Public Opinion Data: Why We Need It and How to Read It

In a bit of news, I’ll plan to take a break from academia starting this summer and will try to turn this Comparativist project into something more professional. My intention is to offer more data and less opinion – or at least provide more data to substantiate and inform opinions. Polling is difficult and expensive to do – especially to do it correctly – so I tested some ideas out a few weeks ago and produced a statistically valid, random sample internet poll in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. What I’ve learned over the past few years is that to do something like this within the confines of academic life would have meant that it would have taken perhaps six months to a year to get an idea like this approved as a grant, and then another year or so before the data is published. The issues would have moved on before I even got through the first stage.

Rather than going straight to the numbers, let me discuss why I think data is important and how we should think about public opinion polling. Part of what inspired me on this path was the lack of high-quality, timely data that showed both (a) that Duterte was likely to win by a very healthy margin, and (b) how Filipinos were responding to Duterte’s extrajudicial killings (EJK), China pivot, and now the Marcos reburial. What does the average Filipino think? Is this what Duterte voters ‘signed up for’? It is hard to know or intuit because of social media bubbles and contradictory anecdotal evidence. We need data to know what is going on the collective Filippino mind.

To the first point, though, I can’t help but entertain counterfactuals of how the 2016 Philippine election would have been shaped had polls more clearly seen both how quickly Duterte was rising last spring and how much of what I would call the ‘normcore’ vote was going to be split equally between Mar Roxas and Grace Poe. Given the unique threat that Duterte posed to the country, might Roxas or Poe have been convinced to drop out and whole-heartedly endorse the other? Might more Filipinos have voted, or strategically voted for the least worst candidate with the best numbers, had a Duterte win been more obvious? Did bad data blindside the Roxas campaign?

To the second set of questions, though, let’s examine how we should interpret high quality, publicly-available Philippine polling data and how it could empower civil society were it available. First, misinterpreted data can be worse than having no data. Opinion polls cited in the media speak of approval ratings as high as 86%. Those who have looked at the data know that Philippine presidents usually enjoy a ‘honeymoon period’ like this. Crucially, though, it would be over-reading the data to assume that 86% of Filipinos have fallen in lock-step behind Duterte immediately after 61% of voters voted for someone else. These approval ratings can give foreign governments, lawmakers, and Philippine society an incorrect appraisal that Duterte’s moves are less controversial than they are.

Second, we should examine how civil society and power-brokers should use data to inform their actions. At one extreme, majority opinions can not, and should not, be used to justify lawlessness and injustice. Opinion polling on the “Jewish Problem” in pre-War Germany could in no way given a democratic veneer to the ‘Final Solution.’ If a majority of Filipinos to approve of EJK, we would only learn that the country has a serious problem with civic education. Majority support for EJK in no way legitimizes executing thousands of people without a trial in a place that forbids capital punishment.

The Marcos reburial and China pivot, however, are in a different category. Neither move broke any particular law that I know of. The Philippines is free to choose its foreign policy and remember the past as it wishes. American diplomats and Filipino lawmakers should take stock of public opinion were a poll to discover that a significant majority of Filipinos to oppose the new US basing agreements and joint military exercises. Because lawmakers are representatives, not delegates, they are free to ignore this data (at risk of losing future elections).

I say “significant majority” because things that are extremely controversial or sharply break with norms should have more than 50% +1 support. The critical weakness of the Brexit vote, for instance, was that insufficient thought was given to what the threshold margin should be to trigger an action that could plunge the country into economic and political uncertainty. There’s a reason why it takes only a plurality to win an office but a super-majority to remove them.

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