The growing middle, 2022

ANY candidate that looks only at the peripheries misses out on a huge swath of territory in campaigns, and those are voters in the middle of an array. In the case of the country, there are fringes occupied by the Yellows together with progressives who have formed an alliance for purposes of increasing the shrillness against President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD), and directly at the opposite end are so-called diehard supporters of Duterte, predominantly class D and E from Mindanao and who are veteran voters.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on May 18, 2021.

At the local level, there are those in support of the candidate (base) versus those in support of the opponent (his/her base) and the middle is known as the undecided, those who have not decided. Undecided is very hard to quantify at the national level because of the state of data analytics. The Comelec does not have. Other words used to categorize undecideds, persuadable are swing voters or cross-pressured, but they are not the same as conventional wisdom has often made. The use of wedge issues, micro-targeting to identify these voters are the tools to determine how to persuade voters to shift vote.

Caution has to be taken with “persuadable” voters as “undecided.” Many of the persuadable voters are non-voters or voters from the other political organizations, not necessarily party since party nuances are not clear in the country. “Swing” voters are also not necessarily independents. But, they may be more open to divisive strategies. However, many independents have that status because they are simply uninterested in politics.

The literature provides that “persuadable or cross-pressured individuals are both less informed and less likely to participate in politics.” They are cross-pressured but not persuadable. Such as “they may feel strongly about a single issue, or set of issues, and these issues will align with both their partisanship and vote choice.” Often, these are single-issue voters. Are Filipinos single-issue voters?

There are also cross-pressured voters who are persuadable and can be characterized by their lack of any intense preference for the issues. These individuals will agree on at least one of the major issues of the campaign. These individuals “confess a similar level of issue importance for most if not all issues without feeling more strongly about a subset of issues. The partisan identification of these individuals is likely to be more of a feature of their socialization.” Would candidates know the political socialization of their target voters? Would such socialization be affected by the pandemic?

From the internal numbers of the chief data scientist of PUBLiCUS Asia, Inc, Dr. David Yap, it can be gleaned the three most recent Pahayag surveys (SoNA-August 2020, EoY-December 2020 and Q1-March 2021) suggest the political middle is growing. Table 1a shows the share of respondents that chose the neutral option doubled from the SoNA survey to the EoY survey. It remained at approximately the same level during the Q1 survey suggesting the current watermark for true neutral voters is around the 40 percent mark.

Table 1b folds in the weak positive and weak negative categories into the neutral category. The resulting numbers suggest respondents may be deemed as either neutral or can be converted to neutral increased from 50 percent percent to over 75 percent.

This movement was accompanied by a sharp decrease in the share of pro-administration partisans. Upon considering the Q1 numbers, the share of proadministration partisans appears to have stabilized somewhat around the 15 percent mark. It is worth noting the share of anti-administration partisans appears to have decreased from the SoNA survey to the Q1 survey. This suggests that people are gravitating towards the middle. And this is where psychographics become vital in understanding the middle. Demographics show the trend which is crucial in targeting via digital campaigns.

The middle in terms of age is especially large among the youth at around 80 percent. Pro-administration partisanship is especially low in the youngest age group. By contrast, pro-administration partisanship is relatively higher among those aged 30 to 59 at close to 20 percent. Anti-administration sentiment is relatively low in these age groups. The middle appears to be large across age groups at around 75 percent.

The middle by income class is notably small among the poor and the rich with levels close to two-thirds instead of 75 percent. Pro-administration partisanship is also notably high among the poor at close to 30 percent. Pro-administration partisanship appears to taper with increases in income with the upper income and rich subgroups, registering levels that are closer to 10 percent than the overall average of minus-16 percent. Additionally, anti-administration sentiment increases with income with the upper income and rich subgroups registering double-digit shares for the strong negative category.

The middle is growing even in the bailiwick of PRRD — given seemingly sustained decreases in strong proadministration partisanship and increases in the neutral and persuadable categories. It is worth noting that anti-administration partisanship remains weak. Luzon is 56 percent of voters while the Visayas is 21 percent and Mindanao 23 percent. Two candidates coming from Mindanao for the presidency will break the administration hold in the area and the buoyancy of the approval and trust indices will also be affected going to the end of the Duterte administration.

What do all these numbers, analytics mean? That there are increasing persuadable voters as we hit the filing period in October 2021 and before the start of the campaign in February 2022. As has often been stated, “divisive issues can be important in presidential campaigns — you can take a voter away from the other candidate by appealing to an issue they care about deeply. Evidence shows emphasis on particular issues may influence who votes how and why. Such divisive strategies are increased by the ability to target messages based on information about individuals and fragmentation of campaign dialogue.”

A candidate being positioned to cater for those in the fringes by so-called strategists will have a hard time connecting with hardened support, but communicating and influencing the middle makes a third candidate potential moving to October 2021 and February 2021. With so many technologies, there is no reason why a campaign will not be able to know their voters.


About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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