DPP presidential primary results

June 13, 2019

[updated, see below]


The DPP announced the results of its polling primary for the 2020 presidential nomination today. President Tsai emerged victorious, defeating former premier Lai by 8.2%.


This is by no means a landslide victory, but neither is it a razor-thin margin. Tsai’s victory is clear, and that will make unifying the party for the general election a much easier task. That is, if she had only won by one percent, Lai’s supporters might have felt that Tsai stole the election by choosing a particular question wording or some other technical choice. With this margin, however, she almost certainly would have won no matter how the choice was presented.

Lai held a press conference after the results were announced, and he made a very gracious statement accepting the result and promising to support Tsai for re-election. As with my previous sentence, most media reports will focus on Lai’s acceptance of defeat. However, I thought the way that Lai delivered that statement was quite significant. He spent his first minutes talking about the general state of things, especially Hong Kong. He ended this by noting that the PRC had prepared soldiers to use there. He transitioned directly from the image of PRC troops to the primary result, saying that it was important to unify the party to re-elect Tsai. I think this was a clear message to independence fundamentalists: the stakes are extremely high, and they shouldn’t mull any reaction that would lead to the DPP losing the election. Lai is not going to lead or support any rebellion. Indirectly, he was probably telling the independence fundamentalists to shelve any ideas of putting forward their own presidential candidate.


This result is a huge victory for Tsai. After last November’s election disaster, I wondered if she would survive. The party seemed to rally around her, and by March it was expected that she would be unopposed for the nomination. However, Lai’s shock entrance into the race put her presidency into extreme and immediate danger. She was clearly behind in the polls, and there was a very real possibility that she would become a disgraced and repudiated lame duck with a full year left in her term. She has now avoided this nightmare scenario. Moreover, the competition with Lai has forced her to explain to the country why she deserves another term, something she had not bothered to do. It also focused the thinking of DPP supporters, forcing them to think about whether they really valued her record in office or not. She emerges from this process with much higher approval ratings and a much stronger sentiment of support within the green camp.

One thing that is under-appreciated is that Tsai managed this come-from-behind victory without going negative. The contest between Tsai and Lai was remarkably restrained. Their supporters sometimes grumbled that the other wasn’t respecting the rules or was engaging in personal attacks. However, it never spun out of control, and the two principals mostly stuck to the high road. Winning while eschewing negative attacks was only possible because Tsai’s allies changed the timetable. If the polls had actually been held three weeks after registration, the only way to change public opinion that much in that short of a time period would have been for Tsai to go negative. Positive messages need time to sink in, and it helps if the outside world reinforces those messages. Tsai’s discourse about building a foundation and starting only now to see some results needed two months plus a series of external events to shift perceptions. Negative attacks are quicker. All you have to do is present some evidence that demonstrates your opponent isn’t actually the type of person that voters thought. Of course, going negative also makes your opponents’ supports dislike you more, but that is something to worry about after you win. Tsai’s team figured out how to stay positive and not have to face that post-victory dilemma.


Let’s turn to the polling primary results.

There were lots of worries that Han supporters or Ko supporters might try to manipulate the DPP’s polling primary to get the weakest opponent possible. Taiwan was the first country to formally use telephone polls to determine nominations, and every time I discuss this system with other political scientists, they inevitably gravitate toward the question of manipulation by the other party. Indeed, the logic of microeconomics and institutions suggests that such behavior should be widespread. We can’t actually do rigorous research on this topic in any straightforward way. The parties would never share their polling primary data with academics, and, even if they did, those results might not contain enough information to provide definitive answers.

However, my gut tells me that manipulation by the other party is rarely widespread enough to be noticeable, much less decisive. The main reason for this is that it usually isn’t obvious who the weakest candidate is. It is useless to support an extremely weak candidate. For example, in the upcoming KMT polling primary, it won’t do much good for DPP identifiers to support Chou Hsi-wei or Chang Ya-chung since neither of them has a realistic shot of winning. You have to help someone who is already strong enough to be viable and who, almost by definition, is popular enough to win the general election. In the DPP’s case, Lai and Tsai have been fairly close in recent polls, though Lai’s consistent lead in earlier polls and his repeated insistence that he was the stronger candidate may have made an impression on some voters. Tsai has the advantages of incumbency, but she also has the baggage of her incumbency. I have seen arguments that Ko supporters might support Lai, thinking that Ko would be more likely to run if Tsai were in the race because he might be deterred by the more popular Lai. I suspect the opposite: Ko is more likely to run against Lai, since the independence fundamentalists were the ones who insisted on running a DPP candidate against him in the 2018 mayoral race. The point here is not that any of these ideas are right or wrong. The point is that there are lots of compelling ideas that different people might have about the state of the race, and they point in different directions. Moreover, what if you support a particularly odious person who appears to be weaker and that person eventually wins the presidency? How would you feel then? If the USA had had telephone polling primaries in 2016, a lot of Democrats might have supported Trump since he was widely seen as unelectable. That would not have turned out well. I think what usually happens is that people who support the other party just stay out of it. Either they don’t answer their phones, or they answer sincerely that they support the other party. “Don’t get me involved in your lousy party’s business. A pox on you all!”

The only case in which I think widespread manipulation by the other party might have been significant was the KMT’s nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu in the 2016 election. Hung was running unopposed, so she had to pass a popularity threshold rather than beat another person. She was widely seen as unelectable, and many people thought she wouldn’t pass. In that case, the KMT was expected to draft a more formidable candidate to contest the election. In this relatively unique case, most of the arrows pointed in the same direction for DPP supporters. I don’t have any concrete evidence that they helped her, but her poll results were shockingly strong.


The DPP asked respondents two main questions: who do you support among Tsai, Han, and Ko, and who do you support among Lai, Han, and Ko? The winner was determined by comparing the number of people who supported Tsai in the first question with the number of people who supported Lai in the second question. Five survey organizations were to each poll 3000 respondents. In fact, 16,051 interviews were completed, with just over half (8056) from landlines. The results from the five different organizations were similar; Tsai’s margin of victory ranged from 7.2% to 8.8%. I’m going to focus on the final average instead of worrying about those minor difference.

DPP Han Ko None
Tsai 35.7 24.5 22.7 17.1
Lai 27.5 23.5 27.4 21.7

The DPP did not report the final column; I created it by subtracting the other columns from 100%.

How did this result come about? It is important to remember that this is not a normal public opinion poll. This was a polling primary poll, and everyone knew it was happening. DPP supporters were much more eager to participate than other citizens. We have lots of anecdotal evidence of how they mobilized themselves, so I expect them to be highly overrepresented. We don’t have a breakdown of cell phones and landlines, but I would expect the DPP identifiers to be much more overrepresented among landlines. You have to stay at home to answer the landline, whereas you can carry your cell phone anywhere and continue life (mostly) as normal. In addition to the sample being skewed by partisanship, there will also be a lot of respondents who did not answer sincerely. If you want to influence the outcome, you cannot say that you would support both candidates in the general election. So we shouldn’t expect these results to look like normal polling results.

Fortunately, we have a pretty good idea of what a normal poll might look like. Apple Daily published a poll on June 11 that was conducted on June 8-9. (The DPP polling primary was held June 10-12.) This poll also used 50% cell phones and 50% landlines.

Apple poll DPP Han Ko None
Tsai 30.0 30.4 27.6 12.0
Lai 27.6 28.9 29.8 13.7

This poll is quite a bit different from the DPP polling primary result. Han and Ko are significantly higher, and the proportion of respondents with no opinion is considerably lower.

How hard would it be to get from this poll to the DPP results? I propose two steps. Step one is to skew the sample by inflating DPP responses and deflating everyone else. If you multiply all the Han, Ko, and none cells by 0.8 (which implies that the two DPP cells are increased by about 50%), you get the following table:

Skew sample DPP Han Ko None
Tsai 44.0 24.3 22.1 9.6
Lai 42.1 23.1 23.8 11.0

Step two is to adjust for strategic voting. Campaigns coach supporters to say that they “only support” a particular candidate. In the second question, if you answer that you only support Tsai, this will be coded as “none.” Not surprisingly, the DPP polling results have a high proportion of non-responses. If we shift 8% of Tsai’s support and 10% of Lai’s support to the “none” column, you can get pretty close to the level of non-responses in the primary result. A smaller number of respondents might have strategically (or sincerely) expressed support for a non-DPP candidate. Ko’s result against Lai is quite a bit higher than our expected value. We need to shift another 4% from Lai to Ko to account for this. These shifts produce the following table:

strategic DPP Han Ko None
Tsai 36.0 24.3 22.1 17.6
Lai 28.1 23.1 27.8 21.0

This result is very similar to the polling primary results. In this scenario, about 18% of Tsai’s potential support strategically decided not to vote for her, while about 33% of Lai’s potential support strategically decided not to vote for him. To put it another way, about half of DPP voters voted sincerely (supporting both) while about half voted strategically (for only one). This seems reasonable, given that various pre-election polls showed that far more DPP identifiers supported Tsai than Lai.

Please remember, these last two tables are not real data. I just made them up.

The point is not that this is exactly what happened. Instead, I want to suggest that we don’t need to make any complicated assumptions about KMT or Ko supporters to get to the actual results. These results are perfectly compatible with a world in which those people all vote sincerely. Of course, in the real world, I’m sure that some of them voted strategically for Lai or Tsai. However, the number of strategic KMT or Ko voters was small, or they cancelled out their effect by voting for different candidates, or both.

In this election, the system worked pretty much as intended. The general public had an opportunity to weigh in, but DPP supporters made up a disproportionate part of the overall sample and their preferences drove the final outcome.



Update (several hours later the same day): A friend pointed me to a breakdown of the results by age and sex, so now we have a bit more data to look at. WordPress doesn’t like wide tables, so let me break their table into several parts.

Category Sample size %
Full sample 16051 100.0
Age group    
  20-29 2600 16.2
  30-39 3023 18.8
  40-49 3066 19.1
  50-59 3007 18.7
  60-69 2430 15.1
  70&up 1763 11.0
  Male 7882 49.1
  Female 8169 50.9

The first thing to note is that they weighted the data, something I wasn’t sure about. The age breakdown is a very close match to the overall population. It would be nearly impossible to get this close without weighting. In a previous post, I presented a table from a TISR poll that showed that their unweighted sample using both cell phones and landlines was closer to the population than either exclusively cell phones or exclusively landlines, but it was still a bit off. For example, their combined sample only had 10.4% in the 20-29% age range. Weighting is standard procedure, so I don’t mean to imply that this is controversial. I am simply interested to see clear evidence that they did it (since they don’t publicize their methodology). I assume the results were weighted by age, sex, and city/county.

  Tsai Han Ko None
Male 38.2 24.4 23.7 13.7
Female 33.3 24.6 21.8 20.4
  Lai Han Ko None
Male 30.6 23.2 28.5 17.7
Female 24.5 23.7 6.3 25.4

Tsai beat Lai by 7.6% among men and 8.8% among men. I’m a little surprised that the gender gap isn’t larger. 1.2% is barely noticeable. The gender breakdown isn’t stunning, but the age breakdown is.

  Tsai Han Ko None
  20-29 38.9 10.9 36.9 13.3
  30-39 34.2 18.0 35.3 12.5
  40-49 31.0 26.2 27.2 15.6
  50-59 34.6 35.0 16.1 14.4
  60-69 41.9 32.6 8.7 16.9
  70&up 36.7 24.8 4.8 33.7
  Lai Han Ko None
  20-29 14.1 10.1 53.3 22.6
  30-39 18.9 16.9 45.5 18.7
  40-49 27.5 25.4 28.1 19.0
  50-59 34.7 33.8 15.3 16.1
  60-69 39.5 31.1 9.4 20.0
  70&up 34.3 24.0 4.3 37.4

Eyeballing those results, among people over 40, Tsai won by about 2%. Among people 39 and under, Tsai won by roughly 20%. Her comfortable margin came entirely from the youngest third of the electorate. It bears repeating that she did win the older voters. However, if today’s overall result had been a narrow 2% victory, the losing side would not have been nearly as gracious and she would face a much tougher task in uniting the party for the general election.

The staggering gap among younger voters makes me wonder if the fracas over marriage equality actually helped Tsai. It seems plausible to me that some younger voters who are disillusioned with both establishment parties took another look at her after that fight and concluded that maybe she wasn’t just another unprincipled, conservative, corrupt establishment politician. Admittedly, this is just speculation. What is clear is that Lai (along with Han) is definitely not popular among younger voters.

DPP presidential debate

June 8, 2019

The DPP held its first and only presidential debate today. Before I discuss that, let me step back and look at some of the broad contours of the race.

