It’s Poe vs Duterte in the final stretch

This was particularly obvious during the pre-debate segment, shown after the formal debate was conducted, when Digong and Grace charmed the crowd with a delightful repartee. This included comments about their clothes and challenging each other to sing a duet, while Secretary Mar Roxas stood awkwardly and silently in the corner podium, and Vice President Jojo Binay was still busy arguing with the organizers about bringing in his notes.

The most recent Pulse Asia for ABS-CBN confirmed this with Poe and Duterte in a neck-and-neck fight for first place, Binay’s numbers tanking, and Roxas unable to get out of the 20-point range.

Can Roxas still win?

I think the pathway of Roxas to victory is narrower now. For example, if you were in Cebu last weekend, you would not have failed to conclude that Duterte would overtake him there soon if he has not already. Talking to many Cebuanos, I could sense many voters moving in big numbers to Duterte, and not so much from Roxas, but from Binay. Still a Duterte victory in the Visayas will reduce the margin that Roxas was hoping to get from his home region.

The endorsement of Grace Poe by Negros Occidental Liberal Party stalwart Congressman Alfred Benitez and the One Cebu Party endorsement of Binay are telling. It's not just in Cebu, Negros Occidental, or in Southern Leyte (where the Liberal Party governor also endorsed Duterte), but in many places already where Roxas and Binay supporters are moving to Poe or Duterte.

Machinery will stay only with a candidate if he is winnable. Politicians on the ground are now making choices and seeing the pathways to victory of Binay and Roxas as getting narrower and narrower every day.

While performing excellently and impressively during most of the debate, Roxas committed the biggest blunder, one with serious consequences in terms of loss of votes, in his use of the word “mananakop” to describe the members of the Moro National Liberation Front that was responsible for the Zamboanga siege in 2013.

I am sure he meant to describe only the MNLF and not all Muslims; that was the clear context. But unfortunately, by using “Muslim” along side that terrible word, Roxas stumbled on an ethnic word that is equated in Mindanao and the Visayas with discrimination and hatred against Muslims.

I hope the Roxas campaign is aware of how much damage it has inflicted to itself with these words of Mar in the debate. As one Mindanawon sarcastically told me, the administration candidate has very good stock knowledge – in speaking spontaneously and looking for the words, he remembered how Visayan parents would describe Muslims decades ago – “mananacop,” “pirate,” “juramentado,” etc. For a Mindanawon like me, such words were awful as it made me afraid of my neighbors. It took me years to overcome that cultural bias and I am sad that it still managed to enter our political lexicon when most of our cities now have sizeable Muslim populations.

I suspect Mar voters, at least the soft supporters, would have to make a hard decision on Election Day. Some will never accept Poe for her renunciation of the country, or their fear she is a puppet of Danding Cojuangco, or their anger at what they believed is her ambition. Others will never support Duterte because of human rights concerns or because they are anti-Marcos/anti-GMA and think Duterte will be bringing back the Marcoses and GMA to the center of our political life. But many Roxas supporters are rational beings; they know when to take a bitter pill if they have to.

The now very narrow path to victory for Mar is to stop negative attacks – it has not converted voters to him even if successfully diminishing others – but to really go to the people and articulate the rationale of his candidacy beyond Daang Matuwid. He has already harvested the fruits of the Aquino endorsement. But is a new Mar possible? Can he find a way, a credible one, to connect to the voters?

The decline of Binay

I cannot imagine Roxas supporters voting for Binay. But that’s the least of his worries. After the fiasco in Cebu, Binay's campaign is in danger of collapse. Clearly, the denial approach to the corruption charges against him is not working. People do make up their minds about these things and their quantum of proof is not reasonable doubt. It is enough for voters that charges are leveled at you and you do not have a response to them.

If Binay’s campaign falters, Poe and Duterte are the ones in the position to take those mainly Luzon votes. Poe should have the upper hand as Balance of Luzon is clearly her bailiwick, but Duterte is ascending in some places. Right now, for example, Poe is winning in the Solid North, but Bongbong Marcos could swing his supporters to Duterte given the latter's promise to bury the father in Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Incidentally, a Duterte win would benefit Marcos if Poe lost, as that would affect Senator Chiz Escudero. I predict that Marcos would win as vice president if Duterte wins the presidency.

Representative Leni Robredo still has a chance but she has to differentiate from Mar and go after Poe and Duterte voters. What is going for her is the passion and commitment of her supporters.  But they, too, must reach out to Poe and Duterte voters, which means they should not attack these candidates.

The Poe advantage

The poll conducted by the Social Weather Stations (disclosure: I am a board member of SWS on leave because of my involvement in the elections) after the Cebu debate yielded very interesting data, with Poe winning followed by Duterte. In that poll, clearly, there is a gender gap between Poe and Duterte in favor of the latter. That could really make a difference come election time if the gap continues and widens.

The SWS confirmed what we already knew, that Poe won the debate followed by Duterte. Most independent analysts have said as much.

This is not to say that it was a perfect night for Poe. The debate showed some critical gaps in her preparations. Although she was still the best in terms of respecting the electorate by coming prepared, there were some questions that could have been better answered.

For some questions, like the on the death penalty and divorce, it's unfortunate that the format allowed only for a yes or no stand. But in our discussions, Poe was clear that the reimposition of the death penalty for heinous crimes would only be considered after the country is able to fix our justice and legal system that is fundamentally unfair to the poor.  As for divorce, Poe actually wants a discussion on options available for couples and especially abused women in bad marriages.

