Spotlight on surveys: Bong Go’s rise and how other HNP bets are faring

Pia Ranada
Spotlight on surveys: Bong Go’s rise and how other HNP bets are faring
Presidential aide Bong Go's voter preference rating increases 10-fold in the span of a year. Familiar names in the Hugpong slate continue to dominate the race.

MANILA, Philippines – A little over two months before the May 2019 elections, 10 out of the 14 probable winners of the senatorial race are Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) candidates –  a virtual domination of administration allies.

Just outside the winning circle, other HNP candidates battle with opposition bets for the last slots. 

Rappler takes a look at Pulse Asia’s 6 pre-election surveys to get a sense of where HNP bets stand as of now, and assess who are assured of victory, who are lagging behind, and who have erratic numbers. 

The 6 surveys, starting from March 2018 and ending in February 2019, span almost a year (scroll down to see the line graph).

These details stand out:

  • Former presidential aide Bong Go was on a steep upward trajectory, with the number of voters supporting him increasing 10-fold in a year
  • Since the campaign began, only President Rodrigo Duterte’s top 3 candidates saw significant improvements in their ratings
  • Other HNP bets are holding on but several have erratic numbers

Instructions: Hover over the name of the candidate below the graph to see their voter preference numbers and trajectory.




NOTE: The numbers in green or red are significant increases or decreases, meaning there was a change of more than 4.6 points (double the error margin).

Go’s unprecedented rise

Hands down, the story of the last Pulse Asia surveys has been Go’s stratospheric rise to the upper echelons of the winning circle. Pulse Asia research director Ana Tabunda has not seen anything like it.

“Nothing like his spectacular rise. That’s unique,” she told Rappler. 

While there have been other success stories of “newbie” senatorial candidates, Go is in a class of his own. Past “Cinderella” stories include Mar Roxas back in 2004, Antonio Trillanes IV in 2007, and Joel Villanueva and Manny Pacquiao in 2016. But all 4, while new in the senatorial race in their respective years, were familiar names already because of other government positions they held – or in Pacquiao’s case, his celebrity status.

Go, in contrast, was known for only one thing: being the trusted aide and “special assistant” of President Duterte. 

Yet the number of Filipinos who said they would vote for him went from 5.9% in March 2018 to 53% in February 2019. That’s an almost 10-fold increase in a year. Visualized in a line graph, that’s a single steep ascent compared to the rolling hills of other candidates.

Go went from being on the second page of survey results to the 3rd name on top of the list. He may even topple survey toppers Grace Poe and Cynthia Villar in the coming months. 

“He can with his trajectory, yes. It’s not far-fetched,” said Tabunda. 

Go was buoyed particularly by two huge jumps in his voter preference in December 2018 (plus 15.6 points) and January 2019 (plus 15 points).

This was the time Duterte began mentioning Go’s senatorial candidacy in his speeches and extolling his supposed virtues. 

Success factors

Four factors are helping Go achieve his numbers:

  • Duterte’s all-out support
  • Vast funding and resources
  • A well-planned and well-executed campaign
  • Constant media exposure

1.  Duterte’s support

That Go is Duterte’s number one candidate is as clear as day. Only Go had a President accompany him to file his candidacy for senator. Go is the first candidate mentioned by the President and often the one who merits the longest, most touching testimonial. Duterte even wore a Bong Go shirt during a campaign rally.

The President’s support has a trickle-down effect, with government offices and officials not hesitating to support Go’s candidacy as well. This is evident from Bong Go posters in public hospitals to Go constantly getting invitations to speak at government events or local fiestas. Some of his fire visits are arranged by government officials. 

2.  Vast resources

The vast funding and resources are obvious just from the number of “Go Bong Go!” posters and banners all over the country. There seems to be a bottomless pit full of Bong Go ballers, basketballs, T-shirts, and even rubber shoes that get distributed in campaign rallies. He gives away cash to fire victims, which the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said may count as vote-buying. (READ: Watchdogs to Comelec: Be ‘proactive’ and probe Bong Go fire visits)

Even before the campaign season began, Go had already spent P422 million on political advertisements.

“That kind of money, some candidates spend that during the election. And apparently, it hasn’t stopped flowing,” said Tabunda.

It’s not difficult to guess the businessmen funding Go’s campaign. In some of his pre-campaign season charity events, posters declared the participation of companies like Pure Gold, Phoenix Petroleum, 2Go Group Inc, and Pilipinong May Puso Foundation (PMPF).