I have been trying to figure out why Lai is challenging Tsai. His stated rationale, that he can win in 2020 and she cannot, is not very compelling. Mrs. Garlic and I have had several long discussions about this topic, and, as usual, she has lots of sharp insight. Lai’s challenge is fundamentally factional and ideological, pitting the independence fundamentalists against Tsai’s more pragmatic wing of the DPP. We have come up with a list of grievances that the old men might have:

  • Respect / flattery. Tsai has not regularly invited the elders of the independence movement to provide her with their guidance and wisdom the way that President Chen did. The probably feel ignored, used, and marginalized.
  • Chen Shui-bian. Tsai has not pardoned him. Instead, she has left his case to the legal system.
  • Tsai did not fill the cabinet with DPP party loyalists, much less people from the independence wing. Instead, she put a large number of bureaucrats and technocrats (like her first premier, Lin Chuan 林全, who was a – gasp – mainlander and was once a New Party voter) into power. Even when Lai became premier, he was not given free reign to fill offices with his people.
  • This is related to posts. I think the fundamentalists thought that, after winning such a big victory in 2016, they should have the opportunity to fundamentally reshape a few policy areas. Two obvious ministries that they would have wanted are education and culture. One can imagine that they had envisioned a textbook overhaul, similar to but in the opposite direction of what Ma Ying-jeou attempted. They might have also been disgusted with Tsai’s relatively moderate pension reform, thinking that the government should have used its power to slash pensions to civil servants (who they are more likely to see as their longtime antagonists) to a bare minimum. We aren’t sure about the causal role of marriage equality in this. Presbyterian minister Kao Chun-ming 高俊明 was a key figure in both the rebellion against Tsai and the Presbyterian Church’s rebellion against the DPP’s push for marriage equality. We can’t decide which one was the root cause and which was the collateral damage.
  • Tsai doesn’t speak Taiwanese in casual conversation. This makes it hard for them to consider her one of them and for them to give her the benefit of the doubt when things are rough.
  • Tsai is a woman, and nearly all of the independence fundamentalists are men who are older than her. Koo Kuan-min 辜寬敏, a rich old man who has opposed her at least since they ran against each other for party chair in 2008, recently suggested in a newspaper ad that she should yield her position so that she could become revered as the “mother of the country” 國母. Moreover, she should yield in order to give a “young boy” 年輕的男孩子 a chance. Koo seems to think that the proper place for women is to be up on a pedestal in a place of uncontroversial reverence rather than down on earth exercising power and making enemies. It’s also completely nonsensical and cynical. You don’t become father or mother of anything by quitting in the face of difficulties, and Koo is currently leading the movement to stab her in the back, not the movement to put up statues of her.  I think most of Lai’s supporters are less chauvinistic than Koo, and for most of them her gender is, like language, more of a mild irritant than fundamental grievance.
  • The referendum. Tsai tried to discourage the referendum to use the name “Taiwan” in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As I have previously said, I think this might have been the final straw.

It should be obvious why Lai hasn’t based his campaign on airing the grievances in this list. None of them have broad popular support, and many are quite selfish. So instead, Lai has had to base his attempted regicide on the argument that he alone can save the party from impending electoral disaster.

Lai claims that he did not decide to run until he went out on the campaign trail in the March by-election and realized how unpopular President Tsai was. This is simply not credible. In a TVBS profile that aired just a couple days ago, Lai claimed that he was always deliberate and planned his actions carefully. For goodness sakes, he launched a book in March. That takes a little planning.

Lai seems to be taken aback that Tsai has resisted his challenge. It looks to me like he thought he would launch a quick strike, and the coup would be successful before anyone had time to react. The first step to this strategy was installing Cho Jung-tai 卓榮泰 as party chair. Since Tsai had just vacated the office and didn’t expect any primary challenge, she carelessly took a hands-off approach to the choice. Cho then pushed through a very quick timetable to decide the nomination. Historically, the DPP has held a major party conference to nominate its candidate. Cho convinced the other people on the Central Executive Committee that there was no need for such a long, expensive, and troublesome process since there wasn’t going to be any challenge to Tsai. Instead, they settle on a very quick process, with the formality of a polling primary scheduled a mere three weeks after registration. Then, when Lai unveiled his surprise attack, Cho insisted that the DPP would simply follow these (new and different) procedures. Cho has been critical to Lai’s claim that he has the procedural moral high ground. If they had actually held the polling primary in mid-April as scheduled, Lai would certainly have won, and his putsch would have been a fait accompli. With such a quick decision, Tsai would have simply rolled over and died, and deep divisions within the party wouldn’t have had time to develop. Unifying the party for the general election would have been relatively simple.

Of course, that extremely naïve scenario hasn’t happened. After dithering about for two weeks, Tsai’s allies finally managed to delay the primary. With a little time, Tsai was finally convinced that she had to stop ignoring politics and get out there to defend her presidency. Over the past two months, she has slowly put together a coherent argument for her presidency. In the first three years, her administration has done the politically difficult and unpopular work of laying a foundation, and now we are finally starting to see the first signs of the new house emerging from that foundation. She can talk about tax reform, wind power, pension reform, the new southbound policy, bringing Taiwanese businesses back to Taiwan, and, above all, a series of breakthroughs in national defense and relations with the USA and Japan. Her poll numbers have slowly improved. Her satisfaction ratings still aren’t great, but they are no longer disastrous. A TVBS poll showed her satisfaction in mid-May at 36%, up from 23% in January and 15% in late November. The same poll showed that as many people thought the country was on the right track as on the wrong track (41%-41%), an improvement from the 30%-36% results in January and the 32%-43% in May 2018. When the asked about individual policy areas, those had all improved as well, with the biggest improvements coming in cross-straits policy, national defense, long-term care, and policy communication. While her satisfaction ratings for economic policies are still bad (around 30% satisfied), she now has a net positive rating for national defense. Her poll numbers in the presidential horse race haven’t changed quite as much, but they have also inched upward. In the last two weeks, most of the polls have showed her 1-3% ahead of Lai in the three-way matchup with Ko and Han.

Tsai’s rise in the polls undermines Lai’s stated motivation for running. He is no longer obviously more popular, and it is no longer clear that he could save the party while she would inevitably lead it to defeat. A few days ago, a reporter asked Lai about his reaction to trailing in a poll. Lai replied that he would respond by working harder before catching himself and clarifying that all the polls he has seen show him clearly ahead. Lai cannot afford to be losing.

This logic made Tsai’s task in the debate quite a bit easier than Lai’s. She merely had to reiterate her recent string of good news, assure voters that her administration has turned a corner, and casually mention that the polls show that voters have felt the change and that she is now leading and is the best hope to win re-election. She could also point out that nominating Lai was tantamount to rejecting the DPP’s record over the last three years, and it would be impossible for him to win the general election while simultaneously claiming that the DPP had been lousy in office. In contrast, Lai could only reassert that he could win and she could not. He couldn’t really even complain too much about being outmaneuvered on nomination procedures. He is claiming to be overwhelmingly more popular; a slight tweak in the rules shouldn’t be enough to defeat him.

Ok, so how did the debate go? The opening statements were Lai’s best portion and Tsai’s worst portion. Lai started by assuring the audience that his candidacy was not meant to be a refutation of the DPP’s three years in office. He spent the rest of his opening statement talking about his four big goals. First, he would maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty. Second, he would unify the people. He mentioned a few things he would do, including judicial reform. This seemed to imply that he is dissatisfied with Tsai’s judicial reform (as most people are). Third, he would stimulate the economy. Again, he listed a number of concrete steps, including implementing universal 12 year education, addressing high housing prices, and promoting the new economy (based on tech and green industries). Fourth, he would strengthen Taiwan. He put several disparate ideas under this vague umbrella. He would stress national defense, internationalizing the situation by stressing Taiwan’s place in the first island chain. He would also promote democracy within China and promote Taiwan’s liberal values worldwide. He would improve Taiwan’s international trade position by promoting investment and signing trade agreements, such as CPTPP and a FTA with the USA. He would also promote English as a second national language, and take steps to raise the birth rate.

Let me pause here to editorialize. This didn’t sound bad coming out of Lai’s mouth, but there isn’t much new in this list. Other than judicial reform, he didn’t suggest he would do anything different from what the Tsai administration is already doing. Apparently, he would simply do these things better because he is more awesome. Still, it was an acceptably charismatic statement, and he looked and sounded presidential in giving it.

Tsai’s opening statement followed the script I had expected, talking about her accomplishments in office. However, it felt like fifteen different people had written and revised the script. It was hard to follow her logical thought process, so we jumped from one idea to the next with no connections between ideas. About two minutes in, I wrote “word salad” in my notes. Here was the essence of President Tsai laid bare. Even as she was going down a list of achievements, she was doing a terrible job of conveying those achievements. Rather than stating them simply and punching each point, she talked around each one and never really hit anything home.

Some of the topics she mentioned in her opening statement included pension reform, energy policy (wind power and creating a nuclear-free country), transitional justice, tax reform, national defense (both to protect sovereignty and to create a strong domestic industry), efforts to diversify the economy so as not to put all eggs in one basket (read: China), promote foreign investment, promote social welfare, prepare a legal framework for a stronger national security, work toward entering CPTPP and a FTA with the USA, and ensuring that the rest of the world saw Taiwan as a reliably and trustworthy partner rather than as a troublemaker. I think she would have been better off trimming that list and taking the extra time to add a concrete example or a specific statistic to illustrate and sell those points better.

The rest of the debate went better for Tsai and worse for Lai, but the opening statements are always the most important part of a debate. Lots of viewers don’t watch until the end, and your first impressions are usually the ones that stay with them. This debate didn’t feature any American-style back and forth, so there were no zingers or personal attacks to grab fading attention. If a viewer decided to tune out, there wasn’t much to stop him or her from doing that.

The middle third of the debate featured questions from three people. I thought the most illuminating responses came from the second question. Lai Chung-chiang 賴中強 suggested that low wages were related to the relatively high number of foreign laborers and asked if either would reduce the number of foreign laborers. Neither took that bait, but they answered the question in very different ways. Tsai spent her four minutes talking about the policies that she had put in place to try to raise wages and helping young people financially. These included things like raising the minimum wage, raising public servants’ wages, creating higher paying jobs, lowering taxes, and increasing social welfare programs that young parents might use. Lai spent his time talking about why it was so difficult to raise wages, how lots of different market forces were involved. He concluded that the best way to raise wages was to stimulate the entire economy. In essence, Lai was giving a free-market answer while Tsai was giving a social democrat answer.

Tsai’s closing statement was much more coherent than her opening statement. She started by noting that that there would be important and unpredictable changes in the global environment over the next four years, and it would be critical to have a steady leader to respond to those developments. Her experience in negotiations and managing national defense would be important. She then pointed out that the rest of the world now sees Taiwan as a reliable and responsible partner and hammered home the importance of this by going through a list of recent breakthroughs, including renaming offices in Japan and the USA, increased cooperation with the USA military, cooperation with Europe and developments in southeast Asia, cooperation with the USA in protecting Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relationships, and being clear and steadfast in Taiwan’s position toward sovereignty and defense so that China would not misunderstand Taiwan’s resolve. She ended by talking about party unity. She would not simply give up because of one setback. Instead, she has reflected and adjusted to the 2018 result while still holding true to the DPP’s core values. Now she is more and more confident toward 2020. However, if they reject their own record 自我否定, they will not win. The party should unify around her, and one plus one is greater than two. (Note: Who suggested that a math equation is stirring political rhetoric??)

Lai seemed to have run out of points, and his closing statement was largely a reiteration of his basic theme that he could win. He started by sadly reminding viewers that the DPP couldn’t just ignore 2018. If they lose in 2020, they will lose all the achievements that the Tsai government has worked so hard for. Lai then turned to a baseball analogy: if a team’s starting pitcher gets into trouble and they bring in a relief pitcher, no one accuses the relief pitcher of disloyalty. The middle part of Lai’s statement involved multiple ways of saying, “I will be a good president.” He grew up poor, so he will listen to people. He is a doctor, so he will be a leader and solve problems. He is not corrupt, so he will be a good president. Note: I am not simplifying those statements; he did not go beyond saying he would be a good leader, for example, to explain just how he would lead. He did not elaborate on what problems he would solve, how he would solve them, or why he would be able to solve problems that others could not. He just asserted that he would solve problems. It wasn’t very well presented or very convincing. In my notes, I wrote “stumbling.” Lai went on to say that the international environment is changing, and Taiwan needs a strong leader to respond. Taiwan’s great challenge for the next generation will be promoting democracy in China. Finally, Lai ended with a revealing plea that was simultaneously a refutation of any idealism: “victory is our highest value” 勝利是我們最高的價值.

