2022 PH presidential race

How Isko Moreno’s promising candidacy petered out

Pia Ranada
How Isko Moreno’s promising candidacy petered out

ON THE TRAIL. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno holds up a portrait handed to him by a supporter during a motorcade.

Rappler

The Manila mayor started out as an exciting candidate, but several factors contribute to his downward spiral

MANILA, Philippines – The dust from elections has somewhat settled and it’s clear as day that Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s “silent majority” was a mirage. He placed fourth overall with about 1.9 million votes or about 4% of the total of the unofficial, partial count as of midnight, May 11.

He did not win the presidency even in his home turf of Manila where victory was handed to the election’s apparent landslide winner, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Moreno’s election day performance is a big comedown from the promise his candidacy had held. His survey ratings leading up to the election period showed much potential in his presidential bid but the momentum was not sustained.

Ten months ago, in June, he was tied for second place with Marcos Jr. at 14% and 13%, respectively, in a Pulse Asia survey which projected a presidential bid by President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte.

Moreno was also the second-placer in the vice-presidential race in the same survey run, coming after President Rodrigo Duterte himself, who had expressed openness at the time to seeking the second highest elected post.

To observers, the data showed Moreno was Filipinos’ second choice to the biggest political figures at the time – the father-daughter tandem of Rody and Sara. The promising ratings could justify why a one-term Manila Mayor would try to gun for the presidency so soon. There was a chance that few people are presented with, he grabbed it.

But his ratings went on a slow downward spiral since then. From 14%, he scored 13% then 10%, then 8% which was halved to 4% in an April Pulse Asia poll conducted after the controversial Easter Sunday press conference where he targeted Vice President Leni Robredo.

In contrast, his erstwhile second-place buddy, Marcos Jr., soared to unprecedented survey heights, reaching 53% in December and staying in the province of 60% since then. The dictator’s son and namesake is poised to become the country’s 17th president.

In some respects, Moreno had no control over major challenges that endangered his Malacañang bid. In the months leading to the campaign period, he and his team firmly believed that Sara Duterte would seek the presidency. They thought Marcos Jr. would either run for president too, or slide down to be Sara’s running mate.

VOTING DAY. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso casts his vote at Magat Salamat Elementary school in Tondo. Rappler

Sara’s decision to forego a presidential bid and just team up with Marcos was a game-changer Moreno was not prepared for.

Yet another political event Moreno’s campaign team did not expect was Vice President Leni Robredo’s presidential run and the passionate support it attracted. In fact, Moreno and people in his inner circle claim Robredo had assured them she would not run for president and would help the Manila Mayor’s bid instead.

The Vice President’s last-minute decision to compete for the presidency angered the Moreno camp which was suddenly thrust into an election scenario they had not anticipated.

All but blindsided by these developments, the challenge for the young Manila mayor was to cut his own niche in a highly-polarized political landscape.

Problem is, he quickly got lost in the bushes.

Tandem trouble

One of Moreno’s first missteps, if you ask Stratbase ADR Institute president Dindo Manhit, was the Mayor’s choice of running mate. Manhit said Willie Ong, a doctor and popular social media blogger, came across, to some, as a “questionable” choice and a candidate who “lacked seriousness.”

Ong is a serious candidate in the sense that he had a real platform and credible pitch to boost the country’s ailing health sector as vice president. He’s not completely a political newbie, having run for senator in 2019 and even garnering second to the highest votes among overseas voters.

Data seen by Moreno’s camp showed their bet would fare well with any running mate, as long as they were not complete nobodies.

But, Ong’s 16 million Facebook followers notwithstanding, he did not bring the star power necessary to boost Moreno in such a crowded presidential race.

To be sure, Ong was not the Mayor’s first choice. He had patiently and determinedly courted Grace Poe who indeed would have brought in the fireworks to propel his presidential bid. The two are political allies, Moreno having run under Poe’s senatorial slate in 2016. If Poe had said yes, elections may have turned out differently.

Must Read

INSIDE STORY: Isko’s VP search – the rough, winding road to Willie Ong

INSIDE STORY: Isko’s VP search – the rough, winding road to Willie Ong

But Poe declined. Some sources say it was because she did not want to compete against Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who had long harbored vice-presidential ambitions and is a close family friend. Her lack of public support for Moreno during the elections was deafening, though some groups who had supported her father, Fernando Poe Jr., volunteered for Moreno’s campaign.