Phoenix and 2Go Group Inc are owned by Davao City-based businessman Dennis Uy. Pure Gold is owned by Lucio Co, said to be a friend of the President’s. PMPF is a charity organization funded by Ramon Ang.

3.  Effective campaign 

On the campaign trail, Go is relentless. He flies from one part of the country to another, attending a PDP-Laban rally one day and then an HNP rally the next. He manages to squeeze in a fire visit here and a dialogue with tricycle drivers there.

Some of his campaign staff are awed by his stamina and determination to push through with even the fire visits, which don’t attract huge crowds and often take place in out-of-the-way villages.  

At the campaign rallies themselves, Go comes prepared. He brings with him actors Phillip Salvador and Robin Padilla, whose star power he can count on at times when he himself is not well-known in a town or city. 

If he cannot make it to an event, he sends substitutes chosen with care. Comedians Bayani Agbayani and Ai-ai delas Alas have proxied for him, to the delight of crowds. 

It helps that his jingle (sing “Bong Go, Bong Go” to the tune of “Otso-Otso”) is cloyingly catchy and his name, easy to remember. 

Go also has a platform tailored to resonate with the masses. His main advocacies are fire prevention (hence the fire visits), creation of one-stop-shop medical assistance facilities called “Malasakit Centers,” establishment of an overseas Filipino workers department, and sports development (an offshoot of his love for basketball), among others.

Members of his campaign team say Go has no official campaign manager, though his right-hand man is Gelo Villar, a former official in Go’s Office of the Special Assistant to the President and former staff of Alan Peter Cayetano. 

Go, in many ways, is his own campaign manager. He gives inputs on everything from details in press releases to what to donate to fire victims. And why not? Go’s organizing skills had already been tested in 2016, when he was campaign sortie manager of Duterte’s wildly successful presidential campaign. 

Like other maverick candidates before him, Go has had to fend off controversies. Most of them were about the preferential treatment accorded him and the eyebrow-raising amount of resources seemingly at his disposal.

Go’s strategy to evade such troubles is to control media scrutiny. He’s never attended debates where he could be questioned about such issues. He rarely gives ambush interviews and when they take place, only select media are informed beforehand about them. Media entities unable to take part in the Q and A make do with sparse statements. Go limits his media guestings to “friendly” media.

Perhaps he learned from the Duterte presidential campaign. Go, who had front row seats to the campaign, probably saw how new controversies would arise every time Duterte gave an ambush interview. But because of Duterte’s personal appeal and way of turning issues upside down, the firebrand mayor always managed to save his candidacy from disaster.

Go likely figured he lacked that appeal and the skill of repartee, hence the wiser strategy would be to avoid scrutiny altogether, if not have full control over circumstances.

4.  Media exposure 

But non-participation in senatorial debates and controlled media interviews by no means meant Go was out of the limelight.

He ensured constant media coverage by simply staying by Duterte’s side. Even without his SAP title, Go remains a mainstay in presidential events. Palace photographers make sure to capture his face so it is prominently displayed in official photos. 

Go continues to give reporters up-close-and-personal photos of the President and some choice anecdotes, knowing they will have to credit him in their articles or reports. 

Reporters were particularly hungry for “proof of life” photos of Duterte after every rumor of his bad health. Go obliged, sending photos of Duterte having a midnight snack at home, stopping for breakfast in a carinderia, getting some Japanese food on his birthday. 

Go is also often the first source of information about important state matters. For instance, when Duterte signed the popular 3-month maternity leave law, Go immediately issued a statement, way ahead of Malacañang and Congress. Reporters who wanted to break the news quoted him.

The cop, the adviser 

Apart from Go, only two other candidates have significantly improved in survey ratings after the start of the campaign period – former top cop Ronald dela Rosa and Duterte political adviser Francis Tolentino.

When we say “significant,” we mean a rise by 4.6 percentage points – double the 2.3 point margin of error indicated by Pulse Asia. Dela Rosa rose by 7.7 points from January to February this year. Tolentino rose by 10.7 points. 

As of the February survey, Dela Rosa ranked 5th to 8th while Tolentino stood at 11th to 16th spots.

What do Go, Dela Rosa, and Tolentino have in common? All 3 are Duterte’s top preferred senatorial candidates. While he has 12 in his personal slate, the 3 are his favorites. Duterte began campaigning for these 3 way ahead of the others. They are part of his “inner circle,” commanding his personal loyalty rather than just debt of gratitude for political favors. 