I hope this recap has conveyed the shallowness of Lai’s candidacy thus far. He has yet to articulate any compelling vision for the country that is different from anything Tsai has done. He seems to think that he will just be better at doing those things because he is the God Lai 賴神, and he always holds the moral high ground. Of his very few concrete proposals, at least two are far-fetched. He has talked about constitutional reform (and mentioned it briefly today), suggesting that he would abolish the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan. Of course, he won’t have the power to do this by himself. No constitutional reforms will pass without a consensus of the major parties, and he has not said anything about how he would persuade the KMT to agree to this. It is an empty talking point that will be dead on arrival. He has also repeatedly talked about promoting democracy in China. China will change when China changes; outside forces are not going to force China to democratize. At any rate, Lai hasn’t explained just how he would go about interfering in Chinese politics. Does he have a massive network of Taiwan independence activists ready to be mobilized in Jiangsu? Again, this is an empty talking point. As president, Lai would probably be more aggressively nationalist than Tsai, perhaps doing symbolic things like pardoning Chen and substantive things like revising history textbooks. He would probably be more market-oriented and less worried about social welfare than Tsai. And other than that, who knows? He certainly hasn’t told us. He just expects us to trust that he will be awesome.

In his closing statement, Lai argued that, if he lost, he would still be doing a service to the DPP by forcing Tsai to reinvent herself as Tsai 2.0. He has a point. As of late March, Tsai seemed completely uninterested in public opinion or the upcoming election. It was an image she has projected for most of her presidency. It took her a few weeks to shake off her torpor and start to mobilize to respond to Lai’s challenge. (Their first reaction should have been to vote to rewrite the primary timeline; instead, it took them until late May to figure this out.) It hasn’t been the most inspiring response, but at least she has finally started to project an image of caring about public opinion. She has seemed to finally realize that it isn’t enough to hold meetings about defense policy all day; the president also has to explain to the public what she is doing and what kinds of results they will be getting. If she manages to survive the next week, she probably should thank Lai for kicking her in the butt and getting her moving. On the other hand, there is no avoiding the fact that his challenge has, in fact, been a refutation of her term in office so far. Voters are now keenly aware that a significant part of the DPP’s base thinks that Tsai has been a failure in office. Regardless of who wins the nomination, that is a problem that will not go away. How can you ask for four more years of DPP government if the party has judged itself a failure?

types of voters

June 6, 2019

Like many people, I was shocked by the 2018 election. I did not expect such a ferocious anti-DPP wave, and I had no idea what to make of the Han Kuo-yu phenomenon. I was planning to conduct an internet survey for one of my research projects (on an unrelated matter), and I thought I might use it to learn something about the state of the electorate.

THIS IS NOT A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE OF TAIWAN’S ELECTORATE. In fact, my sample is very different from Taiwan’s electorate. It is useless to look for anything more specific than very big and crude trends. I will say things such as, “there is a very large group that …” and “there is a small but noticeable group that…” Don’t worry about exactly how big each group is; it isn’t that size in the overall electorate. The goal here is to look for groups of people who don’t follow the traditional party lines. If we can identify big, broad groups of voters who don’t follow the standard voting patterns, maybe we will get some insight into what happened last year – and what may happen next January.

At the end of an already lengthy questionnaire, I added eleven more questions. The first four were about the major political parties, and the other seven were about specific politicians. Each one was of the same format, “How much do you like XXX? On a scale of zero to ten, where zero means you dislike it very much and ten means you like it very much, how many points would you give XXX?” In a telephone or face-to-face survey, we typically allow respondents to refuse to answer or to say they don’t know. However, in internet surveys we are paying respondents, and we don’t let them more on to the next page until they give an answer. As a result, all 1000 of my respondents gave a valid answer to each of the eleven questions.

Before I show you any results, let me tell you a bit about how my sample is biased. Over three-fourths of my sample has at a university or higher education, and almost no one has a junior high or less. You should probably think of this as a non-representative sample of highly educated people rather than a non-representative sample of all Taiwanese. There are too many people aged 30-49, and not enough aged under 29 or over 60. There are too many public employees, white collar executives, and office clerks, and not enough blue collar laborers, farmers, student, or homemakers. Politically, the deviations from society’s mean are smaller. There are slightly too many mainlanders and people who identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese. However, on the question of Taiwan’s future status, there are not enough people who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely but too many who want to move toward eventual independence. About one-third of my sample identifies with a green camp party, one-third with a blue camp party, and one-third expresses no party identification or identifies with an unaligned party. Demographically, this sample is extremely different from the overall population; politically it is reasonably close. The survey was conducted in mid-April.

I asked how much respondents liked eleven parties and individuals. We finalized the questionnaire before Terry Gou announced his candidacy, so he is not included. Here are overall average scores for each party or person.

name name mean Stand. Dev.
KMT 國民黨 3.68 2.70
DPP 民進黨 3.56 2.59
NPP 時代力量 3.87 2.78
PFP 親民黨 2.84 2.11
Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 3.97 3.12
Lai Ching-teh 賴清德 3.99 2.80
Wu Den-yi 吳敦義 2.25 2.24
Chu Li-lun 朱立倫 3.61 2.57
Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 5.13 2.88
Han Kuo-yu 韓國瑜 4.46 3.53
Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 3.31 2.33

Educated Taiwanese are a pretty skeptical bunch. The only one of the eleven to break 5.00 is Ko Wen-je, and he barely manages it. Han Kuo-yu comes in second at 4.46, and the two DPP presidential aspirants are both a hair under 4.00. The leading candidates are all more liked than their parties. Anyway, these overall scores are not that useful with a non-representative sample.

I took these eleven variables and put them into a hierarchical cluster model. Cluster models calculate the distance between each case and group more similar cases together. When running the model, you specify how many groups you want. I looked at as few as four groups and as many as 25. From 11 to 25 clusters, there were five big groups and the rest of the clusters had only one to eight cases. It was pretty obvious that I was interested in those five big groups. I used the results from 11 clusters. The five big clusters held all but 17 of the cases, and I manually recoded those other six clusters into what looked to me like the best fit. This left five big groups.
















Cases 221 86 284 71 338
KMT 6.05 3.03 5.39 1.77 1.26
Wu 3.81 .94 3.71 .38 .74
Chu 5.37 2.17 5.33 1.76 1.77
Han 8.43 3.23 6.04 4.18 .92
Wang 2.97 .94 4.77 2.76 3.02
PFP 2.85 1.60 4.13 1.80 2.28
Ko 4.00 2.00 5.99 7.73 5.40
NPP .81 1.58 4.06 5.18 6.01
DPP .83 1.71 4.25 1.32 5.70
Tsai .48 1.31 4.16 2.54 7.06
Lai 1.04 1.53 4.77 2.51 6.21

My old statistics teacher used to say that the hardest part of running a cluster analysis is not doing any of the statistical work. The crucial step is naming the clusters so that you capture the essence of each group.

Cluster 1 and cluster 5 are pretty straightforward. Cluster 1 is Solid Blue. This group of respondents likes the KMT, Chu, and Han, and it dislikes the DPP, the NPP, and all of the DPP candidates. It doesn’t hate Ko, but it clearly prefers Han and Chu to him. Pay special attention to Han; this group absolutely adores (8.43) Han. This group does not like Wang, so I think of this group as having fairly orthodox KMT preferences.

Cluster 5 is Solid Green. This is the biggest single group. It clearly prefers all the green options to all the blue options. Predictably, among the blue options, it dislikes Wang the least. However, Wang isn’t likely to get any votes from this group. Among the two DPP candidates, there is a slight preference for Tsai. Notably, Ko is relatively well-liked in this group, and he will probably siphon a few votes away.

There are three large groups and two small groups. The third large group is cluster 3, which I have labeled the “battleground.” This group doesn’t really adore or despise anyone, and it generally likes the blue options a little more than the green options. This group likes Han, but it is much less passionate about him than the Solid Blue group. In fact, unlike cluster 1, this group likes Wang quite a lot; it is easily his best group.  Ko is basically tied with Han. I think of this as the amorphous middle in Taiwan politics that isn’t rooted to any particular party or ideology. In the current atmosphere they lean a bit more blue than green, but I suspect they leaned slightly to the green side in 2016. Everyone will pull some votes from this group. If this group does end up voting mostly blue, that will tilt the overall balance toward the blue camp.  Alternatively, this might end up being the biggest source of votes for Ko.

Clusters 2 and 4 are significantly smaller than the first three. Cluster 2 is disillusioned with politics. It doesn’t like anyone or anything. The only two options it doesn’t absolutely hate are the KMT and Han, and even they barely break 3.00. I suspect a lot of this group won’t bother to vote, and some who do will cast protest votes.  Of those who do cast useful votes, most will probably vote for the KMT candidate, assuming it isn’t Wang or Wu.

Cluster 4 is the anti-establishment party group. These voters dislike the two big parties. However, they are not totally alienated. They like the NPP, and they love Ko (7.73). However, you should not think of this group as green camp voters. If Ko doesn’t run, their next option is Han. Apparently, this group likes political outsiders.

With these five groups, you can start to see the outlines of what happened in 2018. We might imagine that in 2016 most of group 3 voted for Tsai (and DPP district legislative candidates). Group 4 was probably much smaller or much more similar to group 5 back in 2016. In 2018, however, group 4 probably did not turn out for the DPP. They may have stayed home, or they may have voted for third party candidates. In Kaohsiung, they probably voted for the outsider, Han. Even more devastating, the DPP lost group 3, the enormous battleground group. This group doesn’t strongly prefer the KMT to the DPP, but a vote is a vote. The good news for the DPP is that this group won’t automatically vote for the KMT in 2020. It might be able to do better in 2020, and Ko will siphon away large numbers of voters who would otherwise vote for the KMT.

The Han phenomenon is interesting. Han has figured out how to simultaneously appeal to three very different groups. The orthodox KMT people in group 1 absolutely love him, so he must speak KMT gospel fluently. The people in the battleground group 3 like him, so he must be able to speak to the broad non-ideological masses in that group. And group 4 is willing to consider him since he has figured out how to make anti-establishment appeals. The strange thing is that he can do these three things simultaneously. If he is the KMT nominee, the DPP strategy should be to paint him into the first box. That is, they should hammer home that he is just another orthodox KMT figure; he really isn’t the representative of the common people, much less the protest candidate. Unfortunately for them, Ko might be the primary beneficiary of such a strategy.

Ko is surprisingly strong across all categories, with the exception of the (small) group 2. In this sample, it looks not only like Ko is well-positioned to win first preferences, it also looks like he is ready to scoop up strategic voters if either the KMT or DPP attacks against each other succeed. However, keep in mind that this sample probably overestimates Ko’s support, since it doesn’t include low-educated voters. Without organizational muscle, Ko will have a hard time with that demographic. Still, you can see from this breakdown of educated voters why Ko thinks he has a good chance to win.

There isn’t much difference between Tsai and Lai in this analysis. They look pretty much the same in all five groups. I tried looking for the Lai primary voters who supposedly are fueling his challenge to Tsai. I looked for people who preferred Lai by at least three points over Tsai and also gave Lai at least a six. I found 48 such respondents. However, by the same standards, I found 84 people who preferred Tsai to Lai. I simply couldn’t find a large group of deep greens who supposedly are fed up with Tsai but love Lai. I’m sure they exist at the elite level, but they might be louder than they are numerous.

At any rate, both Tsai and Lai have a clear claim on group 5. Group 5 is big, but it probably isn’t big enough to win, even in a three-way race. The problem is that they don’t have any other good groups. They will win a few votes in group 3, but both the KMT and Ko are more popular there. Ko will eviscerate them in group 4. Other than mobilizing group 5, their best bet is try to squeeze a few more votes out of group 3. Lai might be better positioned to do this than Tsai, but either will find this a difficult task.

There seems to be a consensus in the punditry that the DPP is better off if Ko does not run. I am not so sure about this. Most of the votes that Ko wins in groups 3 and 4 would otherwise go to the KMT. It might be better for the DPP if Ko runs and siphons away those votes. Of course, the pundits seem to be assuming that if Ko doesn’t run, he will endorse the DPP candidate. I don’t know why they would make this assumption after the bitter 2018 campaign. Nevertheless, if he does endorse Tsai and campaign hard for her (it seems nearly impossible to me that he would enthusiastically endorse Lai), it is possible that she could win over a large chunk of group 3. Ko’s influence would be most critical for group 4, where he might be the key to swinging that significant voting block to her. However, I suspect that Ko would rather be the king than the kingmaker.





landlines and cell phones

June 3, 2019

The DPP finally settled on its presidential nomination procedures last week. Among the most controversial of the decisions was the question of whether to incorporate cell phones into the polling primary sample. At first glance, this might seem like an extremely arcane and technical matter, hardly the stuff of political controversy, much less the type of thing that could swing a presidential election. However, just as in tax laws and Google user agreements, the fine print matters more than you might expect. In this post, I want to look at why this has become such an important question.

