Opinion surveys and voting-preference polls: The big difference

by Rigoberto Tiglao on October 17, 2014

I’ve been a big critic of opinion surveys, especially when newspapers report them as banner headlines—a practice not just done anywhere else in the world.

The reason is that while opinion polls are legitimate research tools, to mystify their findings as “the voice of the people” or as representing objective truth is to utterly misunderstand what they are.

For instance, a poll of 35,000 Americans that showed that 68 percent of them believed that “angels and devils are active in the world” doesn’t in any way mean that such creatures exist. A billion people saying they exist can’t make them exist—just as that number of humans in medieval times believed that the world was flat, even if it was a globe.seven out of 10 Americans believe in such creatures simply means that American culture – Sunday catechism classes, fairy tales, even movies – has ingrained such strong belief in fantastical creatures in them.

As a toddler you were told you had a guardian angel so you wouldn’t have to wake your mom in the middle of the night; as a student in a Catholic school you were taught that devils were fallen angels; and as an adult you got engrossed in such blockbuster movies as “City of Angels” or “Constantine.” Now, when the pollster comes along to ask you if you believe in angels, what do you think you would say?

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Percent of Filipinos voting for Binay and Roxas, Philippines and per major region, based on Sept. 7-11 interviews of 1,200 respondents, Laylo and Associates

Opinion polls merely quantify people’s current views — false or not, utterly fantastical or not — on issues, or, on their choice consumer products, as these have been formed by culture and media. People do not get their ideas about issues from thin air, as European scholars like Jurgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu have expounded.

In modern mass society, people get their ideas on issues almost solely, after childhood, formal education, and peer-group talk, from media. This is especially in countries where poverty bars the majority from getting accurate information and even having the intellectual tools for rational evaluation of an issue.

Nowhere are opinion polls so abused as in the Philippines. It has even been weaponized and used with lethal force several times by this Administration.

The trick

I wrote the following on January 12, 2012 — more than two years ago — in my column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer when I was still with there.

“This trick of using polls by President Aquino’s propagandists involves the following steps.

First, publicize an allegation by a cooperative journalist or by an ally in Congress about an issue, get Congress to investigate the allegation, have a subservient press run it as banner stories for consecutive days, with “outraged” opinion writers rousing people’s passions.

Second, undertake a poll on the issue, when people have just been barraged in the press by the allegations. Voila! The poll findings that so and so is corrupt, the result of the press barrage in step one, are proclaimed as “public opinion.”

Third step: Publicize the poll widely, so that the bandwagon effect comes into play.

I gave as examples in that column this Administration’s campaigns against former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes (who tragically couldn’t take the assault and committed suicide), former Ombudsman Merceditas Guitierez, and Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Remember newspapers, a TV network, and a news website’s screaming headlines a month before the Senate decision? SWS: “Anxious Pinoys want Corona convicted” (Rappler); “SWS survey: 73% want guilty verdict for CJ,” (ABS-CBN): “73% prefer Corona conviction, says latest SWS Survey (Inquirer).”

The pattern I wrote about two years ago is certainly familiar, isn’t it?

It is the same modus operandi of this Administration in its successful project to put the three opposition leaders – Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla – to jail.

It is obviously using the same set of weapons – media “exposes,” Senate investigation, and opinion surveys – to torpedo Binay’s bid for the presidency in 2016. “Lumang style bulok,” as street lingo would describe scams.

Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations’ polls so far — involving the fall in Binay’s trust ratings – are just the preliminary barrages, as Aquino’s operators are still evaluating if Senator Antonio Trillanes’ demolition job was successful.

After a few more Senate hearings, expect Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations –non-profit firms, by the way — to publish surveys on how many Filipinos believe that Binay has a vast hidden wealth, and that he is a crook.

Voter-preference polls
However, there is one particular poll that has much legitimacy: Voter-preference polls. In fact, opinion polls originated in the US in the late 19th century as “straw polls,” a dry-run of sorts of an election in which a group of people cast their ballots for candidates in an unofficial and non-binding manner.

Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper in the 1900s then adopted statistical techniques such as sampling to make voter-preference polling a regular feature in US politics, as a means for candidates to adjust their campaign tacks. Only much later would polling be used to quantify people’s opinions on any subject under the sun.

It is a bit ironic that in the Philippine setting, it was the dictatorship that started the practice of opinion polling, since without a free press, the strongman Ferdinand Marcos didn’t have any instrument in measuring what people thought of his “reforms” and his authoritarian rule.

These first opinion polls in the country were undertaken by Mahar Mangahas (of SWS fame, of course) and Jose “Pepe” Miranda, who, after a spat with Mangahas, broke away to form Pulse Asia. Both ran their polls in the “Social Indicators Project” of the Development Academy of the Philippines in the second half of the 1970s to 1981. But these were confidential, with an intelligence colonel at the DAP personally bringing Mangahas and Miranda’s findings straight from their offices to Marcos’ study room in Malacanang.

