Boxing champion-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao has it all: money, fame, and an unparalleled life story. Why did he not win the presidency?
MANILA, Philippines – It was an uphill battle for the presidency for Manny Pacquiao.
All the signs pointed to it being a difficult match – losing the favor of President Rodrigo Duterte, the infighting within the ruling party PDP-Laban which he headed, and the presence of far stronger contenders. But Pacquiao was unfazed up until the last moment, shrugging off calls to withdraw. As always, he kept on punching and moving forward.
He never feared being the underdog. He had been one most of his life.
Why was he so resolute? Because he believed that he was a “man of destiny” – destined to be the president of the Philippines.
After all, he possessed the right elements: a dramatic rags-to-riches story, fame that put the Philippines on the map, and money – piles of money he earned while climbing up the pinnacle of world boxing glory.
Surveys during the 90-day campaign season, though, depicted a different picture from what the boxing icon had envisioned.
Since the start, Pacquiao consistently lagged far behind the dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who is now president-in-waiting. That dismal showing prevailed, especially among the poor to whom Pacquiao wanted to devote his service.
On May 9, the surveys turned out to be true – it was not Pacquiao whom the masses wanted to be their next leader.
In an interview with Rappler in April, political analyst Arjan Aguirre said that Pacquiao was unable to rank well in surveys even before the campaign started. Aguirre pointed to the crucial time when prospective candidates were being “selected” by political parties, groups, and forces that could sway elections.
“The attention was given not to him. It’s more of Sara Duterte and the opposition. Manny Pacquiao did not do his assignment that time of whether he would side with the opposition or with Sara,” he said.
As early as 2020, outgoing Davao City Mayor and presumptive vice president Sara Duterte topped preference surveys for the presidency. Pacquiao trailed her by 16 percentage points.
“The political decision or the political moment at that time could have been that he should have presented himself as the middle force or the alternative candidate, but he did not do that,” Aguirre added.
That could be the case because Pacquiao toyed with the idea of possibly being the anointed one of President Duterte. Earlier in Duterte’s term, the President actually teased about a possible Pacquiao presidential bid. Pacquiao even became the campaign manager of ruling party PDP-Laban during the 2019 elections. That same year, Pacquiao spoke of party direction as he dodged questions about taking over PDP-Laban at his homecoming party following his last boxing career victory over American Keith Thurman.
Even as Pacquiao positioned himself as a key member of the ruling party, preference mounted for Sara Duterte, who was not a member of PDP-Laban. The President, her father, himself wanted Sara to run for president and to tandem with his longtime aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, effectively sidelining Pacquiao in the national party.
“He was silent. He was toying with the idea of running for president. The messaging, the way he presented himself was: He is from Mindanao; he is supporting Duterte or he is with the party PDP-Laban, therefore he should be or endorsed the President. When he did not get that, he went against the President,” Aguirre said.
In 2021, infighting within PDP-Laban ensued, culminating into an ugly word war between the President and Pacquiao. The boxing champion-turned-senator mocked the administration’s “limp efforts” against Chinese aggression on the West Philippine Sea. Duterte countered by belittling Pacquiao’s intelligence.
Even though the boxing icon’s broadsides were valid, going against a popular president took a toll on Pacquiao’s campaign, according to Davao-based political analyst Ramon Belleno III. It even hurt Pacquiao more since both of them are from Mindanao.
“The President, accept it or not, is still very popular. He still has a mass ground support. The President comes from Mindanao, just like him, then he attacked him. Of course, the people’s approach towards him would change,” Belleno said in a mix of English and Filipino.
As the public categorized Pacquiao as a foe of the administration amid the PDP-Laban rift, Vice President Leni Robredo engaged in “exploratory talks” with his camp in her effort to unite the opposition and non-administration aspirants. Talks eventually crumbled as both camps wanted their principals to be the face of this movement.
Yet the people around Pacquiao understood how important it was to be in the President’s good graces. Later in 2021, in what appeared to be Team Pacquiao’s last-ditch effort to salvage their relationship, 1-PACMAN Representative Eric Pineda arranged a meeting between the President and the senator.