A good starting place is with a recent TISR survey. The topic of this survey was satisfaction with President Tsai after three years in office, but we are not really concerned with that. This survey had roughly half the sample from landlines and half from cell phones. At the bottom of the report, TISR presents a breakdown of the two samples by age and education.

population landlines Cell phones
20-29 16.3 4.7 21.5
30-39 18.9 12.5 16.7
40-49 19.3 15.5 22.1
50-59 18.9 21.1 18.2
60-69 15.4 27.2 15.7
70&up 11.3 18.9 5.8
Primary school 13.1 17.2 4.4
Middle school 12.2 13.5 6.3
High school 27.7 30.4 31.5
Technical college 12.0 11.1 11.5
University 27.3 21.5 36.6
Graduate school 7.7 6.3 9.7

As you can see, the two types of samples are quite different from each other and from the population. Landlines drastically underrepresent younger voters and voters with higher education levels. Cell phones are much closer to the population on age, underrepresenting only the oldest category and overrepresenting only the youngest category. On education, however, cell phones significantly underrepresent people with lower education levels and significantly overrepresent people with higher education levels.

Almost no one simply presents the raw data as an estimate of the population. Instead, the respondents are weighted according to their share of the population. Typically, they will be weighted by variables that we have authoritative data on, such as age, sex, and region. Some analysts will also weight on education level, but this is much riskier since we don’t have great statistics for the population. (Government stats are based on household registration data, and not everyone’s education level is accurate in that database.) I don’t know exactly how the DPP weights its results, but I assume they use age, sex, and perhaps city/county. I don’t think they ask about education levels in their polling primary questionnaire.

Assume we only had the landline sample from above with 1000 responses. The 47 respondents aged 20-29 would be weighted up by multiplying each response by some number, on average 16.3/4.7=3.47, though that number would also be adjusted according to their sex and region. The estimate of the population would thus have 163 weighted responses from the 20-29 age group, not 47.

What this means is that, if those 47 people accurately reflected the 20-29 age group as a whole, the weighted estimate would be a pretty good estimation of the population. Think about what this means. If the only things skewing the sample are age, sex, and region, then weighting should solve that problem. Landlines should give a good estimate of the population. Of course, exactly the same logic applies to cell phones. Thus, landlines and cell phones should provide exactly the same estimate. It shouldn’t matter whether cell phones are included in the polling primary, and it shouldn’t matter what percentage of the responses are collected from cell phones.

Of course, you have probably already spotted the flaw in this logic. Age, sex, and region are NOT the only things skewing the samples. We can see quite clearly that education is also different in the two samples. The 20-29 year-olds who answer landline calls are not like the 20-29 year-olds who answer cell phones calls. What kinds of young people answer landline calls? My guess is that the overwhelming majority live with their parents, who still have landlines. One might imagine that people living with their parents have different socialization experiences, can be mobilized by different social networks, and get information from different sources.

TISR also asked whether respondents had only a cell phone, only a landline, or both. I don’t have much to comment about this; I just think it is neat.

population Cell only both Landline only
20-29 16.3 28.7 10.4 1.9
30-39 18.9 23.8 13.7 2.8
40-49 19.3 19.3 20.3 6.5
50-59 18.9 13.5 22.8 8.3
60-69 15.4 9.9 23.2 31.5
70&up 11.3 4.9 9.7 49.1
Primary school 13.1 4.4 8.4 43.5
Middle school 12.2 4.4 9.4 25.0
High school 27.7 30.2 32.4 21.3
Technical college 12.0 9.3 12.7 4.6
University 27.3 39.1 29.3 5.6
Graduate school 7.7 12.4 7.8 0.0


So if the people who answer cell phone and landline surveys are different in important ways (even when they are weighted to make them look demographically similar), what does this mean for the DPP’s polling primary? Conveniently, a recent TVBS poll report illustrates the importance of the DPP’s polling choices quite nicely. This poll is a few weeks old (conducted April 29-May 8), and used half cell phones and half landlines. TVBS weights their results by sex, age, region, and education, so the results presented below are all weighted. Most people probably only paid attention to the horse-race results. When you look at these, remember that TVBS usually has the KMT candidates several points stronger than most other polling organizations. Anyway, we aren’t really concerned about the KMT or Ko in this post; this is a post about Lai and Tsai. But just for fun, here is the big table:

Han Tsai Ko 39 25 26
Han Lai Ko 39 24 27
Kou Tsai Ko 31 24 30
Kou Lai Ko 31 24 30
Chu Tsai Ko 26 24 33
Chu Lai Ko 27 25 33
Wang Tsai Ko 15 23 38
Wang Lai Ko 13 24 37
Han Tsai 50 38
Han Lai 48 40
Kou Tsai 43 36
Kou Lai 42 40
Chu Tsai 40 40
Chu Lai 37 43
Wang Tsai 27 39
Wang Lai 25 44

A couple of points are interesting. The overall results change much more as the KMT candidates are rotated in than with the DPP candidates. In the three-way races, support for the DPP is remarkably stable no matter which one is included. However, Ko takes quite a bit more support from some KMT candidates than others.  In the two-way matchups Lai is usually 3 or 4 points ahead of Tsai, while in the three-way matchups they are essentially tied. You can see that having Ko included in the DPP polling primary question is beneficial to Tsai. Moreover, in the two-way matchups, Tsai is closest to Lai against Han. And the only time that Tsai actually beats Han Lai is in the three-way matchup with Han. This finding is not unique to this survey. Han and Ko soak up a lot of disillusioned voters that might otherwise turn to Lai. It is not a coincidence that the question the DPP will use in the polling primary is the three-way race with Han and Ko. This is Tsai’s best chance to win. She is by no means guaranteed victory, but using this question helps her odds immensely.

OK, back to cell phones and landlines. The reason that this TVBS poll is so useful is that their report broke down the results by cell phones and landlines. Here is the first question:





Cell phones


Han 39 41 38
Tsai 25 27 23
Ko 26 21 30
None 7 7 7
undecided 3 4 2

Both Han and Tsai do slightly better in the landline group, while Ko does quite a bit better in the cell phone group. Yes, you got that right. Tsai is 4% stronger in landlines than in cell phones. Here is the second question:





Cell phones


Han 39 41 38
Lai 24 31 19
Ko 27 17 35
None 7 6 7
undecided 3 5 2

Now you can see the difference. Lai is a LOT stronger in landlines than in cell phones; the gap is 12%. When you only ask landlines, Lai beats Tsai by 4%. However, if you only ask cell phones, Tsai is 4% better than Lai. When you put them together, Tsai comes out slightly ahead.

(By the way, also note that Han is exactly the same in both samples, and Ko is much stronger among cell phone respondents.)

Lai is screaming that the polling primary has been rigged against him. It is true that they choose the best question for Tsai. It is also true that Tsai does better with half the sample taken from cell phones than if all responses are from landlines. However, what the stats listed above show is that an all-landline sample is not representative of the whole population. That is, the method that Lai considers to be the default was skewing the estimate dramatically in his favor. If the DPP had adopted a 100% cell phone sample, he would have had a good argument that it was biasing the estimate unfairly toward Tsai (though the tables above indicate that cell phones are not quite as skewed as landlines). However, the two sources balance each other relatively well. A 50-50 split (plus weighting for age, sex, and region) is actually not a bad balance. It is certainly more representative of the overall population than either a pure landline or a pure cell phone sample. I’m inclined to argue that the DPP’s decision to use a 50-50 sample should be seen more as undoing the previous bias toward Lai than as creating a new, unfair bias toward Tsai.


What is Taiwan independence?

June 1, 2019

Han Kuo-yu held a big rally in Taipei today. I had planned on going, but it was raining. Anyway, the entire thing was broadcast on Han Kuo-yu Official Propaganda Media Sponsored by Wang Wang Sponsored by China CiTV news, including sideline reporters giving live updates from inside buses driving up from southern Taiwan and interviews with peddlers trying to sell herbal candy. I just couldn’t stomach too much of that stuff today.

Instead, I thought I’d try to write out a thought that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of months, since even before William Lai announced his challenge to Tsai Ing-wen. The basic idea is this: there is a growing split among people who want Taiwan to someday become independent. This is generational, but it is more fundamentally about what Taiwan independence means and what is necessary to make Taiwan independent. The group of people who are generally labeled as the Taiwan independence movement have a very different idea about these things than the mainstream of the DPP elite, and this is what is driving the fundamentalists’ dissatisfaction with Tsai and Lai’s challenge to her.

Let’s start in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the current elders of the Taiwan independence movement were crystalizing their views. For these people, the primary obstacle to Taiwan independence was the KMT and its authoritarian regime in Taiwan. The task at hand was to dislodge the KMT from power so that they could declare independence. Some of them tried violence, but most of them eventually merged with the Tangwai pro-democracy movement to try to remove the KMT through democratic means. They have always placed a premium on trying to get the government and the populace to make statements about Taiwan’s sovereignty. One of the avenues for this was putting the Taiwan Independence Plank in the DPP’s party platform in 1991. Another was to push for referendums, so that the people could directly vote on whether Taiwan should become independent.

To these people, the threat from the PRC was a red herring. The KMT used the possibility of a military invasion to scare people from supporting Taiwan independence, so in order to make their case, they had to argue that the threat was a lie. In the authoritarian era, this was fairly easy. The PRC didn’t really have the capacity to launch an invasion of Taiwan, and the USA military guaranteed Taiwan’s security. The ROC military was fundamentally seen as part of the KMT regime. When martial law was still in effect, the military’s primary task was to suppress Taiwan’s population. Even after martial law, the ROC military was regarded more as an enemy to be overcome and neutered than as a potentially useful tool. There is deep distrust of the military among fundamentalists, who see a disproportionately mainlander officer corps and a Chinese nationalist political ideology. Even today, independence fundamentalists are often stunningly dismissive of the threat from China and aggressively confident in the USA.

The independence fundamentalists are angry with the Tsai administration for not doing enough to promote Taiwan independence. She has conspicuously refrained from the types of actions that President Chen vigorously pursued, such as renaming all the state-run companies with “China” in their name, promoting nationalist referendums, proposing a new constitution, and stirring up nationalist debates at every opportunity. Note that all these are inward-oriented. The way to pursue Taiwan independence was for Taiwan to come to some sort of internal consensus so that it could outwardly declare its independence to the world. I think the final straw that pushed the independence fundamentalists over the edge was the 2018 referendum on using the name “Taiwan” in the 2022 Tokyo Olympics. Tsai did not openly support this referendum. In fact, she tried to stop DPP elected officials from participating in rallies supporting the measure. The measure failed, and I think the fundamentalists blamed her, seeing her reticence as outright betrayal.


Let’s turn to the other side, who have a very different vision of Taiwan independence. They don’t have a commonly accepted label, so I’m going to call them “pragmatists.” For this group, Taiwan is already de facto independent. Democratization fundamentally transformed Taiwan. The authoritarian KMT had to transform itself into a normal political party, one of several contesting power. That is, the KMT was redefined as being under the constitution, not above it.  With democracy, the population of Taiwan was already exercising sovereignty. Thus, in 1995, DPP chair Shih Ming-teh declared that the DPP would not and could not formally declare independence if it took power. Since Taiwan was already independent, there was no need to do so, and altering Taiwan’s sovereignty was beyond the ordinary powers of a governing majority. When it became apparent that the DPP had a real shot to win the 2000 presidential election, it passed a resolution on Taiwan’s future declaring the independence plank a mere historical document. The status quo is something to be protected, not overturned.

For the pragmatists, the main threat to Taiwan independence is not internal, it is external. The threat from China is real, and the primary task is to build up the capacity to resist Chinese attempts to swallow Taiwan. From day one of her presidency, Tsai has spent a tremendous amount of energy on the military. She has funded projects, she regularly visits bases and has photo-ops, and, in public speeches, she proudly and pointedly asserts her status as commander-in-chief much more than Lee, Chen, or Ma ever did. If the independence fundamentalists see the military as an obstacle, the pragmatists view the military as a vital bulwark protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. If China invades, Taiwan only has one military available to fight. Regardless of which party the officers prefer, independence advocates have no choice but to work with them. Rather than try to starve or disempower the military, pragmatists want to create a powerful and professional military loyal to the state. If the military is loyal to the ROC, then independence advocates must reconcile themselves to accepting the ROC. Unlike the fundamentalists, the pragmatists take the Chinese invasion threat very seriously. Deterring it is the most important thing a Taiwan independence supporter can do.

On economics, the pragmatists are again different. While the fundamentalists don’t actively want Taiwan’s economy to be integrated into China’s, this is not necessarily one of their top priorities. President Chen was actually quite aggressive in lowering barriers to investment in China, and peak period of the hollowing out of Taiwan’s industrial base was under his administration. This fits with the idea that China is not really the threat. The pragmatists see economic integration with China as far more dangerous. China now has economic leverage that it can use to put pressure on Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty. Thus, Tsai has tried to slowly decouple the two economies, both by pushing for more economic cooperation with other countries and also by encouraging Taiwanese companies in China to come back home. For the pragmatists, this effort is central to promotion of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

For the pragmatists, exercises of self-expression, such as referendums, are a self-indulgent luxury, not the essence of the movement. It might be fun and emotionally satisfying to poke China in the eye, but one must be mindful of the consequences. If China attacks, Taiwan will need military help from the USA (and Japan). If that attack is triggered by a provocative referendum, American and Japanese public opinion might not support sending troops. Since the goal is to maintain sovereignty, these sorts of public statements can be counterproductive and downright dangerous. Referendums, in particular, are a lose-lose proposition. If they pass, they make Taiwan’s international position more precarious (because China is more likely to attack and the USA is less likely to help). Pragmatists are forced to consider voting against such propositions, which is a painful act in and of itself. If the measure fails, it adds weight to the Chinese insistence that Chinese on both sides believe that there is only one China. The best option is to keep these damn referendums off the ballot.

