Surveys and public opinion

Published February 11, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

The results of recent surveys have elicited mixed reactions from political observers. Depending on which side of the political fence one sits, the surveys either validate the popularity of the incumbent or are products of flawed methodology or worse, manipulation.

Pollsters themselves have cautioned that surveys are “snapshots” of the public’s sentiment at a certain period of time. They are tools for measuring sentiments, and sentiments can and do change.

I am rather certain that if a survey is taken today, the administration will fair poorly for the indecision, perception of absent leadership, and the gaffes in its management of the novel coronavirus 2019 (nCov 2019) crisis and the Taal volcano eruption. If public sentiment about government’s failure to implement the full rehabilitation of towns destroyed by typhoon Yolanda — as well as the more recent Marawi siege — would be gauged, a poor to failing grade would not be surprising.

Recall that at the height of the rice crisis, the leadership’s trust and performance numbers took a nose dive, reflecting public anxiety and disapproval. Officials scrambled to initiate measures to address the crisis, adopting major policy reforms, such as removing rice import limitation that they had once opposed. This is perhaps one example where pubic opinion as expressed through the surveys had a positive effect on governance and policy.

But to lead, more so to govern, based purely on survey results is pure folly. It exposes a lack of core principles and the grit to stand by these principles in the face of contrary public opinion.

Those who strongly believe in surveys defend its methodology and credibility. It has to be admitted, however, that in the hands of spin masters, survey results can be gamed. Given advanced information on fieldwork dates, propagandists unveil statements, programs and events intended to resonate with the target market. Often, surveys are commissioned by interest groups not for the purpose of gauging public opinion but to serve as a propaganda tool. Positive results are then squeezed for every ounce of publicity mileage, especially if a national figure needs to shore up credibility in the face of controversy, or create the perception of political invincibility.

Assuming one finds survey results of trust and performance credible, how does one reconcile the apparent dissonance between the high approval ratings of the national leadership in the midst of record-high self-rated poverty, taken at exactly the same period?

Social scientists offer the view of confirmation bias, which means simply that one rationalizes one’s choice even in the face of contrary evidence.

A clue may also be offered by the author Michiko Kakutani, the former literary editor of the New York Times. In her bestselling book The Death of Truth, the author cites the case of conservative radio host Charlie Sykes. Sykes left his career in the face of hostile reactions from his listeners over his habit of citing news sources to refute false news being peddled online and even by national leaders.  Politics, he says, had become a “binary tribal world” where voters “tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity, and cruelty, because the other side is always worse.”

Is it tolerance that explains the high ratings in the midst of record-high poverty? For some observers, it may mean that the demonization of political opponents has succeeded to a point where the public is willing to forgive – and continues to embrace – the incumbent administration despite its flaws, because the opposition did much worse. Their return to power, a bogeyman raised frequently, would mean a return to the previous regime of oligarchic domination. For some analysts, this is a powerful and compelling narrative. Flawed in the sense that a new set of oligarchs is seen as emergent, but compelling just the same.

Doubts have always persisted over the methodology and transparency – or lack of it – of surveys. The common view is that the results do not reflect one’s opinion. The mistrust is evident, however, only if the survey results do not reflect one’s biases.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the danger is real that some leaders may be blinded by high survey ratings into believing they are infalliable.

They become emboldened to adopt or implement drastic, erratic, and even dangerous policies either to play to the gallery, or further entrench their hold on power.  In the long term, these policies undermine stability, weaken institutions, and even compromise national security.

The unfortunate part is that these leaders employ insights from surveys to manipulate public opinion.

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