After this “renewal of friendship,” as Malacañang called it, Pacquiao seemed to have forgiven Duterte. “The President is my friend,” Pacquiao would often say in media interviews.
Pacquiao interpreted the President’s non-endorsement of any candidate as “an indirect endorsement” of him.
Political analyst Michael Yusingco read this as “mitigating” the negative consequences brought by Pacquiao’s bickering with the President.
“They knew that the votes they could get from the Marcos Jr. camp are the Duterte voters,” Yusingco said. “That’s why they were being friendly to President Duterte, hoping that those voters in the Marcos Jr. camp – the Duterte supporters – would open their eyes and shift to them.”
“I wouldn’t say it was wrong [attacking the President]. I’m sure Senator Pacquiao believed it was really the right thing to do, so we cannot blame him for that,” he added.
But, for Aguirre, his moves confused the public.
“He committed a lot of mixed messages, that’s why the people did not really understand what he was doing,” said Aguirre.
Aguirre estimated that if Pacquiao did actually get the President’s endorsement, he could have snatched 5% to 10% of Marcos Jr.’s numbers brought in by Sara Duterte. Even with that, Pacquiao’s numbers would not have been enough to propel him to the presidency.
Analysts said that among Pacquiao’s baggage was his inability to set himself apart from other candidates.
Pacquiao, like millions of Filipinos, came from poverty. He had experienced the lowest of the low. There were many nights he slept on the cold pavement of the streets. There were days he just had water to drink when he could not afford to buy even a single meal. He juggled jobs just to send money back to his family. His story is an inspiration to the poor. There is hope that one day they could be like their idol “Pacman,” who overcame poverty through hard work, determination, and grit.
Now that he has it all, Pacquiao wants the same decent and comfortable life for the rest of the Filipinos. To do it, he said that he needed to eradicate corruption, to prevent leakages in government coffers, and to ensure quality government projects and services.
But Pacquiao’s story and the platform are not unique to him. There was Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who was once a garbage scavenger before he became an actor, anti-corruption crusader Senator Panfilo Lacson, and Robredo who promised a clean and honest government.
“The public cannot actually distinguish him from the others. He was part of the general candidates and those who have better numbers are those who offered differences in the way they conduct the campaign,” said Belleno.
What set Pacquiao apart before the campaign started was his giving of P1,000 cash or food packs to people in areas he visited. He was a crowd-drawer. People rushed to see him. But giving money stopped when the campaign started – as promised.
Then he launched his promise of providing houses, a program he had started in a few towns with his own money. In his speeches, Pacquiao would raise his hand to show the signup form. “Regardless of who you vote for, you will receive free housing under my administration,” he would say.
Hundreds of people, if not thousands at times, would attend Pacquiao’s sorties while others would wait for him on the streets, just to get to the much-desired signup form. It did not matter if Pacquiao was hours late to political rallies. Aside from wanting to see the boxing legend, some people waited because they thought he would hand out money like he did months back.
But it was not enough. Belleno said that the crowd could have been there to listen to him, to sign up for his housing program, but this was not necessarily equivalent to votes. True enough, even if more than 30 million people have signed up for his housing program, and, of that, at least 10 million were expected by his camp to vote for him, Pacquiao maxed out at 3.6 million votes.
Another facet of the man dubbed as “the people’s champ” in sporting circles was his religiosity.
Despite having views that aligned with conservative Filipinos, he failed to get religious endorsements from big Christian churches. He had been courting Eddie Villanueva’s Jesus Is Lord Church, but he was unable to clinch their support.
According to Aguirre, Pacquiao could have avoided being lumped with other candidates if his brand was “curated” well. He said that the senator coming from the poor was a strength of his campaign, carrying the ambition and aspiration of the common folk.
But a campaign is a public relations (PR) war. A candidate’s messaging and appearance must resonate with the masses. Marcos Jr. was able to play this game well with how he presented himself during sorties in addition to his constant call for “unity” despite an empty platform.