Fundamentalists are much more open to forcing the issue. If the referendum law is ever modified to allow the question of whether Taiwan should declare independence, they absolutely will push for such a referendum as soon as possible. If you believe that the primary obstacles are internal, then there is no reason not to try. If the question fails, you simply try again in a few years. That is what the Quebec and Scottish nationalists have done. For the pragmatists, since the primary obstacles to Taiwan independence are external, the timing of any declaration of formal independence depends on the external environment. That is, they have to wait until China no longer has the capacity or the will to invade Taiwan, or until political will in the USA congeals in a much stronger and clearer direction, or until Taiwan builds up its own military capacity, or until some dramatic event like the end of the Cold War changes the entire world and makes things possible that previously seemed unimaginable. In the meantime, the pragmatists’ task is to maintain Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty so that when the opportunity comes, Taiwan will be ready.



the politics of the marriage equality vote

May 21, 2019

Last Friday, Taiwan passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Constitutional Interpretation No. 748, which is pointedly not named the Marriage Equality Act. This is not a post about how wonderful it is for Taiwan to pass such landmark legislation or how it is the first country in Asia to do so. (For the record, I think it is pretty great.) T his post is about the politics behind that momentous act.

This issue has turned into something of a political nightmare for President Tsai and the DPP. Courtney Donovan Smith has done a fantastic job of following all the twists and turns over the past four years, tracing how it all went politically wrong for the DPP. I highly recommend reading that piece before continuing this one, because I’m going to assume all that as background knowledge. I only have two points to add to Donovan’s excellent account. People don’t pay enough attention to President Tsai’s judicial appointments, and it isn’t commonly appreciated just how much the revisions to the Referendum Act changed the entire process and outlook for marriage equality.

Marriage equality would not have gotten to the front of Taiwan’s political agenda if the Council of Grand Justices hadn’t put it there. Yes, there were demonstrations and activists, but they weren’t anywhere near powerful enough to force their way onto the agenda. There wasn’t a consensus in public opinion, and it wasn’t close to getting on the party platform of either of the two major parties. Without the court, this would have lingered on the sidelines, waiting behind other stalled causes such as judicial reform, moving the Taipei city airport, and absentee voting. Why did the court put this case on the agenda? It did so because a majority of the justices took a progressive view of this question. And that happened because President Tsai appointed progressives to the Council of Grand Justices. There are fifteen justices. The President and Vice President of the Judicial Yuan serve four year terms, and the other thirteen serve eight year terms. Due to disputes dating back to the late Chen presidency (ie: the legislature refused to confirm anyone Chen nominated), the calendar for filling vacancies got screwed up. A political settlement allowed Tsai to fill seven vacancies (including the President and VP of the Judicial Yuan) after she took office, so there are four justices nominated by Ma in 2011, four more nominated by Ma in 2015, and seven nominated by Tsai in 2016. All seven of Tsai’s nominees went on record as being in favor of marriage equality. None of Ma’s eight nominees publicly expressed support for marriage equality. The 2011 nominees weren’t asked about the issue. The 2015 nominees were asked to raise their hands if they supported marriage equality, and none of them did. Granted, at least one of Ma’s nominees actually did vote for marriage equality, and only two issued formal dissenting opinions. However, there is a clear difference between the types of people Tsai and Ma nominated. If Tsai had appointed the types of people Ma did, it is highly unlikely that the court would have ruled in favor of marriage equality. In short, Tsai was responsible for getting marriage equality on Taiwan’s political agenda. The activists seem to feel she has betrayed them by not vocally leading the fight, but without her contributions, there wouldn’t even be much of a public fight. No Tsai, no marriage equality.

The second point is that revising the Referendum Act changed everything. The act was revised in December 2017 to lower the thresholds for both proposal and passage of referendums. Under the old law, a referendum needed 50% turnout and more yes than no votes to pass. Since opponents simply declined to vote, the yes side needed to supply 50% of the total electorate. Six referendums had been held since 2004, none of which had come very close to passing. Under the new law, the yes side simply needs to exceed 25% of the electorate, and yes votes must outnumber no votes. When combined with a general election, this effectively removed turnout as a consideration. As long as the yes side got more votes than the no side, the referendum would almost surely pass. In 2018, 31 referendums were introduced, 10 made it onto the ballot, and seven passed. Five of them dealt with marriage equality.

Why was the Referendum Law revised? Two groups were most vocal in support. On the one hand, Taiwan independence fundamentalists have been pushing referendums for years. They would have us believe that referendums (“direct democracy”!!)  are a fundamental democratic right, and any system that doesn’t allow for referendums is not actually a democracy. (As a political scientist, let me comment on that: Horsefeathers! Malarkey! Bovine Feces!) Of course, they actually want referendums to become institutionalized because they hope to one day hold a referendum on Taiwan independence. On the other hand, the growing group of young and alienated voters sees referendums as a way to bypass the established (read: corrupt) parties and go directly to the people. Ko Wen-je’s fascination with i-voting neatly reflects this sentiment (even though it has been a disaster every time he has tried to use i-voting to make a public policy decision). The two groups intersect perfectly in the person of Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄。The independence fundamentalists, who are disproportionately socially conservative old men, probably weren’t too distressed by how referendums affected marriage equality. However, the young progressives should be. The New Power Party 時代力量 was the strongest voice in the legislature demanding the Referendum Act be changed. Ironically, its first important substantive impact has been to harm marriage equality, one of the NPP’s core goals. Somehow, the NPP leaders seem unable to connect these two points.

The court made its decision in May 2017 and set a two year deadline. Politicians rarely do anything controversial without a deadline, so it should surprise no one that the legislature hadn’t taken action by the beginning of 2018. Before the Referendum Act was revised, marriage equality activists could argue that public opinion was mostly on their side. They had some limited polling, which if you looked at it from just the right angle suggested that more people supported them than opposed them. They also convinced quite a few legislators to sign pledges supporting marriage equality. With the weight of the court opinion behind them, they had a strong case for hoping to get full marriage equality. As legislators went back home and talked to their constituents, we started getting rumblings of popular dissatisfaction. However, there was no authoritative way to quantify this public sentiment. Any circumstantial evidence could be countered by other circumstantial evidence. For example, NPP chair K.C. Huang 黃國昌 was subjected to a recall election in December 2017, and the activists who stood outside collecting signatures were almost all from social conservative groups opposing marriage equality. However, the recall vote failed, and it was easy to dismiss it as simply a KMT-led partisan effort (as I myself did) rather than as a sign of an enormous groundswell against gay marriage.

Once the Referendum Act passed, the anti-marriage groups started organizing almost immediately to put their measures on the ballot. And once it became clear that the public was going to have an opportunity to weigh in, the politicians had a perfect excuse to stall. Why should the politicians decide whether to amend the Civil Code or pass a special law before the voters had a chance to express their opinions? Once the Referendum Act passed, there was zero chance of the legislature doing anything on marriage equality before the November 24, 2018 election.

Stalling wasn’t the most important consequence. The most important consequence was that referendums provided a vehicle for activists to organize, focus, and interpret public opinion. Without a referendum, attitudes about marriage equality were vague. It wasn’t clear how broad or intense anti-marriage sentiment was. It wasn’t even clear if people cared enough about the issue to bother voting on it. There also wasn’t a strong organization of people to voice anti-marriage opinions or to decide exactly the form that those opinions should take. The referendum encouraged the religious organizations to join together under an umbrella group, to put together rosters of volunteers, to hold events, and to galvanize their own attitudes through their activism.

Once the referendum was held, society discovered that public opinion was much more strongly against marriage equality than even the anti-marriage activists expected. There simply is no way to sugarcoat losing by a two-to-one margin. You could tell that the anti-marriage side was stunned by their own success because they almost immediately tried to disown their own referendum. They had proposed a convoluted question in which they proposed “protecting” gay couples’ “rights” through some means other than amending the Civil Code. This measure passed 6.40 million to 4.07 million. (The marriage equality side asked a much clearer but logically equivalent question, and that one failed 3.38 million to 6.94 million.) The anti-marriage side had not dared to ask whether gay marriage should simply not be allowed. After the referendum results were tallied, they openly announced opposition to any legalization of gay marriage. The referendum emboldened them to take a much more radical stance than they had originally dared. Moreover, much of society bought into this new interpretation. Many people did not see the vote as an expression of support for a special law legalizing gay marriage (as it was literally written), but as an expression of opposition to any form of gay marriage.

The referendum erased any possibility of full marriage equality through a revision of the Civil Code. The only path that was politically palatable would be a special law, and even that was going to be extremely hard for the legislature. It took a heroic effort by the Tsai government, especially from Premier Su, to rescue the situation.



We now fast-forward to last week. With the May 24 deadline approaching, the legislature had to make its decision. In discussing the events of last week, I will draw heavily on two excellent accounts of what went on behind the scenes, one from Mirror Media (鏡週刊) and one from the Central News Agency (中央社). If you read Chinese, I highly recommend you read their full accounts.

The DPP had decided long ago to try to pass the cabinet bill without subjecting its members to extra votes. At the first reading on March 5, the DPP voted to bypass committee hearings and send the bill directly to the floor for the second reading. That vote passed 59-24, with 5 abstentions. All 59 yes votes came from the DPP and NPP; all 24 of the no votes came from the KMT and PFP. The five abstentions were all DPP members. The DPP did not want to force its members to go through public committee hearings in which the KMT would try to get them to openly take unpopular positions. The KMT, in contrast, was incensed that it was denied this fun. In addition to the cabinet’s bill, there were a few other bills proposed. Most of these were from marriage equality opponents, such as KMT legislator Lai Shi-pao’s 賴士葆 bill, which was tellingly titled, The Enforcement Act for Referendum #12 公投第十二案施行法草案. The DPP legislative caucus used its procedural powers to adopt a first-winner voting rule. Multiple versions of each clause would be placed on the agenda. The first one to be passed would be adopted with no need for a vote on any of the other versions. Moreover, the first version to be voted on would be the cabinet’s bill, so if the cabinet’s version passed, legislators would not have to vote on any of the other versions. The KMT screamed about these procedures, but there is nothing particularly abnormal about them. I wrote a chapter of my PhD dissertation on how majority parties use their procedural tools to provide political cover for their members to help those members make politically difficult decisions.

Even with these procedures in place, it was by no means certain that the cabinet’s bill would pass. In the days before the vote, the DPP party caucus polled its members and found it only had 31 solid votes. There are 113 legislators, and even if some of them don’t show up, 31 is not enough. There was even an attempt to organize legislators from central Taiwan to collectively boycott the votes. They knew they could probably count on the five votes from the NPP, and they thought they would have the support of one KMT legislator, Jason Hsu 許毓仁。With 39 other KMT, PFP, and independent legislators, the overwhelming majority of whom they expected to vote against them, they could not afford many absences, much less outright defections. There was a very real possibility that the cabinet’s bill would not pass. In that case, one of the other versions might have passed, or, worst of all, nothing might have passed.

Let’s pause to think about the political implications of such a failure. The Council of Grand Justices had set out a political demand, and there was a possibility that the legislature would challenge that demand. Among the alternate versions of the bill, there were some that did not include the term “marriage” and some that had larger legal differences between the version of marriage for straight couples as written in the Civil Code and the version for same-sex couples as written in this special law. The justices had left it up to the legislature to determine the exact form of the law, but they explicitly demanded that whatever framework was adopted would have to achieve “the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.” If everything had unraveled and the legislature had passed an extremely restrictive bill, it might have led to a constitutional confrontation with the court. It is entirely possible that the court would have lost this struggle. On the one hand, the referendum demonstrated that public opinion is not as favorable to marriage equality as most people had previously believed. In the Wikipedia entry on this case, one justice’s public statement in favor of marriage equality is precisely that people are more accepting now of homosexuality than they used to be. He might have to rethink that statement. On the other hand, when courts fight with elected officials, the courts usually lose. Courts have no power outside their courtroom. In one famous but probably apocryphal quote, U.S. President Andrew Jackson said, [Supreme Court Chief Justice] “Mr. Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Although it probably would not have come to such a crisis, there is a sense in which the DPP was fighting a battle to ensure the continuing smooth operation of the rule of law.