Tolentino is an interesting story because he has not risen to such heights as Dela Rosa and Go and, despite his improvement in February, remains in the outskirts of the winning circle.  

Tabunda says this may be because unlike Go and Dela Rosa, voters have a harder time making the link between Duterte and Tolentino.

“We always say there has to be a match between the endorser and the endorsee. They have to see the connection. They can see the connection with Bong Go, he’s always at the back. For Bato, it’s the illegal drugs campaign. They have a hard time – why Francis Tolentino?” she said.

One close ally of the President does not seem to be benefiting as much from the Duterte connection: reelectionist senator Koko Pimentel. 

Though Pimentel had been inside the winning circle since March 2018, his numbers have been erratic – falling, then rising, then falling. From being the 5th name on the list a year ago, he is now 10th.

From a voter preference of 45.5% in January, his went down to 35.9% in February – a significant drop of 9.6 points. Tabunda can’t explain the fall. 

Old names

Of the survey toppers in HNP, reelectionist Cynthia Villar retains her lead, consistently placing 2nd or tied at first place with independent candidate Grace Poe. Sonny Angara and Pia Cayetano, veterans in senatorial elections, are still in the upper half of the Magic 12. But recently, Pia has had to give way to Go and actor and former senator Lito Lapid.

Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos is holding on. She was enjoying a modest rise from June 2018 to January this year, until a significant drop of 5.2 points from January to February. This was around the time her false UP College of Law and Princeton degrees became viral. It was also in early February when she came out on the losing end of a face-off with human rights lawyer Chel Diokno during a GMA News debate.

And how about HNP’s pork-tainted candidates? Former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr unsurprisingly saw a slight improvement in ratings after his controversial acquittal of plunder charges in December 2018. The movie-star-turned-politician was ranked 8 to 13 in February, a dangerous spot but at least still within probable winner territory.

Another former senator, Jinggoy Estrada, with whom Revilla shared detention time, has had more erratic numbers. Voter preference for him has been an up-and-down line that recently took a downward turn. In February, he dropped by a significant 10.4 points. Estrada, who describes his time in jail as a “3-year vacation” in campaign rallies, has not benefited from an acquittal like Revilla. Though he is definitely working to do so.

Estrada did not appear to benefit from Duterte’s temporary endorsement in early February, which the Chief Executive eventually dropped a few days later. By the end-of-February survey, Estrada’s voter preference rating decreased by 10.8 points.

Estrada’s half-brother JV Ejercito also saw no big improvement in his ratings after the President publicly declared his support on January 29, a time when Pulse Asia was conducting their survey for that month. But even come February, Ejercito’s numbers did not improve, and in fact slid by 5.2 points.

Villar, Angara, Cayetano, Marcos, Estrada, and Revilla are candidates who would have had the chance to win by virtue of their individual advantages – whether it be via a political surname or sheer star power. But there’s a reason they sought the Duterte endorsement.

“The people who join HNP are there for the reason that, ‘I’m here (in your slate) so don’t hit me anymore.’ For as long as the President doesn’t hit you, at least you don’t have to work on getting from the negative to the positive. You’re just working on your positive, getting higher,” said Tabunda.

In short, joining HNP means a shield from the President’s ire, which nowadays could spell political disaster. 

The least well-known and lowest-ranking HNP candidates saw improved ratings. Maguindanao Congressman Dong Mangudadatu went from a 3.2% voter preference rating in June 2018 to 12.51% in February 2019 – a 4-fold increase.

Former reporter Jiggy Manicad followed a similar trajectory (3.3% in June 2018 to 11.9% in February). 

This is evidence that the HNP campaign rallies and endorsement of Davao City mayor Sara Duterte is doing these two candidates some good.

Mangudadatu has the added advantage of being in the President’s personal slate and having oodles and oodles of cash.

Still, two months before May 13 is still two months. A lot can happen to throw off predictions, bring a strong candidate to dangerous waters, or save a candidate from the brink of disaster. 

Any drastic change in, say, the trust and performance ratings of the President, or the popularity of Sara, may also determine who will be proclaimed senator in May.

The stakes are high. The composition of the Senate will determine if charter change or federalism will push through, if martial law in Mindanao will be extended again, and if controversies will merit Senate inquiries, among many other policies.

Many voters don’t have complete slates yet. From 56% of respondents saying they have 12 people to vote for in May, now only 37% say that, said Tabunda. This means more voters are now unsure of more candidates. It’s a loss for some bets and an opportunity for others to fill in those blanks. –

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Pia Ranada

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