Personally, I am against the death penalty but I am not a candidate and the candidate I advise is diligent, strong-willed and minded, and makes her own decision about what she thinks is right. I do not mind that at all because it's the candidate – or the President – who eventually makes the decision and not those of us who advise her.

The priority of Poe now is to go after “soft” Mar Roxas votes afraid of Binay and Duterte winning, and if achievable to get Aquino on her side in the end game as a way to deter a Marcos family and GMA victorious return. This means she should not attack PNoy too much.

The Poe campaign must also now begin paying attention to particular demographics – women where she has the potential of widening further the gender gap I referred to earlier and progressive groups and basic sectors where she is the default candidate but are still awaiting closure. I suspect, for example, that the environmental community will eventually go for Poe but she needs to take the extra step of outlining her environmental and climate change plans, which include a cap and moratorium on coal power and a creation of new disaster agency.

This outreach to progressive and sectoral groups should be done while continuing the superb work with traditional local politicians, the relentless focus on Luzon where her lead is so far still big, and not yielding Mindanao and Visayas to her rivals even if she might end up being only in second place in those places.

On a personal note, Undersecretary Manolo Quezon has referred to me as the glowing brains behind Poe’s debate answers. That of course is not true. As I told a friend before the debate, Grace Poe does her homework, respects the electorate by preparing diligently, listens to several experts like me, comes to a decision on her own on issues (any one who knows me would know my position on the death penalty), and communicates her positions clearly.

The one thing I can assure voters is that Grace Poe will not be a puppet of anyone. If she does and says the right thing, it's because of her. And if she is wrong and makes a mistake, it's her mistake and decision. I am fine when the latter happens because the other thing Grace Poe has is humility. Unlike many politicians I know, she listens and acknowledges her errors and makes the necessary corrections.

Undersecretary Quezon, who has done an excellent and wonderful job, and I mean this sincerely, overseeing the writing of President Aquino’s speeches should know that. When Aquino speaks, I know it is he that speaks and not Quezon or the president’s speechwriters. I just wished Undersecretary Quezon gave Senator Poe and all of us who work with her that same courtesy. I will certainly do that, as none of this is personal.

But this is why Roxas will lose the elections. His supporters and supporters of other candidates too so condescend against women that the other half of our population and many of those who love them – sons and husbands and grandsons and brothers and nephews – will vote for Grace Poe. You will see a gender gap in favor of Poe that you have never seen before in this country. Just look at the polls now and you will see what I mean. The geographical regions are divided but the women are united.

The ascending Duterte

Mayor Duterte also had a good night in Cebu City. Hands down, he was charming and nonthreatening. Even his comments about a president being capable of killing or his attacks against Roxas as pretentious and a fraud, were delivered with a light touch. His message of change is coming and that he is a leader with strong political will that will rid our country of criminals and corruption is powerful.

His only mistake in the Cebu debate was his defense of coal power. He clearly has not been briefed about climate change, including the Paris Agreement on climate change. His rhetoric against developed countries is twenty years old and we, developing countries, have actually won that debate. The world has moved on and have agreed to phase out coal and other fossil fuels, with such transition for developing countries paid for by rich countries. Developed countries too have obligations to reduce their emissions and we are relentless in pushing them on that.

In other words, we will not lose power because we will put a cap on coal or transition to renewable energy. Besides, the conditions are now in place for the latter to be done cost-effectively and at great benefit to our economy.

Other than his position on coal, I found Digong’s performance in the debate as excellent. He is definitely a worthy opponent to Poe and the other candidates.

I am very proud that a great Mindanawon leader, supported by many Mindanawons I admire, has a real chance of winning the elections. I did not join his campaign because of a difference in approaches to human rights and democracy and a moral commitment in the disqualification issues against Poe. Once I commit to a person, as a matter of integrity, I do not switch loyalties.

What to watch out for

In the final six weeks of the elections, which starts after Holy Week, we will know soon enough whether my projection that this is a Duterte vs. Poe fight is correct.

Will Poe still get her bump from the Supreme Court decision? I expect that to happen and ironically it’s the Comelec and her oppositors who have given her this second opportunity as the Court could decide the motion for reconsideration a week or so before the elections. Having read the motions for reconsiderations and seeing no new evidence or grounds alleged there, I am certain that the Court will affirm its decision qualifying Poe. That positive news will be the headlines a few days before the elections.

Will Roxas and Binay be able to stop the exodus of local politicians, seeking survival, from their ranks? The Poe campaign has many conversations already going on right now. I suspect Duterte’s people are also doing that now and reaching out.

If Roxas’ and Binay’s numbers decline further, will their soft supporters resort to their alternative candidate? If so, Poe is poised to scoop those voters as the Pulse Asia surveys have consistently shown she is the second choice of Roxas and Binay supporters.

Finally, in this close election, it’s how the candidate behaves in the final stretch that matter most. The final debate and the last sorties will matter.

Is the candidate likeable? Can I connect to this leader? Do I share her or his values? Will I want this person to represent us with other world leaders? Is his or her heart for the poor? Can he or she do the job? Will she or he unify and bring our country to a better place? –

Dean Antonio G.M. La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He is an adviser to presidential candidate Grace Poe.