More immediately, the DPP was fighting a battle to preserve its authority. When a leader sets out to do something, failure exposes the leader as toothless. If the Tsai government had staked its reputation on passing the bill and failed to do so, we would have seen a sheaf of declarations that Tsai was now officially a lame duck, that her party was in rebellion, that she was no longer the leader of her party, that her presidency was effectively over, and that the country would stumble along leaderless for the next year until a new president was inaugurated.

Finally, in the event that no bill had passed, we would have been plunged into administrative uncertainty. Local governments would have been left to figure out on their own how to (or even whether to) register same-sex marriages under their existing rules. The cries of “government incompetence” would have been deafening.

Politically speaking, one of the primary arguments for the DPP members to stick together was simply that failure to do so would have been worse. The party was not going to dodge the political responsibility for supporting marriage equality either way.

In the event, the DPP did not fail. Two things were critical: it slightly altered the language in the bill, and it launched a massive lobbying campaign at its legislators.

In discussions with its caucus members, it found that the hardest bit to swallow was the phrase “same-sex marriage” 同性婚姻 in Clause 2. Members proposed revisions removing that phrase and instead using wording such as “register in accordance with the directions set out in Constitutional Interpretation No. 748” and “register as same-sex spouses in accordance with the rules set out herein.”  However, Premier Su insisted on including the word “marriage” in the final wording. The compromise version was to remove the phrase “same-sex marriage” from Clause 2 but to instead stipulate that two people of the same sex could form a “permanent union” and to add in Clause 4 that couples should “register their marriage” at the local household registration office. Substantively, I don’t think there is any difference between the original wording and the final version. However, the compromise version was evidently politically more palatable.

The Tsai administration then launched a massive lobbying effort. Every legislator was targeted by multiple people from the party caucus, the presidential office, the cabinet, their geographic region, and their faction leaders. Some of the people involved included premier Su and vice premier Chen Chi-mai, presidential office secretary general Chen Chu and deputy secretary general Liu Chien-hsi 劉建析, caucus leader Ke Chien-ming, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan, and a few cabinet ministers. Basically, almost all the DPP’s heavy hitters were enlisted. (The young progressives detest Ke Chien-ming, who they think is conservative and corrupt. Perhaps, but he gets things done, including this progressive reform.) The lobbyists made a variety of appeals, ranging from cold political calculations to emotional appeals about experiences fighting the authoritarian regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Premier Su was particularly effective; one of his entreaties reportedly left a group of legislators in tears.

William Lai is glaringly absent from this narrative. Lai did post a picture of himself with a rainbow background on social media, but he doesn’t seem to have lifted a finger to pass this bill, either when he was premier or in the last week.

The DPP wasn’t sure that its efforts would pay off until Friday morning, when it was finally confident that it had secured the votes of most of its members. The caucus decided not to formally impose party discipline on the votes, but rather to take collectively responsibility without such coercion. Somehow this worked. The group of legislators from central Taiwan that had been threatening a collective walkout instead decided to collectively support the cabinet bill. Other legislators that had been wavering under pressure from religious groups, such as Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟 and Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, also stepped back in line. In the end, the DPP was able to get nearly 60 votes on every clause, more than enough to ensure passage. It ended up looking like an easy win, but a lot of DPP legislators swallowed some incredibly difficult votes.



So much for the media narrative. Let’s look at the voting record. For readers familiar with the US Congress, a short background note on how voting works is useful. In the US Congress (and many other legislatures), a bill is put before the floor, amendments are processed, and then a final passage vote is taken to pass or reject the entire bill. If no amendments are offered, only one final passage vote is required to pass the entire bill. In Taiwan, there are no final passage votes. Instead, in the second reading, the bill is processed clause by clause. Each clause is voted for and passed independently. There is a third reading in which the entire bill is reviewed again, but this is not supposed to be a substantive vote. The third reading is only to catch errors or contradictions in the legal wording, and it is almost always a mere formality.

Friday’s bill had 27 clauses, so legislators had to pass 28 items: the title of the bill and 27 individual clauses. In addition, the DPP allowed votes on two other items, a vote to not consider Lin Tai-hua’s 林岱樺 (more conservative) version of Clause 8 and a vote on the NPP’s (more progressive) version of Clause 27. In each of the 30 votes, a yes vote represented a vote for the more progressive option. The Legislative Yuan hasn’t published the official record yet, so I got the votes by watching the video of the session published on the legislature’s IVOD system. There are two big video boards on which the votes are recorded, and at the end of each vote, the screen is supposed to show both of them, one after the other. Unfortunately, the camera people weren’t always paying attention, and sometimes they never bothered switching back to the second screen. I was able to get most of the votes, but in two cases my vote tally came up one yes vote short from the official tally. In both cases, it looks to me like the most obvious person to have voted yes was Jason Hsu 許毓仁, who seemed to habitually wait until the very last moment to cast his vote. The bigger problem was Clause 18, since the camera never got around to showing the second screen at all. As a result, I will only discuss 29 roll call votes. Clause 18 was a fairly routine vote; most of the later clauses had the same people voting all the same ways. I don’t think Clause 18 would have changed any of the conclusions reached in the following discussion.

The first five votes were the most important. The first vote, over the title of the bill, was the first test of how legislators would vote. It passed 68-27. Clause 1 passed 68-25. Clause 2 was the one that the DPP changed the wording of to avoid the scary “same-sex marriage” wording. It passed 75-22. Clause 3 passed 71-27. Clause 4, which included the word “marriage” was the most difficult vote for many legislators. It passed 66-27. The legislature needed about four hours to get through these first five votes. There was an extensive general discussion before the voting started, and several legislators spoke before the voting on the individual clauses. After Clause 4 passed, the legislature took a short recess. When the session resumed, deputy speaker Tsai took over the meeting, and it went through the remaining votes in less than two hours. For most of them, there was no debate at all; the staff member read the text, and the legislature voted. Almost all of Clauses 5 through 27 passed by either a 66-27 or a 67-26 vote. There was a short recess before Clause 27 so that speaker Su could preside over the passage of the bill.

The five New Power Party legislators all voted yes 29 times. They were the only legislators to do so.

The three PFP legislators voted no the first 27 times and didn’t bother to vote on the last two items.

The three independent legislators were absent.

The 68 DPP legislators had a few different patterns. The speaker and deputy speaker usually don’t participate in roll call votes; Su did not vote, but Tsai did vote (yes) on the first five items. 48 DPP legislators voted the party line all 29 times, including all 17 of the party list legislators (other than Speaker Su).  Eleven DPP legislators voted the party line 28 times but missed one vote. A few of these look like bathroom breaks. For example, Chen Ou-po 陳歐珀 missed the vote on Clause 14, Wu Chi-ming 吳琪銘 missed Clause 20, and Lin Chun-hsien 林俊憲 missed Clause 17. These random missing votes don’t seem very consequential. However, many of the single missing yes votes were on the controversial Clause 4. Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟, Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, Yeh Yi-chin 葉宜津, Ho Hsin-chun 何欣純, and Chen Ying 陳瑩 all voted the DPP party line 28 times, but they were absent on Clause 4. Tsai Shi-ying 蔡適應 was absent four times, on Clauses 3, 4, 14, and 20; he voted with the party the other 25 times. I think these seven legislators were trying to both support the party line and also dodge a controversial vote. By the time they took the vote, they were certainly aware that their vote would not be decisive. Still, they did skip the single most important vote.

Five DPP legislators broke ranks and refused to show up at all. Huang Kuo-shu 黃國書, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌, Hsu Chih-chieh 許智傑, Hung Tsung-yi 洪宗熠, and Yang Yao 楊曜 missed all the votes. Of these, Hung and Yang represent rural swing districts. If the party is going to forgive anyone for breaking discipline, they would be at the top of the list. Huang and Hsu, in green-leaning urban districts, have far weaker excuses. Finally, there is Lin Tai-hua 林岱樺, from a deep green district in Kaohsiung. Lin is perhaps the most vocal opponent of marriage equality within the DPP caucus, and she even offered her own (far more conservative) draft of the bill. Unlike the other opponents, Lin showed up and voted. She voted yes 18 times and no 11 times; she was the only legislator to vote both yes and no. I’m not sure what message she wanted to communicate with that action.

The 34 KMT legislators also had a few different patterns. 18 voted no all 29 times, and five others voted no at least 26 times but missed a few votes. Ma Wen-chun 馬文君 voted no four of the first five items (missing Clause 1) and then stopped voting altogether. Lin Li-chan 林麗蟬 and Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 missed all 29 votes. These 26 KMT legislators collectively cast zero votes in favor of marriage equality.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have Jason Hsu casting 24 yes votes, missing two, and voting to abstain three times. Recall, I think those two absent votes were probably actually yes votes. His three abstentions were on Clauses 7, 20, and 26, which seems pretty random to me. He was the only legislator to vote with the NPP on the NPP version of Clause 27.

This leaves seven KMT members who voted yes between one and three times. Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安, Ke Chih-en 柯志恩, Lee Yen-hsiu 李彥秀, Lin Yi-hua 林奕華, and Chen Yi-min 陳宜民  all skipped the first two votes, voted yes on Clauses 2 through 4, and then took the rest of the day off. Hsu Shu-hua 許淑華 voted yes on Clauses 2 and 4, and Lin Wei-chou voted yes on Clause 2. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I should think about their action. On the one hand, they voted yes on the three most critical clauses. On the other hand, they skipped out afterwards, and pointedly did not vote for the rest of the bill. If you are a supporter of marriage equality, wouldn’t you want to be on record as supporting the entire bill? On the third hand, this was a DPP bill. The KMT was entirely cut out of the process. Once they went on record as supporting marriage equality, they also wanted to express displeasure with the DPP’s actions. Expressing both substance and partisanship is entirely reasonable. On the fourth hand, the insider narratives indicated that these seven KMT legislators’ intentions were entirely unknown to the DPP caucus leaders. Because the DPP caucus leaders were expecting support from only Jason Hsu, they felt pressure to alter the language of the bill. They didn’t make substantively serious alterations, but they considered doing so. If the KMT legislators had openly expressed support for the original language, they might have ensured that the strongest version possible passed. On the fifth hand, maybe they, like those wavering DPP legislators, were only willing to vote for the altered language. On the sixth hand, their open support might be the bulwark that prevents other KMT politicians from trying to overturn the bill in the future. On the seventh hand, perhaps if the DPP hadn’t been able to cobble together enough votes, they would have let the bill go up in flames. They pointedly sat out the first two votes, which were the proof of strength. On the eighth hand, who the hell has eight hands?

Aside: I do think this vote was extremely savvy for Wayne Chiang. I assume that, as Taiwan gets used to the idea of same-sex marriage, the yes vote will look better and better. Unlike many other legislators who have difficult elections this year, Chiang can afford to think a few years down the road. He will probably be the KMT’s Taipei mayoral candidate in 2022, and that will put him on the short list for the presidency somewhere between 2028 and 2048. He will be able to point back to this vote as an example of foresight, progressive values, and the courage to take an unpopular position.

Aside continued: In contrast, Johnny Chiang 江啟臣, one of the KMT legislators who voted no all 29 times, tried to claim that the KMT wasn’t really against marriage equality but were simply expressing anger with the DPP’s procedural tactics. Johnny Chiang is sometimes touted as a future KMT leader, but this statement was pathetic. There are some days in which you can complain about procedures, but this wasn’t one of them. The international media didn’t turn its eyes to Taiwan because they were interested in the DPP’s committee referral strategy. There are some times when a milestone decision is before you and you have to take a stand. This was one of those times. His grandchildren won’t care about procedures. They will only care if he was on the right side of history, whichever side that turns out to be.

Overall, the bill was the DPP’s bill, and the DPP provided the votes to pass it. DPP legislators had 1972 votes to cast, and they voted the party line 1749 times (88.7%). From a different perspective, there were 1875 total yes votes cast. The DPP provided 1688 of those yes votes (90.0%), the NPP provided 145 (8.6%), and the KMT only provided 42 (2.5%). In contrast, the KMT provided 662 (81.3%) of the total 814 no votes. While some media reports played up the DPP defections and the KMT yes votes to give the impression that both sides acted similarly, that simply isn’t correct. A small number of KMT legislators gave a small amount of support, and a small number of DPP legislators withheld their support. However, the main pattern was that the DPP overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, and the KMT mostly opposed it.

Lai’s example: LBJ???

March 29, 2019

One of the objections to William Lai’s challenge to President Tsai is that if he defeats her, she will be a lame duck for the remaining thirteen months of her presidency. Some worry that the resulting power vacuum would create a constitutional crisis. Yesterday on his Facebook page, Lai tried to refute this argument by pointing to the example of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). In 1968, LBJ decided not to run for re-election, and Lai argued that this did not create any constitutional crisis.

This is a bad, bad argument. Only someone who knows nothing about 1968 would point to Johnson’s case as an example of a smooth transition of power.