There is a huge difference, though, between opinion polls and voter-preference surveys, as professional pollsters would know.

Ask somebody’s opinion if he prefers Coke or Pepsi, Colgate or Close Up and he tells you his choice with ease, even in a cavalier manner. If he were hooked up to a polygraph, there wouldn’t be much change in his physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, breathing and skin conductivity. It’s the same, really, if you ask him if he trusts Aquino or this government official. Or not.

But ask him whom he will vote for mayor or President, and he spends more time thinking about the question, and a polygraph would show significant changes in his indices. This is because it takes him some effort to respond to what is really a “straw vote,” and he takes seriously the fact that no matter his station in life, he has just one vote.

Psychic commitment
Believe it or not, Filipinos take that vote quite seriously – whether it is their psychic way of getting back at this leader they hate for their unimproved quality of life, or if they feel that it is their responsibility who their leader in the next three or six years should be.

Voter-preference polls, in effect, require a “psychic commitment” on the part of the respondent, which mere opinion polls do not. Voter-preference polls correspond to a particular action a respondent will do in the future, which is to cast his vote. An opinion on something, on the other hand, corresponds to no such action. To use a concept in philosophy, voter-preference polls have an intentionality which opinion polls do not have and which often represents a respondent’s idle thoughts, as permanent as will o’ the wisp.

This is the reason why pre-election polls – except, of course, for the epic fiasco of a poll predicting Thomas Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in 1948 – have been so accurate in forecasting actual winners. This is the reason why former President Arroyo had very low trust ratings in 2004, but was consistently the winner in voter-preference polls in the months leading to the May elections.

That is the reason why I chose the voter-preference poll made by low-profile but brilliant pollster Pedro Laylo to accompany this column.

Third of a three-part series

I’m referring to the contract signed by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) with a Chinese firm in June to buy 48 light-rail train cars for the decrepit Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3) worth P3.9 billion.

It’s certainly a bit ironic: A state-owned company of a country, which President Aquino has called a bully in claiming our territory, has bagged not only a huge procurement government contract under his watch, but a strategic one involving the safety of our main metropolitan mass transit system, the MRT-3.

Maybe it’s so stupid of us as a nation, but so brazen – and arrogant that they believed they could get away with it – for the DOTC officials to have done so. Consider the facts:

The Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Joseph Rychtar alleged in April last year that the DOTC’s MRT-3 general manager Al Vitangcol 3rd asked $30 million (P1.3 billion), in bribes for the Czech firm Inekon Group to be given the contract to supply 52 new light-rail vehicles (LRVs, or the train cars) for the mass transit system. Rychtar alleged Vitangcol was extorting the money for a group that included personalities closely linked with the Liberal Party.

This occurred, he claimed, in July 2012. That was when the DOTC was still headed by Mar Roxas. It is not known whether Roxas’ transfer just a month later to the interior and local government department was related to the bribery attempt.

mrt20141015

Let’s buy Made-in-China trains instead? MRT-3 train derailed last August. Inset below, MRT-3 general manager Vitangcol whom the Czech ambassador accused as attempting a $30 million extortion when Roxas, above, was DOTC secretary.

 

(The reason why Inekon, the fourth largest supplier of LRVs in the world, was keen on the contract is that it had pirated train engineers from CKD Tatra, which was the original supplier of MRT-3 trains, and therefore was confident it could build the right trains and within schedule. CKD Tatra had gone bankrupt in the early 2000s and was sold to a German engineering firm.)

A political earthquake
As an ambassador for five years (to Greece and Cyprus), I can say without a doubt that such an accusation of high-level corruption by an envoy against officials of the host government is a political earthquake. In countries complying with the rule of law and with an independent press, that would have required the host government dropping everything to get to the bottom of such serious allegations. If we only had a fiercely independent press that was not under Aquino’s influence, I’m sure this government would have already been toppled in the wake of such scandal.

What makes the ambassador’s allegation credible, that it could have involved the highest levels of this government, is that funding for the contract was made available at that time, unknown to most people, but told to the Czechs.

This was because Budget Secretary Florencio Abad had, at that time, hijacked the Congress-approved budget through his scheme that was euphemistically termed the “Disbursement Acceleration Plan.” Through the DAP, which was exposed only last year, Abad issued on the last day of the year (Dec. 28, 2011) what was called a “Notice of Cash Allotment” (NCA-BMB-A-11-0023872) to the DOTC.

The NCA informed the DOTC that P4.5 billion was already in the Land Bank of the Philippines for the department to use for the “capacity expansion of MRT3,” which meant money was available for the purchase of new trains to add to its 50 odd cars in service.