“The person who can pull in more people is Marcos Jr. They changed his image – from a rich kid-looking person to looking unkempt, meaning, he wore clothes larger than his size, appearing dirty as if he does not comb or wear makeup. That’s the power of a PR-oriented kind of campaigning,” said Aguirre in a mix of English and Filipino.
“Pacquiao loves to don this sportsman-kind of polo that has a logo. He was transformed into a politician. He was not the ordinary Manny Pacquiao whom most people loved in the past or perhaps the lowly, humble senator. His campaign was person-oriented, focused on Pacquiao himself,” he added.
In what seemed to be a desperation move to burnish his “man of the masses” image, Pacquiao wore a polo shirt in favor of his “sporty” barong in two of his miting de avance – in San Juan City on April 23 and in General Santos City on May 7.
There seemed to be an effort to dress him up like the President too when he cast his vote in Sarangani. The sun was high and the weather was very hot and dry, yet he came wearing a jacket reminiscent of what President Duterte wore.
Aguirre said Pacquiao’s campaign missed several opportunities. The senator could have lined himself up with the likes of former president Joseph Estrada, Fernando Poe Jr., and Jejomar Binay.
“My thinking here is that his campaign was mishandled from the start. Mishandled in the sense that they should have created or mounted a campaign organization or a team that was at par with their rivals. He should have been a popular or a populist candidate. He was not packaged well,” Aguirre said.
From February to March, Pacquiao spent most of his precious time courting voters in Luzon and Metro Manila, where he had zero to single-digit numbers.
Choosing Luzon and Metro Manila though was logical, as Pacquiao intended to strengthen his base specifically among Class D and E. But his sorties in the Visayas and Mindanao appeared to be crammed in the last month of the campaign.
Aguirre did not agree with the sortie schedule, saying that Pacquiao should have focused his energy first to protect the Mindanao vote.
“The decision to focus on places that are considered not to be his bailiwick such as Metro Manila is to target where the soft voters are, those who can still switch. Metro Manila and Calabarzon, for example, are usually resided by people who come from various places in the country,” Aguirre said.
“In the science of machine-based campaigning or ground campaigning, you should have protected your bailiwick…. He should have visited Davao or Northern Mindanao, but he did not,” he said.
Another problem was that Marcos Jr. had already made headway with endorsements from local officials and his political machinery.
In his home island region, Pacquiao lost in every province, except for Sarangani. Even in General Santos City, Marcos Jr. won by a landslide.
Marcos Jr. topped the race even in areas where Pacquiao supposedly got endorsements, save for his home province Sarangani.
In the early days of the campaign, Pacquiao had not openly attacked the Marcoses. Whenever he was asked about the ill-gotten wealth of the dictator’s family, he would circle back to his anti-corruption platform that the media found wanting.
His statement on the 36th anniversary of the People Power Revolution in February made no mention of the Marcoses. This was not surprising at the time, given that Pacquiao had been an ally of the President, who allowed the burial of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Pacquiao even expressed support for Duterte’s move and said that the Bible “teaches man to forgive.”
As his promised housing program started to pick up, he began throwing punches at Marcos Jr. and his family in March. Around the same time too, Pacquiao appeared to have swayed voters of other candidates in Metro Manila, where he gained two more points, while Marcos Jr. lost two points and Robredo and Moreno were down one point each.
At the door of the Marcoses’ Solid North, Pacquiao said that the dictator’s family had “no right” to claim that they were corruption-free. In Iloilo, Pacquiao warned against another Martial Law, saying that the Marcoses would abuse the power of the executive in order to revise history, erase their tax liabilities, and reclaim seized assets. He also said that Mindanaoans should not forget the Jabidah Massacre ordered by the dictator Marcos, which sparked the decades-long insurgency in the southern Philippines.
His salvos against the Marcoses earned him praises on social media. Pacquiao denied shifting strategies, but said that he was merely speaking of the truth.
Social media snob?
Unlike other presidential bets, Pacquiao did not invest much in social media, where supporters and troll armies of other candidates clashed on the virtual battlefield for voters to see.