LBJ did plan to run for re-election. Initially, most people expected him to win, even though he was fighting the unpopular Vietnam War. He was challenged for the nomination by Senator Eugene McCarthy, an opponent of the war who was not considered a major challenger. LBJ beat McCarthy in the March 1968 New Hampshire primary, but only by a 49-41% margin. Seeing LBJ’s weakness, Robert Kennedy announced he would also contest the nomination. LBJ responded by announcing that he would not run for re-election. Instead, he would focus all his energy on the war, which he hoped to win before the election.

By announcing that he would not run for re-election, LBJ avoided being defeated. He did not lose power to a rival nominee. In fact, LBJ eventually arranged for the nomination to go to his chosen successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There was no power vacuum because LBJ did not lose control of the Democratic Party.

Lai argues that there was no problem in 1968. In fact, 1968 was one of the most turbulent and chaotic years in American history. There were anti-war protests all year. In April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated. In response, there were race riots in several major cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. These were violent events, with widespread burning and looting and numerous deaths. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. There were more riots outside the Democratic party convention in August, where Humphrey was nominated. Maybe there wasn’t a constitutional crisis, but there were plenty of political and social crises.

Finally, 1968 was a disaster for the Democratic Party. After fighting among themselves during the nomination battle, they continued fighting at the national convention. Everyone could clearly see that the Democrats were not united. The Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, used this chaos to his advantage. He ran promising to restore law and order to a country that seemed out of control. Even though far more voters claimed to be Democrats than Republicans, Nixon was able to win a narrow victory. Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to LBJ ended with President Nixon. Is this the model that Lai wants to follow?

In fact, there are no examples in American history of a candidate successfully challenging an incumbent from his own party and then going on to win the general election. In fact, in the last century, every time an incumbent has faced a primary challenge, the other party has won the election. Divided parties lose power.


The state of the presidential race

March 25, 2019

The presidential race is starting to develop. The Central Election Commission recently announced that the election would be on January 11. More importantly, there have been some important developments in the two major parties, and, now that the by-elections are finished, we are finally getting into the intense stage of the nomination process.

In the DPP, former premier William Lai surprised many people inside and outside the party by registering his candidacy. He kept this decision a secret until the last minute, and many of the DPP’s major figures were taken by surprise. Perhaps most surprisingly is that many heavyweights in Lai’s own New Tide faction didn’t know he was planning to run. Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, presidential office secretary-general Chen Chu, and legislator Tuan Yi-kang all seem to have been surprised. It was not, however, a last-minute decision. The day Lai made his announcement, the Taiwan Braintrust think tank released a poll intended to show high levels of public support for him. This poll was conducted in the previous week, and it probably took at least another week before that to get ready to do the poll. Taiwan Braintrust is run by the Independence Fundamentalist wing of the DPP, which has been leading the opposition to Tsai basically since she emerged as the DPP’s leader. Taiwan Braintrust chair Koo Kuan-min ran against her for party chair in 2008 and infamously asked if “people wearing skirts” were suitable for leadership. Anyway, this was a coordinated and premeditated rollout. There are people suggesting that the DPP will convince Lai to withdraw or take the VP slot, but he looks pretty serious to me.

Over in the KMT, calls for the party to forgo its regular nomination process and directly draft Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu are gaining steam. The hopes of party chair Wu Den-yi and former president Ma Ying-jeou seem to faded, so the realistic candidates are former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, former speaker Wang Jin-pyng, and Han. The former two want the regular process to determine the nomination. Han, as a newcomer who was just elected mayor a couple months ago, does not want to openly contest the presidential nomination. His best scenario is for the party to offer him the nomination so that he does not appear to betray his Kaohsiung voters by abandoning them for a better job almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je seems more and more likely to run as an independent. He is doing quite well in the polls, so the opportunity and pressure is overwhelming. He is also making some of the necessary preparations. He has been in the USA this week. While this is officially just a routine tour, the real purpose is to talk with people in the USA foreign policy establishment to reassure them that he will have a reasonable policy toward China. Even better, he might hope for one of them to say publicly that he will have a reasonable policy and will be a perfectly fine partner for the USA. During that tour Ko tried to clear away another hurdle by announcing his position on marriage equality. He is both for and against it. He claimed to have voted against it in last year’s referendums, but he pointed out that Taiwan is a tolerant society. We’ll see if this waffle satisfies anyone.


What do the polls say about the race right now? I have seen four polls in the last month, and they do not necessary give the same answer. TVBS is a long-established pollster with a reasonably good reputation but a strong blue bias. Taiwan Braintrust and Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation are both green camp think tanks with an anti-Tsai Ing-wen bias. Fount Media is a new media organization. The main figure is Clara Chou Yu-kou, who is a respected and senior media figure who leans green. Their poll was conducted by Focus Survey, an established pollster. However, the general rule is that the organization commissioning the poll is more important than the organization conducting the poll; the buyer decides which numbers to release to the public and the seller rarely (never?) contradicts those numbers. I don’t have a high degree of trust any of these polls. The two think tank polls have a clear political agenda, and TVBS polls have tended to produce favorable results to the KMT. However, taken together they probably give us a picture of the outer bounds of public opinion.

Organization Organization date sample
TVBS TVBS 2/14-20 1582
Taiwan Brain Trust 新台灣國策智庫 3/12-13 1085
Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation 台灣民意基金會 2/27 1089
Fount Media 放言 (山水) 3/4-5 1077

The four surveys have published results for the 2020 presidential race with various groupings of candidates. I have put these together in the following unwieldy table. Depending on which survey you look at, Tsai is either competitive or hopelessly behind, Han is either an unbeatable juggernaut or somewhat vulnerable, and the 2020 race either promises to be a blowout or a very close race. Not very helpful…

Tsai Lai Chu Wang Wu Han Ko
TVBS 27 46
Brain 38 51
TPOF 38 47
Fount 35 50
TVBS 33 41
Brain 47 44
TVBS 25 54
Brain 42 50
Fount 32 55
TVBS 32 49
Brain 49 45
TVBS 32 27
Brain 54 30
Fount 34 43
TVBS 41 22
Brain 65 23
TVBS 26 39
Brain 37 49
TVBS 33 31
Brain 50 37
TVBS 16 29 41
Brain 29 34 31
Fount 22 34 34
TVBS 19 27 39
Brain 35 32 28
TVBS 16 37 35
Brain 31 35 28
TPOF 28 34 30
Fount 20 42 28
TVBS 19 36 33
Brain 35 35 24
TPOF 30 34 28
TVBS 20 16 44
Brain 34 16 41
TVBS 26 15 39
Brain 42 14 36
TVBS 17 23 41
Brain 28 27 36
Fount 21 25 40
TVBS 23 21 38
Brain 34 25 33


However, we can see a few clear patterns. Within each party, there is a clear hierarchy. In the DPP, Lai consistently beats Tsai. In one-on-one races with a KMT opponent, Lai is usually 5-10 points stronger than Tsai. In three-way races, Lai’s advantage over Tsai is roughly to 2-5 points. In the KMT, Han is the strongest, Chu is second, Wang is third, and Wu trails far behind in fourth place. There are clear gaps between all four. Ko beats most of the KMT and DPP candidates, but he is consistently behind Han.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank-order all the candidates based on these poll results, I’d say that, from strongest to weakest, they are Han, Ko, Lai, Chu, Wang, Tsai, Wu. However, I’d also point out that these February and March polls don’t necessarily indicate what public opinion will look like next January. In fact, I suspect the numbers will shift quite a bit over the next ten months. Why? Let’s dive more deeply into the numbers!


The Taiwan Brain Trust poll was a piece of political advertising dressed up as a poll. The press release was designed to draw your attention to three bits of data: Lai beats Tsai 50-29%, in a two-way race Chu, Wang, and Han all beat Tsai but Lai beats all four KMT candidates, and in a three-way race, Tsai never wins but Lai wins against all four possible candidates. (See pages 19, 20, 42, 43, 62, and 63 of the TBT powerpoint slides).


There you have it: Lai beats Tsai head to head, and while Tsai loses most matchups in the general election, Lai wins them all. Lai is clearly the superior candidate, so the DPP should nominate Lai.

Of course, this conclusion conveniently overlooks the facts that many of these “victories” are not statistically significant differences and that the other polling organizations didn’t find such strong support for Lai. Still, even if Lai’s advantage over Tsai isn’t as overwhelming as TBT would like you to believe, he does clearly have an edge.

But wait, there’s more. One of the main reasons I don’t simply dismiss the TBT poll as propaganda is that they have followed one of professional polling’s best practices: they have published their full results, including both frequency distributions and crosstabs. (No other public pollster in Taiwan routinely does this, but it is becoming the international standard for credible polling.) If you dig way down into the TBT results, the picture looks a bit more complicated.

Lai crushes Tsai in the overall head-to-head sample, and there aren’t many clear differences among different age groups, education levels, or regions. However, there is a big difference among people with different political attitudes. Looking at party identification, people who identify as DPP supporters are split fairly evenly. Lai has a small 5 point advantage, but nowhere near his 21 point overall margin. That enormous gap is a result of preferences among KMT identifiers, who Lai wins by 36 points. That is, people who aren’t going to vote for either Tsai or Lai are inflating the gap between them and making Lai look much stronger. You can see this even more clearly in another question, whether the respondent plans to support the DPP’s 2020 candidate. People who planned to support the DPP actually preferred Tsai by a robust 9%. Lai makes up this gap by winning undecided voters by 19%. However, the illusion of an enormous gap is created by the people who say they will not vote for a DPP candidate. This group prefers Lai over Tsai by 43 points.

Tsai Lai Don’t know N
All 29.2 50.9 19.9 1085
DPP 43.1 48.1 8.7 267
KMT 21.6 57.2 21.2 360
New 13
PFP 19
NPP 37.7 55.5 6.8 169
None 18.2 44.0 37.7 172
Other party 6
No answer 26.3 38.6 35.2 79


Question: Do you plan to support the DPP’s 2020 presidential candidate?

Tsai Lai Don’t know N
All 29.2 50.9 19.9 1085
Yes 49.9 40.8 9.3 325
No 17.9 60.6 21.6 515
other 25.5 44.1 30.4 245

(I’m omitting data for categories with almost no respondents since those numbers are basically meaningless.)

Why are blue voters overwhelmingly for Lai? My guess is that they are really expressing opposition to Tsai by supporting any intraparty challenge to her. However, it is not obvious to me that they will continue to prefer Lai now that he is actually in the race. First, supporters of one party often decline to participate in the other side’s business. When the call comes in the DPP polling primary, the interviewer starts by identifying themselves as a DPP poll. Many blue identifiers will simply hang up. Second, if blue voters want to pick the weakest DPP candidate (the way that four years ago some green voters probably supported Hung Hsiu-chu’s KMT nomination), it isn’t obvious who they should choose. They might think that Tsai is the incumbent and a moderate, but she has a lot of baggage and is trailing Lai in the polls. It isn’t obvious that Lai is their best strategic choice. Third, Lai’s first (and so far only) appeal was to pardon Chen Shui-bian. This will be hard for many blue voters to swallow. Fourth, the DPP polling question relies heavily on interparty matchups rather than intraparty matchups. That is, most of these blue voters will filter themselves out by expressing support for the KMT candidate, so they won’t affect the results that much. In sum, Lai is leading, but it is a lot closer than it looks.

How will the race develop? The DPP has now delayed its primary by a week, but that still only leaves less than four weeks for the race to unfold. It seems like what the rest of the party does NOT want is an extended debate over ideas. They seem to want to get this over quickly and painlessly. Apparently, the civil war of 2007 still haunts them. I’m not sure they can avoid a fight. After all, this is the presidency – the stakes cannot be higher. After Lai announced, 34 DPP legislators (of 68 total) responded by signing a statement in support of Tsai. Two other legislators later also expressed support for her. So far, only one legislator has openly supported Lai. A factional breakdown of the DPP legislative caucus shows that the 36 Tsai supporters include most of the party list legislators (who she had a hand in picking) and most of the legislators in her own faction, the Hsieh faction, and the Yu faction. The legislators who did not sign are mostly from either the Su faction, the CSB faction, or the New Tide faction. I think the Su faction mostly supports Tsai, but they wanted to stay publicly neutral since Su is on the five-person committee in charge of making decisions about the primary. The New Tide faction is the largest and most important faction, and I think it is genuinely torn. Lai is a New Tide member, but he has grown apart from the rest of the faction since he became Tainan mayor. Tsai has maintained good relations with New Tide, and many of them seemed shocked by Lai’s decision. I don’t know if the New Tide will try to act collectively. If they do try, they might end up ripping the faction apart. Among the party elites, Lai’s strongest support comes from the independence fundamentalists and Chen Shui-bian faction. If it were just a question of party elites, Tsai would probably win handily. Of course, Lai has a trump card in the form of public opinion.