I was told that the Czech ambassador had been told that if Inekon agreed to the “arrangement” for the payment of $30 million, the contract would be awarded in a few days’ time and payment for the contract made right after that.

Sorry I have to use that worn-out cliché: Only in the Philippines. After the extortion attempt was exposed by the Manila Times’ chairman emeritus Dante Ang Sr. on June 2013, DOTC Secretary Emilio Abaya matter-of-factly vouched for his official, while presidential spokespersons muttered their overused “we-will-investigate” replies.

Suspended a year later
Vitangcol would even remain in his post, and was suspended only a year later for involvement in another allegation of corruption – one of his relatives and his friends were part of the firm that got the P600-million maintenance contract for MRT-3.

In his statement submitted in May to a committee of Congress investigating the allegations, Rychtar said: “I, as the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, confirm that an extortion attempt took place in July 2012, followed by other suspicious circumstances, which led to a questionable bidding process in March 2013.”

He added: “I wish to inform you… that the Czech company Inekon Group was, of course, not blacklisted officially by the DOTC, but we did receive the informal information that our proposal would not be entertained, which was manifested by the fact that our letters to DOTC (asking about how to participate in the bidding) were unanswered.”

The bidding the Czech ambassador was referring to actually was done on June 11, 2013, which, unlike most government biddings, was not open to media. DOTC spokesman Michael Sagcal would only reveal the results of the bidding after it has taken place:

“Two Chinese companies participated in the bidding, Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co. CNR Group and CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co. Ltd.”

“CSR Zhuzhou was declared ineligible by the DOTC’s Bids and Awards Committee due to its failure to submit a certificate of reciprocity and to comply with a technical requirement. As a result, its financial proposal was no longer opened,” the spokesman said.

What a charade.

The “CNR” in the CNR Group, of which Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Company is a member firm, stands for China North Railway, while the CSR in CSR Group Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co. Ltd is an acronym for China South Railway.

If their names seem the same except for the “North” and “South” adjectives, it is because both were formed in the 2000 and 2002 period out of the mammoth “China National Railway Locomotive & Rolling Stock Industry Corporation,” the monopoly in train service in the country. As with the original mother company, the two firms are both state-owned enterprises supervised by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, and likely under a single commissar.

In short, the two bidders were two firms owned by the same entity, China, and the DOTC claims there was a proper bidding?

Given our quarrel with China, shouldn’t we be realistic and worry that if our relations get worse with that superpower, it may decide to chuck unilaterally that deal, give some convoluted excuse for doing so, then watch the MRT-3 collapse with its decrepit trains, and gloat at the resulting political chaos here? Have the DOTC officials compromised our national security?

LRV manufacturers
There has been a boom in light-rail mass transit systems in the world because of environmental concerns and the US’ recent rush to adopt the technology. Hence, there are more than a dozen LRV manufacturers today. The four firms that have the biggest shares are Germany’s Siemens (which bought CKD Tatra, the company that manufactured the first MRT-3 trains), the Japanese Kinki Sharyo, the American United Streetcar, and the Czech Inekon. Other LRV manufacturers are the Canadian Bombardier Transportation, the Austrian Lohner-Werke, the Swiss Stadler Rail, the German Duewag, and CAF USA.

None of these firms, if we are to believe the DOTC, were interested in supplying MRT-3 with their LRVs? Only the Chinese Dalian, which hasn’t manufactured the kind of LRVs needed by MRT-3, showed an interest?

And why this Chinese firm, which on its website itself says that the MRT-3 deal is the first contract it has obtained to build such type of LRVs? It even noted that the LRVs will operate in extreme conditions, “close to the equator, where the monthly maximum temperatures are above 30 degrees, the air humidity and salt content high, and with a complex weather with typhoons and rainstorms.”

And when will the Chinese deliver its 48 trains? “The first train is scheduled for delivery in 18 months,” its website reported in June. That means we will see a prototype only at the end of next year. Delivery of the trains is likely to happen after Aquino steps down from office and bunkers down in Hacienda Luisita.

Why aren’t we outraged that the DOTC, manned by Aquino’s officials, are taking us for fools?

DOTC officials are accused by a reputable Czech firm Inekon of trying to extort money for the contract to supply MRT-3’s new trains. The DOTC undertakes, less than a year later, a bidding Inekon did not, or could not participate in. A Chinese firm with no experience in LRV manufacturing “wins” in a bidding participated in by its sister company.

And there is nothing fishy in that?

What we should all be livid over is this:

If the Czech envoy’s accusations are proven right, that means Aquino’s officials had delayed the procurement of new trains—which would have made MRT-3 safer and reliable, and reduced commuters’ waiting time—in order to make money for themselves and more likely for the Liberal Party, and I would suspect also for this President. That’s the worst kind of corruption. Even our national security has been compromised.

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