“They should not underestimate the intelligence of the masa. Marunong na sila (They have already learned),” Estrada said.
Back in January I attended a talk by Manuel Quezon on Philippine political image making. He showed how the construction of the presidential myth had changed over the years, from being based primarily on personal appearances at mass rallies towards remorseless media presence, particularly on television.
He charted this process with an impressive range of data, leading up to the campaigns of the two leading candidates for the presidency in the early stages of the 2010 campaign, Aquino and Villar. After hearing of Villar’s much catchier campaign song, his wall-to-wall commercials, his bottomless pockets, and the fading impact of the death of Cory Aquino on her son’s campaign, I am sure most of the audience walked out into the night feeling that an ascendant Villar was destined to overtake Aquino shortly before the election. The spinmeisters had timed it perfectly and a tidal wave of TV infomercials would carry the man from Tondo to Malacanang.
February’s Social Weather Stations poll seemed to confirm this trend as Villar (34%) moved to within two points of Arroyo (36%) and overtook him among class E voters (see the Social Weather station charts in the media release of 11 March here).
However that was the last piece of good news for Manny. From then on Aquino’s second wind saw his curve flatten out and then start to rise. On 10 May it appears Aquino appears to have received 40% of the votes, Estrada made a last minute surge to finish in second place with 26%, while voters deserted Villar in droves and he failed to break through 20% (these are still estimates). Villar conceded less than a day after the polls closed (for which, incidentally, he deserves credit).
What happened to Many Villar’s campaign?
Talking to (not “at” or “down to”) the poor is a tricky business. Villar’s personal rags-to-riches narrative was pushed at every opportunity, but making poverty seem like a hell-hole is not always going to be attractive with people who are smart enough to know they are destined to remain there for the rest of their lives. His campaign slogan “Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura (Have you swum in an ocean of garbage)?" proved controversial as at least some voters found the idea that they would let their children swim in garbage insulting.
In the end, class E voters preferred Erap’s jokey bonhomie to Villar’s depiction of them as sewer rats.
It’s also possible that the saturation point for Manny’s Ondoy-like flood of ads was reached too early; while he was the only person showing up on screens from December to February, survey respondents were happy to tick his box. However, as other, fresher, messages churned up the waters, Manny’s initial appeal seems to have dissipated.
Finally, there was the air of untrustworthiness that Villar never seemed to be able to shake off. The issues that arose in the last few months of the campaign about his shady role in the C5 extension road and whether he was really as poor as he claimed probably did for the his middle-class support. While only a tiny percentage of voters actually read Winnie Monsod’s articles and videos on these subjects, such criticisms have a strange way of permeating through the body politic.
So farewell then President Villar. You brought the largest pot to the meanest game in town and ended up busted. Ouch. Oh well, at least your well-funded but unsuccessful campaign demonstrated that unlimited cash and spin aren’t everything. That’s good news.