst Leo Alejandrino, in his April 5 blog post, "Is there life after the elections?" described Domagoso's stunt in the Easter Sunday press conference as an "an act of frustration from a promising political player who has not scored and is in danger of fouling out."

"The move raised Leni’s popularity a notch," he said.

In Pulse Asia's April 2021 survey, the last pre-election poll before voting day, support for Domagoso plunged across all social classes and geographical areas, leaving him in 4th place behind Marcos, Robredo, and Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

The survey was conducted from April 16 to 21, covering the Easter Sunday press conference held on April 17.

DOMAGOSO WAS COUNTING ON ROBREDO'S BACKING

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Manila City Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso greets Vice President Leni Robredo after the Comelec-organized presidential debate at the Sofitel Tent in Pasay City on March 20, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Aksyon Demokratiko chairman Ernest Ramel Jr. explained Domagoso's resentment against Robredo, noting how the "campaign and the race would have been drastically different if VP Leni Robredo did not throw her hat into the ring."

"She knew early on that she will not be able to give either Marcos nor Duterte a close fight. Her support has a 'cap,'" Ramel told ABS-CBN News Digital in a text message.

"She was the most disliked probable candidate then and that continued up to election day. That's why the 'unity talks' happened," he said.

"Mayor Isko declared for the presidency early knowing fully-well that he will get her backing," he claimed.

A Social Weather Stations survey conducted in October showed Domagoso in third place among preferred presidential aspirants then, after Marcos and Robredo. He was in the same rank in a September survey conducted by Pulse Asia, trailing Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio and Marcos.

A few months leading to the May elections, Domagoso emerged in the Pulse Asia surveys as the most preferred second-choice presidential candidate.

The "sharp decline towards the end" of Domagoso's campaign was due to a play in optics, Ramel said.

"The Robredo campaign made it appear that they are the only viable campaign out there that could defeat Marcos with their show of force in their rallies and the perception they somehow created eroded our campaign," he said.

"Add to that their relentless campaign against Isko right from the day VP Robredo filed her certificate of candidacy, with her hitting Isko by saying that she ran because of his stance against the Marcoses and their campaign's effort to call on #WithdrawIsko," he said.

"They also deliberately made incursions within our ranks to show that there is 'weakening' support for Mayor Isko," he said.

Robredo's camp earlier denied allegations that they were poaching other candidates' supporters, but Aksyon Demokratiko was convinced that the Vice President's machinery was behind rumors that Domagoso had a mansion in Ayala Alabang, owned a Bentley, and accused his family of spending P20 million for a Michael Cinco gown used in his daughter's debut.

The Marcos camp, on the other hand, used Manila mayoral candidate Alex Lopez to cast doubt on why Domagoso sold the Divisoria Market, Ramel alleged.

"Both camps also insinuated that Isko ran for the campaign funds," he said.

"His honesty on declaring the excess funds he got in his 2016 run for senator was used against him, but failing to note that he has donated more than P100 million to different charities and causes from his own pocket," he said.

On the other hand, Robredo supporters "conveniently forgot to account for the VP's own P4.5 million excess [campaign fund] in 2016," he said.

FORMIDABLE ENEMY

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Supporters take photos of Manila Mayor and Halalan 2022 presidential hopeful Isko Moreno Domagoso during a townhall meeting in Marikina on February 23, 2022. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

With Domagoso's campaign armaments spent in skirmishes within his own team and his defense mechanisms focused against Robredo, the Manila mayor could not match Marcos' forces, especially online.

"Even with the leadership of Lito Banayo, I don't think his campaign team was a well-oiled machine," Ramirez said.

"Outside of his official page, his digital support ops to me was lazy and inexperienced. I could immediately tell a group of newbies are behind it," she said.

"Sure there were all these pages that seemed to be actively campaigning for him. Problem is these pages weren't effective nor interesting enough to push for the droves," she said.

Ramel noted that Marcos had been preparing for his 2022 bid for years.

"The Marcos campaign successfully created myths, alternative truths and distorted history for several years. It's well documented and was lapped up by millions of voters," he said.

"The use of vloggers and regional/provincial microvloggers to spread these to the candidate's discipline himself to just shut up, all of these and more immensely contributed to Marcos' successful campaign as well," he said.

De La Salle University political science professor Julio Teehankee earlier described Marcos' electoral win as unprecedented, with his 31 million votes easily dwarfing Robredo's 14.8 million votes, much more Domagoso's 1.9 million.

"Inaasahan ng iba landslide pero ang nakikita natin tsunami... The very first majority president in the post-Marcos period is a Marcos," Teehankee told ANC in an interview on election day.

"Successful yung kanyang rebranding, repositioning . After more than three decades after EDSA, naisip nila paano ba natin baguhin ang imahe ng mga Marcoses sa publiko," he said. 

"The winning formula for Bongbong Marcos was to change the narrative... He had the resources and he had the time," he added.

WRONG TIMING? 

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Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso and his dog "Yorme" peek out his office's window on January 9, 2020 to check on the Kartilya ng Katipunan, one of his landmarks he rehabilitated during his first and so-far lone mayoral term. Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

The right timing may be one of the factors that spelled the difference for the campaign of Marcos and Domagoso, whose "Bilis Kilos" (fast action) campaign seemed to have lagged behind the winner's call for "Unity."

"Alam niya (Marcos) na dadating ang panahon na makakalimutan [yung martial law]. He bided his time," Teehankee said.

On the other hand, Domagoso "was a man in a hurry," several analysts said.

"Isko’s campaign is a mixture of personality politics, social media messaging and local accomplishments none of which individually or collectively add up to a national campaign," Alejandrino said.

"As I suggested, he would have been better served with another two terms as Manila mayor; but he was a man in a hurry," he added. 

Ramirez shared a similar opinion, saying that "the better strategy would have been to stay put in Manila and continue what he has started."

"I think it was too early for him to run for President," she said.

"Stay a few more years. Grow yourself as a mature leader," she added.

Since conceding defeat to Marcos, Domagoso has yet to face reporters who are eager to know what his next plans are after his term as local chief executive ends on June 30, 2022.

Will Domagoso pull a Gen. Arthur MacArthur Jr. and promise that he "shall return" after nursing his political wounds and reorganizing his troops?

The battle-tested mayor seems to now be biding his time before he tells.

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