But Isko could have been part of another equally, if not stronger, tandem, if the 2021 unity talks initiated by Robredo prospered. He could have been paired with the Lady in Pink herself.

“I think if we can go back in time, it would have been really ideal for Mayor Isko and VP Leni to run together as a tandem. VP Leni as president, Mayor Isko as vice [president]. But even if you interchange them, I would still consider that a stronger tandem than what they have right now,” political scientist and WR Numero head of research Cleve Arguelles told Rappler in an interview.

How Isko Moreno’s promising candidacy petered out

Arguelles said that among the criticisms about Moreno that they encountered in their surveys was that he is perceived as “too young” or “in a rush.” 

“He would have avoided those kind of concerns among the voters if he partnered with someone seen as a veteran, like VP,” said Arguelles.

If Moreno had run for president with Robredo as his running mate, it would be him challenging Marcos Jr. directly. Arguelles said this would have changed the tone of the elections and how voters decide. Such a fight would likely have meant that electoral issues would not be about Marcos vs. Aquino or abuses of the Marcos dictatorship.

Instead, the fight would be all about competence: who would best continue Duterte’s programs, who would be best at implementing projects, who has a better track record.

If Moreno played his cards right, he could have come out as outdoing Marcos – with his effective Manila mayorship, his widely-admired quick response to COVID-19, his impressive infrastructure projects, his effective social services programs.

The promise of ‘Bilis Kilos’

But Moreno’s team, led by veteran political strategist Lito Banayo of six presidential elections, did their best to emphasize the mayor’s competence and compare him to Marcos. (WATCH: Isko Moreno targets Marcos Jr. in Cavite rally)

One of the first social media videos to spread, with the help of the campaign team, was one that portrayed Moreno as present and active during the COVID-19 pandemic while Marcos was absent. Moreno has a political ad that explains all his Manila accomplishments, complete with numbers and charts.

REAL SUPPORT. Supporters of Isko Moreno hold up a hand-written sign during a town hall meeting in Mambaling, Cebu City on May 4, 2022. Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

The hashtags #BilisKilos and #Posible pushed Moreno’s branding as an “action man” and “crisis manager.” He himself complemented this with remarks in media interviews comparing himself to Ukraine’s war-time president Volodomyr Zelenskiy, in his 40s like Moreno. 

Moreno’s first speech as a presidential aspirant, delivered smack in the middle of one of his spanking-new housing projects, is the essence of his competence messaging.

“I do not run on promises. I run on prototypes,” he declared.

Even more compelling was this competence messaging combined with his “laki sa hirap” (coming from poverty) backstory. Moreno projected himself as a Tondo scavenger who worked hard to rise above his circumstances to achieve greatness and give back to the people. (WATCH: Isko Moreno, the Robin Hood of this election)

Arguelles thinks Moreno and his team should have ensured this branding was the dominant narrative of his candidacy, instead of muddying it with controversies from the mayor’s own mouth.

I think they have to go back to the original motivation and the initial message, what drove people to consider Isko Moreno as a presidential candidate… Because he was talking about how the slow pandemic response of the government was ineffective, and he showed that he could do it better. And at that time, it was on the top of people’s mind that we need someone who could deliver in times of crisis,” said Arguelles.

This thinking is echoed by some of Moreno’s own volunteers and supporters.

“If Isko was just consistent with his messaging, not constantly changing tune, he would be liked by more people. Maybe because he was playing it safe, that’s when some voters started having reservations that maybe he is just a trapo (traditional politician) after all,” said Drieza Lininding, a Maranao supporter of Moreno.

He said some people liked it when Moreno was criticizing the Duterte pandemic response back in August and September. In his first speech as a presidential bet, he even twitted Duterte for his nights “rambling on senseless thoughts.” At the time, Duterte himself had been taking jabs at Moreno which the President’s critics said showed he was threatened by the dynamic Manila mayor.

Risky move: Pandering to Duterte

But come December, when the cards had fallen in place and it was clear Marcos was running for president and Sara as vice president, Moreno did a turnabout, saying he would welcome Duterte in his senatorial slate.

Weeks later, he said he would welcome the President’s endorsement. Then, he promised not to hand Duterte over to the International Criminal Court should they issue a warrant.

