How to repeat 2013: Robredo volunteers say authenticity is key
MANILA, Philippines – Right from the beginning of her campaign for the vice presidency, Liberal Party (LP) bet Leni Robredo had her strategy clear: she would again be relying on volunteers and word-of-mouth campaign, to achieve what would hopefully be a repeat of her successful 2013 bid for Camarines Sur representative.
The neophyte lawmaker is aware that she lacks the funds – and the name recall – compared to her more politically seasoned rivals for the second highest post of the land.
Her recent survey standing reflects this: while the January Pulse Asia survey shows a 4 percentage-point increase in her numbers, she still ranks third, trailing behind frontrunner Senator Francis Escudero and Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Still, it’s a tight race from here until D-Day, and politicians will be scrambling to woo voters and hold sorties in as many provinces as they can.
To help Robredo reach as many voters as possible, seasoned political workers and cause-oriented groups have banded together to volunteer for her.
Veteran political strategists as volunteers
Samahang Tsinelas was born several weeks after Robredo filed her certificate of candidacy. What started out as an initial meeting between Robredo and executives of campaigns management firm Publicus Asia eventually turned into a November gathering among political strategists.
Lilibet Amatong, Publicus Asia's co-founder and managing partner, recounted how the group got its beginnings.
“The time that Leni finally decided to run, she said, 'I really need a core group that will ground me correctly.' She trusted us by virtue of the friendship that we had with her,” Amatong said.
The November meeting drew about 50 provincial coordinators from all over the country. It didn't take much convincing for these seasoned political workers, paid to work for a candidate, to provide their services for free.
“It wasn’t hard because they’re already veterans, they already know the types of candidates who run for office,” Amatong said.
She added, “Ilang kandidato na ang dumaan sa kanila. Alam na nila ang mga check and do not check. So it's not really difficult to convince them to get into this campaign.”
“Perhaps they were just waiting for that one person who embodies the major requirements," said Raffy Baraan, former provincial administrator of Pangasinan. "Leni came in at the right time, when the nation needs someone like her."
The sales pitch, Amatong said, was simple: Robredo was the rare politician who embodied the skills, experience, and ethics of a public servant. (READ: 8 things to know about Leni Robredo)
“It's a perfect product, a perfect situation, a perfect time. Why not grab it? Minsan lang magkaroon ng perfect opportunity na swak na swak ang kandidato,” she said.
While the group is united by a common candidate, they also agree on one other thing: Robredo needs to work harder to get more people to know her.
To help her, Samahang Tsinelas acts as an organizer of a parallel campaign, alongside Robredo's sorties and events with the LP.
The group is also offering Robredo the support of their own networks from different interest groups, said Beauty Villareal, who has worked in the non-government organization sector.
Villareal’s network, for instance, is comprised mostly of barangay health workers. Her work for Samahang Tsinelas involves sitting down with this community and learning about their concerns for a “consultative, participatory” approach – a key message in Robredo's campaign speeches.
With elections just 3 months away, the group is playing catch up: to “multiply” Robredo by tapping into their networks and simply introducing who she is, what she does, and what more she can do.
"We capitalize on our networks. When we convince them, the people in our networks move on their own...We don't have the funds, but once we mobilize our networks, they themselves automatically want to volunteer to help," Amatong said.
It’s this faith in Robredo's promise and capability that makes Samahang Tsinelas feel confident about their chances of winning the vice presidency for her – even if the strategy sounds too simple, compared to political campaigns that are more often waged with money and paid ads.
Authentic, relatable Leni
Since Robredo accepted the LP's offer to run for vice president, the ruling coalition dismissed her initial low survey numbers, saying Robredo – with a relatively untainted political background – is an "easy sell."
It's because Robredo looks and feels authentic, Amatong said, unlike some politicians who make a show of trying to demonstrate that they are one with the masses.
Before she entered politics, Robredo was a practicing lawyer focusing on cases for the marginalized sector.
“These are real experiences. This is not for drama, not an 'immersion' just to get a feel of how it is to live like that. It was her life," Amatong said.
“'Pag tiningnan mo 'yung lahat ng kandidato, sino may ganyan? Sino may konkretong public service sa grassroots?” (If you look at the other candidates, who else can say the same? Who has done concrete public service down at the grassroots?)
Authenticity is also the rationale behind the group’s non-interference with other aspects of the Robredo campaign, such as her image or how she should be “branded” or perceived.
After all, why fix something that isn’t broken?
“Wala kaming pinag-uusapan because we accept her for what she is. 'Yun na 'yun eh, sold na kami sa produkto. Hindi na kailangang lagyan ng features,” Amatong said.
(We don't talk about that because we accept her for what she is. She is who she is, that's it, we're sold on her. No need to add more features.)
Just letting Robredo be is the group’s stance, saying voters are smart enough to tell if a candidate is just putting on a show.
Skeptics of Robredo’s campaign strategy only need to look back 3 years ago, when a political newbie wrested power away from a politically-entrenched clan on the strength of face-to-face, door-to-door campaigning.
The reluctant politician would go from house to house, talking to a group of 25 at a time because her voice could not carry out over a crowd larger than that, Amatong said.
Unlike in previous elections, Amatong thinks money won’t be too much of a deciding factor for voters.
“For the longest time, it’s money that talks. But in the usual elections, there were no other options, so it was really money that ruled. But now that we have an option, I really believe that even if voters take money from candidates, they will still vote for the one whom they think can really help them,” she said.
She added that Robredo’s 2013 victory is a concrete example of how to campaign without money against “giants” in politics.
Only for Leni
Samahang Tsinelas is Robredo’s volunteer campaign group, but it doesn’t coordinate as much with Senator Bam Aquino, Robredo’s campaign manager, or the Liberal Party itself.
The limitation is clear: they campaign for Robredo only. They are not allied with the LP, and members are free to support any presidential candidate they want.
Why only Robredo? If the ruling coalition were to be believed, Robredo and LP standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II must go together: for governance to be effective, Robredo must win with Roxas as her president.
But it’s also LP and Roxas who end up as Robredo’s Achilles heel.
Amatong said that since rivals have nothing on Robredo in terms of criticizing her previous experience with marginalized sectors, they latch on to the one point they can attack her on: her being a candidate of the LP.
Critics accuse Robredo of playing into the LP’s hands when she accepted the offer to run as Roxas’ vice president – even after she had said numerous times that she wasn't interested and would have wanted to turn it down.
While the group acknowledged that critical opinion on the LP might spill over to Robredo's chances at the polls, they said that fears that Robredo will be used by the party are unfounded.
“They say she's allowing herself to be used by the LP, but when she is asked about pressing issues, she answers questions objectively," Villareal said.
Robredo is independent and has a mind of her own, Amatong said, and that makes her compatible with any president – even if it's not Roxas.
“She's not attached to anyone. She's attached to her advocacy,” Baraan added.
But because of her affiliation with the LP, Robredo may have better chances at raising her survey numbers if she campaigns separately from Roxas.
To do that, Robredo would do well to go back to her roots, Amatong said.
"She should go back to the people who believed and pushed for her in the very beginning. This is her world, she should go back to that...that's why we're doing this campaign through warm bodies, manually. We won't deviate from her strategy of going personal." – Rappler.com