Pacquiao was among the candidates on the receiving end of negative campaigning on social media. Online accounts and channels belittled him, posted spliced videos of him stuttering, and created vlogs that made fun of him.
Yet Pacquiao did not fight fire with fire. On social media, the script of Pacquiao supporters, whether real people or accounts with questionable authenticity, was that he was a good person with good intentions.
A study done with TheNerve showed that Pacquiao’s online presence was tiny against the mammoth campaigns for Marcos Jr. and Robredo. Posts that shared positive messages about Pacquiao were dwarfed by negative posts, which originated from the accounts that supported other candidates, mostly from the Marcos-Duterte tandem.
In short, he hardly put up a fight to knock out the fake news thrown at him. And so in terms of swaying public opinion in favor of him online, he was down for the count
Pacquiao said he had tapped the help of some social media influencers to prop up his campaign. According to him, some of them were “volunteers” who really wanted to help as they pitied him.
But his marching order was clear: No making up of stories. No defamation. “Never ako nagsabi sa kanila na siraan ’nyo ’to. Kasi God tayo nang God, tapos gagawa ng paninirang puri? Anong sinasabi mong God pero ’di ka sumusunod, gumagawa ka ng masama?” he told the media then.
(I never asked them to campaign negatively against others. I keep talking about God, then we defame others? Why would I even talk about God if I don’t follow him and do evil things?)
Pacquiao boasts close to 19 million followers on his official Facebook page, but this was not used for campaign purposes. His team had to create a new one, separating Pacquiao the boxer from Pacquiao the politician. The Manny Pacquiao Public Information Facebook page, which carried his campaign materials, only had around 409,000 followers.
Pacquiao also rarely trended on Twitter and, when he did, it would usually be about his infamous views about same-sex marriage, abortion, and divorce.
A Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism report also showed that ads about Pacquiao, including running mate Lito Atienza, only reached P11.6 million from January to March. This was only a chump change compared to other candidates who had spent billions on ads.
Capturing the Filipino imagination
Pacquiao’s sincerity in helping the poor cannot be questioned. Even the analysts Rappler interviewed for this story thought the same. Pacquiao wore his heart on his sleeves whenever he talked about hoping for a better life for the poor and the marginalized.
In Iloilo City, Mayor Jerry Treñas said he would have chosen Pacquiao had Robredo not vied for the presidency. On social media, people say that voters should have picked Pacquiao instead of Marcos Jr. if they only wanted to see a government that focuses on the poor.
Despite Pacquiao’s genuine intention to serve, Filipinos, it seemed, could not go beyond the idea of Pacquiao as a boxer. Yusingco said that even if Pacquiao had millions of fans, not everyone bought the idea of Pacquiao as a president, regardless of his stature or his intentions.
“Most of us, while we respect him, we admire him, we love him as a boxer and as a philanthropist, somehow we cannot envision him as the president of our country,” Yusingco said.
Yusingco added that Pacquiao’s poor performance during the second debate, where he stuttered to the point that his answers did not make sense, reaffirmed the assumption that he was not statesman-like.
“Filipinos think that Senator Pacman doesn’t fit the model of how we perceive our president to be.… If he stayed in the Senate for another term, maybe he would have the opportunity to project himself as someone who can become a president,” Yusingco said.
In June, Pacquiao’s term in the Senate ends. As he conceded the race to Marcos Jr., he said he will continue helping the poor through his foundation. He has housing projects for the poor lined up and lots of other ventures in business and in sports that he has to attend to anyway.
“Hinding-hindi ko tatalikuran ang pagseserbisyo para sa bayan at para sa mga kasama kong mahihirap. Patuloy po nating mahalin ang Pilipinas. Sama-sama po nating i-angat ang dangal ng bawat Pilipino,” he said in his concession speech.
(I will never turn my back on serving the country and the poor people. Let us continue loving the Philippines. Together, let us uplift the dignity of every Filipino.)
Pacquiao will soon be returning to private life. For now, we wait what is next for the “Man of Destiny.”