Appearing to pander to Duterte was a risky move.

For one, Duterte did not reciprocate the love.

In the two events Moreno and Duterte were together, Rizal Day rites and the inauguration of the Binondo-Intramuros bridge, the President practically ignored him. He observed all the niceties, acknowledging him in his speech, but there was no personal rapport or candid interaction. 

“The funny thing about courting is, if you don’t get it, it backfires. It has a boomerang effect because it somehow tells you that you’re not being taken seriously, like you’re a rejected applicant,” said University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay in a January interview with Rappler.

For another, Moreno just confused people.

“I think that really started the problem in his campaign, and that’s why, since then, his numbers never picked up. He’s been shifting from centrist, a bit of opposition, and then centrist, and then very close to the administration, and that’s very confusing to the voters,” said Arguelles.

‘DDS.’ Isko Moreno meets with officials of the Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte National Executive Coordinating Committee (MRRD-NECC), led by President former Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones, during the manifestation of support at the ECJ Building at Intramuros, Manila on February 19, 2022. Rappler

Manhit agreed, adding that it may not have been worth the gamble since many Duterte supporters were already captured by the Marcos-Sara tandem. Still, February surveys seen by Manhit indicated that Duterte supporters may comprise roughly 30% of the population, a significant source of votes should Moreno succeed in converting them.

But Moreno’s sudden pro-Duterte stance also bred a feeling of distrust of Moreno among certain voters, Arugay told Rappler back in February.

It showed Moreno was willing to “contort in all kinds of directions to win,” he said. While this agility is a political survival skill, it may have turned off voters who see consistency as a facet of integrity.

‘Peace of mind’ Moreno is most toxic of all

Moreno and his team got it right when they sought to package him as a “middle ground” candidate. The problem: the mayor was his message’s own saboteur.

Arguelles is one of many who believed Moreno could have been this election’s credible centrist candidate because he did not have “dilawan baggage” and did say in many speeches, interviews, and presidential fora that he can “work with anybody.” His Cabinet, he told Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, would include notable personalities from both the Marcos and Robredo camps.

But the moment he used the term “yellowtard” in October and called Robredo a “fake leader,” he ceased to become a centrist candidate for many people, especially those sympathetic to the Vice President. Moreno has come out as being even harsher to Robredo than to Marcos, whom he has criticized on the issue of P203 billion estate tax (which even some Marcos supporters think is a fair issue to raise, according to a Tangere mobile phone survey).

But while Moreno stuck to facts and was quite controlled in his criticisms of Marcos, he was emotional and unhinged in his attacks against Robredo – even calling her “godmother of bullies” and “pink bully” in the weeks leading to election day.

The attacks on Robredo no doubt stem from data shown to Moreno before the campaign period that any association with the Vice President is a kiss of death and a sure path to defeat. But surveys show the opposite happened. Thanks to the legion of people who showed up at Robredo’s rallies, the optics played in her favor and led to political support. Moreno squandered his early momentum while Robredo gained it later on, albeit too late in the game.

THE PRESSCON. Presidential candidates Senator Panfilo Lacson, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso and Norberto Gonzales together with vice presidential bets Senator Vicente Sotto III and Doc Willie Ong, hold a press conference on April 17, 2022. Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Nobody told Moreno to attack Robredo so viciously. His own campaign manager, the chairman of his party Aksyon Demokratiko, his chief of staff, and communications head all had no idea he was going to call on her to withdraw at the Easter Sunday press conference.

Moreno himself said he was just being “honest.” Supporters defending him said he was really hurt by Robredo supporters asking him to withdraw. He had a point when he said it’s unfair that rabid “kakampinks” can get away with #WithdrawIsko but that when he makes the same demand, he is called rude. 

The catch is, calling on Robredo to back out is anathema to his own messaging of being centrist and embracing of all colors.

“He became the most political of all the candidates. He became the one with the most stinging words against rivals. So what he planned for his own campaign, it was a complete opposite of how he executed it,” said Arguelles.

Moreno saw a drop in his Pulse Asia survey rating after the controversial Easter Sunday press conference. Pacquiao, who intended to be at the press conference but did not make it due to travel issues, inched up to third place.

Arguelles thinks Moreno would have been better off pursuing his initial strategy – hammering on his accomplishments as mayor, pandemic response, and effective crisis management, while being more strategic and controlled in his criticisms of rivals.

“If the environment is too toxic and partisan and polarizing, you need sometimes a boring candidate who would just really project themselves as a ‘working candidate’…. Just focus on the problem, just focus on the issues, who wouldn’t really be involved in partisan in-fighting,” said Arguelles.

To be sure, Moreno still projected that image of a hard worker, still talked about his focus on “life and livelihood,” still rejected the toxicity of political camps, but his outbursts against Robredo were a distraction that captured people’s attention and overshadowed everything else.

There are definitely people who disdain Robredo and the “yellow-pink” camp as much as he and likely vigorously nodded to all of his criticisms. But many of these were already Marcos supporters. Moreno’s challenge was to present himself as a viable and credible alternative, which for Arguelles, he had failed to do.

In fact, Marcos supporters have used his decision to keep P50 million excess senatorial campaign funds to turn the tables on him when he raised Marcos’ P203 billion estate tax debt. Their messaging was clear: when it comes to money issues, Moreno does not have the moral high ground. 

He also failed to present himself as a viable and credible alternative to Robredo. When he slammed her for “abandoning” the Liberal Party to run as independent, many pointed to his leaving the Nationalist Unity Party to join Aksyon. Again, no moral high ground.

“You should only attack other candidates in a way that would also promote your own candidacy,” said Arguelles.

A better strategy for Moreno would have been to pounce on Marcos Jr.’s lack of accomplishments – in terms of infrastructure built and social services delivered, for example.

“Because Isko Moreno delivered in these areas. Asking, ‘How many housing projects have you built for the poor?’ would have highlighted his own strengths,” added Arguelles.

For many who support Robredo because she is the antithesis of Marcos, the Easter press conference confirmed Moreno is not a credible anti-Marcos figure, despite his championing of the estate tax issue.

Perhaps he would not be perceived as pro-Marcos as much if he criticized Marcos just as vehemently as he did Robredo during the Manila Peninsula press conference. Arguelles said Moreno’s press conference rant was strategically valuable only to Marcos, and none of the candidates present.

A mobile phone survey conducted by market research firm Tangere, which Moreno’s team trusts, showed that Marcos’ ratings slightly rose in the days after the press conference (from 48% in early April to 52% in mid-April). Moreno’s rating dipped by the same number of percentage points, from 24% to 20%. Robredo’s rating virtually stayed the same, from 20% to 18%.

Strengths of his candidacy

Despite the turnout, Moreno’s candidacy was colorful and eventful.

His strengths were his impressive work in Manila and his supporters’ passion in sharing about it on social media and through word-of-mouth, his authentic rags-to-riches story, his fantastic speaking skills, his natural rapport with ordinary Filipinos, and whatever extent he was able to convince people that he is the true “iba naman” (different this time) candidate.

ROCKSTAR TREATMENT. Isko Moreno surrounded by a large crowd in Bacolod City Hall. Rappler

One of the unexpected and truly “organic” phenomena in his campaign was the spread of “two joints” and how it endeared him to many people. There have even been elderly women on the campaign trail who struggled to uncurl their stiff finger joints just to be able to do the ubiquitous hand sign now associated with “Yorme.” Children playing basketball in remote villages know how to say “Iskorganic.”

Despite being in the national spotlight for only a short time (as a failed senatorial candidate then as a successful mayor), the Batang Tondo has been mobbed in different parts of the country by screaming fans. In cities all the way in Mindanao, his motorcades have drawn hundreds to the streets. 

It’s difficult to imagine the young, energetic mayor as living up to his promise to “retire” from politics after this. He had made that vow to his wife, Dynee, and their five children.

In his first public appearance since losing the elections, a live Facebook video message streamed on Tuesday, May 10, Moreno said he just wants to move on.

He thanked his supporters and all the people who helped him. He congratulated Marcos Jr. and asked Filipinos to “unite” behind the incoming administration. Uncharacteristically but understandably, Moreno declined to face reporters after delivering his concession message.

After his mayoral term ends on June 30, Moreno will no longer hold any elected post.

“In a matter of a few days, I will be citizen Isko, no longer Yorme,” said Moreno in his concession speech.

Only time will tell if Filipinos will see Moreno rise once more. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.