I do see one path for Tsai to reverse that public opinion deficit. Right now, Lai is beating her quite a bit among New Power Party identifiers. In the head to head polls, Lai beats her by 18 points. In the two most likely races, the three-way races with Ko and either Chu or Han, Lai is about 6-9 points stronger than Tsai with this group. Tsai should be doing better among this group. She may not be economically or socially progressive enough to make them happy, but Lai is an economic and social conservative. He will not be better for them. I think that Lai’s initial support among this group is more a reflection of their disappointment with Tsai than any conviction that he will be better. Now that they have to make a choice, this group looks to me like one of Tsai’s best targets.


Tsai Lai Han Ko
All 30.6 35.4 27.9
DPP 71.3 6.4 21.4
KMT 5.6 74.7 16.7
NPP 34.8 10.0 50.4
None 26.8 28.0 29.5
No answer 15.8 14.4 48.1
All 35.3 34.7 24.1
DPP 76.7 5.5 17.1
KMT 5.3 76.4 15.5
NPP 42.4 8.4 45.4
None 37.6 24.4 20.6
No answer 23.8 15.8 41.6

I expect the DPP primary to be very close, and I will not pick a winner at this point. Actually, I take that back. There is already a clear winner: the KMT. The KMT’s initial reaction to Lai’s announcement was that Lai was declaring Tsai’s presidency a failure. What’s more, he was also declaring that his own term as premier was a failure. They are right. Whether or not Lai intends that message, that is exactly what many people heard. Moreover, since Lai’s first policy proposal was to pardon Chen Shui-bian, the KMT now has a legitimate reason to talk endlessly about CSB. There is nothing they love more than opining about the horrors of the CSB years. If Tsai wins the nomination, she will have to deal with the shadow of Lai’s negative judgment on or her presidency for the rest of the campaign. If Lai wins the nomination (or even the presidency), he will never escape the original sin of disloyalty. No one will dare give him too much trust or loyalty, since he himself has been guilty of this disloyalty. What a fiasco. On the one hand, Lai has made a terrible choice. On the other hand, he only made that choice because Tsai has been such an unpopular president.


Over on the KMT side, things are also messy. There are three declared candidates, Chu, Wang, and Wu. However, the chorus to sidestep the entire process and simply draft Han is growing every day. Part of this is that Wu is hopelessly behind Chu and Wang. Since he has no chance of winning, he has very little reason to insist on maintaining the formal process.

Let’s look first at the race between Chu and Wang. In the head to head race, Chu wins 44-34. Again, the party identification breakdown is the key place to look. Among KMT identifiers, Chu wins by 52 points. Among DPP identifiers, Wang wins by 25. As above, most of that support from the other party won’t translate into support in the polling primary. In a polling primary, Chu’s lead would actually be bigger.

Wu Chu Wang Han
All 6.1 43.8 33.8
DPP 6.5 26.4 51.1
KMT 7.8 67.0 14.5
NPP 3.3 42.4 43.7
None 5.1 29.1 37.2
No answer 3.3 33.9 30.9
All 4.3 26.3 31.2 28.7
DPP 6.8 20.8 53.3 8.9
KMT 2.9 33.0 9.7 50.7
NPP 3.1 30.2 44.2 17.6
None 4.8 21.1 32.7 21.6
No answer 2.2 20.7 22.5 29.2



What about Han? TBT thoughtfully asked the same question both with and without Han in the race. When they add Han, something interesting happens: Wang wins, beating Han by 2 and Chu by 5. Ok, as we just noted, Wang probably wouldn’t win since a major chunk of his support is from DPP identifiers. However, what is really interesting is what happens to the KMT identifiers. Without Han, Chu won 67.0% of this group. With Han, Han takes 50.7% and Chu is left with only 33.0%. Because Han won the race in Kaohsiung, we have a notion that Han has a strong cross-party appeal. What this data suggests is that Han’s core appeal is within the KMT. Han is an orthodox KMT politician. He comes from the military party branch, he got training in China, and he subscribes to all the orthodox party ideology.

If we look at three-way races with the DPP and Ko, you can also see this pattern. In the TBT data, the cross-party appeal is somewhat secondary. Han is stronger than Chu because Han does a better job of consolidating the blue vote. Look at the race with Lai and Ko. Chu gets 68.9% of KMT identifiers, and Ko manages to steal 21.2% of this group. Against Han, Ko can only win 15.5% of KMT identifiers, while Han rakes in 76.4%. Among the voters who don’t express any party preference or refuse to answer the question, Chu and Han are roughly even. Han is stronger because he is stronger among blue voters, not among neutral voters.

Lai Chu Han Ko
All 35.1 31.8 27.9
DPP 77.3 4.0 18.2
KMT 8.7 68.9 21.2
NPP 39.4 8.4 48.9
None 32.7 22.0 27.8
No answer 17.3 21.4 42.1
All 35.3 34.7 24.1
DPP 76.7 5.5 17.1
KMT 5.3 76.4 15.5
NPP 42.4 8.4 45.4
None 37.6 24.4 20.6
No answer 23.8 15.8 41.6

In fact, my conclusion that Han is generally stronger than Chu is based predominantly on TVBS polls. In TVBS polls, Han tends to be stronger than Chu by a considerable margin. In other polls, the difference between Han and Chu is much more modest. It is probably not a coincidence that TVBS has a blue tint. I suspect their sample contains more respondents with KMT sympathies and its sample of KMT identifiers contains more respondents who we would classify as deep blue.


[time passes]


It seems I will never finish this post. Things keep happening, and so I need to write more. While I wasn’t paying attention, TVBS published a new poll. Compared to the TVBS poll a month ago, the numbers are about the same for the KMT, slightly up for up for the DPP, and down quite a bit for Ko. Lai seems to be up a bit more than Tsai.

This poll does have crosstabs for party ID and presidential choice. Like the TBT polls this TVBS poll shows that Han’s core strength is within the blue camp. However, unlike the TBT poll, this one shows that Han also does quite a bit better than Chu among undecided voters. So stick that bit of data in your pocket and chew on it.

TVBS Lai Chu Han Ko
All 26 26 30
DPP 74 4 16
KMT 3 66 21
NPP 31 8 55
None 17 11 39
No answer 14 20 26
All 25 37 24
DPP 72 7 17
KMT 3 80 12
NPP 29 13 51
None 16 29 32
No answer 14 24 21

I’m going to wrap up here. I have more to say, but I’m probably not going to have time to write it any time soon. So enjoy this prematurely ended and poorly edited post. Things are developing pretty rapidly in the DPP (with their primary), the KMT (with their primary and Han’s China trip), and with Ko (who is apparently now walking back his anti-gay marriage trial balloon. Things might look quite a bit different in a few weeks.


four by-elections

March 17, 2019

Four legislative by-elections were held yesterday, in New Taipei 3, Tainan 2, Changhua 1, and Kinmen. The former two seats were originally held by the DPP, while the latter two were originally held by the KMT. The by-elections didn’t really change that. The DPP held its two seats, and the KMT won the Changhua seat. An independent won the Kinmen seat against the official KMT candidate, but she is a former KMT member who immediately announced her intention to try to return to the KMT.

The biggest headline today is that the DPP avoided a disaster by holding its two seats. I think this is basically right. You wouldn’t call these results good news for the DPP, though you also wouldn’t call them terrible news. From the KMT’s point of view, this is a missed opportunity. Other headlines suggest that the Han Kuo-yu Wave™ is receding. I think this is probably wrong. More on that later.

Here are the results.

New Taipei 3  






Cheng KMT






Turnout: 42.1      
Tainan 2      



Hsieh KMT



Chen IND (from DPP)












Turnout: 44.5      
Changhua 1      



Huang DPP






Turnout: 36.6      



Chen TC IND (former DPP)






Tsai IND






Hung CH Kaoliang Party



Turnout: 21.2      


The first thing we can do to sort out these results is to ask about the partisan lean of each district. In my previous post, I rated each district by comparing Tsai Ing-wen’s presidential vote in each district to her national total. This gives two indicators: a ranked ordering of the 73 districts from the DPP’s strongest to weakest and a number showing how many points above or below the national average the DPP is in this district. The data for these four districts is:


2012 Tsai

2012 rank

2016 Tsai

2016 rank


New Taipei 3






Tainan 2






Changhua 1












Recall that overall Tsai received 45.6% in 2012 and 56.1% in 2016.

New Taipei 3 covers most of the Sanchong District. This is traditionally considered deep green territory, though it is not actually as green as most people think. I think population mobility has regressed it toward the mean. In recent elections it has been about 5% better for the DPP than the national average, which makes it one of those districts that the DPP needs to win. It has in fact won all four elections (counting this by-election) since 2008, though the KMT has been competitive in three of the four. This was a contest with two high quality candidates. The DPP ran Yu Tien, the New Taipei party chair and the former legislator who managed to win this seat in 2008 in the face of a national KMT landslide. Yu is actually less famous as a politician than as a singer. He isn’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but he is a proven campaigner. His KMT opponent is a newcomer, but he is the nephew of Lee Chien-lung, the KMT legislative candidate in 2012 and 2016 and a longtime stalwart in local Sanchong politics. Yu won this race by a 52-47 margin, which was a solid victory for the DPP.

Next, let’s skip over to Changhua. Changhua 1 is a classic bellwether district. Tsai was about 2% better than average in 2012 and about 1% better than average in 2016. This should be a median district, meaning that the KMT should have won it narrowly in 2012 and the DPP should have won it fairly easily in 2016. In fact, Changhua 1 has not followed national trends at all. Instead, it has been a horror show for the DPP. In 2012, the KMT vote was split two ways, but the DPP candidate (himself a defector from the pan-blue camp) couldn’t even manage a third of the vote. In 2016, the DPP nominated a documentary film director, and got totally wiped out. Hey, any time you can nominate an intellectual who wants to talk about class conflict to a rural district, you’ve got to do it! (Just to make sure he was incompetent, that same guy ran for mayor of Homei Township in 2018 and got destroyed again.) I think most observers were expecting more DPP incompetence in this race. Instead, it turned out to be fairly close, with the KMT winning 52-46.

There was an interesting geographical split in this district. The legislative district covers six townships and two county council districts. Each county council district has one big town (Lugang and Homei) and two smaller towns. Huang, the DPP candidate, is the former mayor of Lugang and a former county councilor from county council district 2 (CC2). Ko, the KMT candidate, is presented in the media as being a technocrat – the bureaucrat with a legal background who rose to deputy county magistrate. Don’t be fooled. Technocrats with shiny degrees are a dime a dozen. His most important credential is that he is a from a political family. His uncle 柯明謀 was a longtime county councilor and faction leader who was eventually appointed to the Control Yuan and as senior presidential advisor. The Ko family is from Shengang, in CC3. As you might expect, Huang did quite a bit better in CC2, winning that half of the district by three thousand votes (51.8%-45.6%). However, Ko dominated the other half, winning CC3 by nine thousand votes (60.3%-37.9%). Let’s just say that there was quite a thick layer of local politics spread on top of the national political structure.

Given the partisan lean of this district, this result is quite similar to the result in New Taipei 3. Both imply that the DPP’s national vote is roughly 45-47%, or similar to the 2012 presidential election. This looks quite a bit better for the DPP than the 2018 local elections or the two January by-elections, though it is still a far cry from the 2016 results.


Next, let’s visit the charming island of Kinmen. From a partisan standpoint, Kinmen is a D-38 district. The DPP is basically irrelevant here. Everyone is some shade of pan-blue, so voters are free to choose their favorite candidate without worrying about national considerations. The official KMT usually does well, but not always. This was one of those other times. This turned out to be a true four-way race, with four candidates getting between 20-30%. Geographically, all four of the candidates had a home base in one of the five townships (ignoring the barely populated sixth town), and they all competed in Jincheng, the biggest town. The winner, Chen Yu-chen, won by winning Jincheng and her hometown, and by coming in second in two of the other towns. The official KMT nominee, Hung Li-ping, came in third. She had the misfortune to be based in the smaller Lieyu Township, and she didn’t do very well in the other townships.

Chen Yu-chen is a county councilor and the daughter of Chen Shui-tsai. Chen Shui-tsai is perhaps the most important elected official in Kinmen’s history. He was the first elected county magistrate. (Remember that, unlike Taiwan, Kinmen was not allowed to hold local elections until 1994.) During his term in office, Kinmen underwent a fundamental transformation. On the one hand, the military started withdrawing its enormous garrison, necessitating a wholesale transformation of the local economy and fundamentally transforming everyday life. On the other hand, Chen transformed the kaoliang distillery from a small military operation into what would eventually become the main source of funds for the county government. The decisions made under Chen’s administration reverberate in every corner of the county today. I don’t know if he still has political influence or to what extent those political ties contributed to his daughter’s victory, but I’m sure they at least helped to start her political career.

One thing that did surprise me about this election was the performance of Chen Tsang-chiang, who finished second. Above I said that the DPP is basically irrelevant in Kinmen. Chen is the caveat to that statement. Chen is a former county councilor and the only person ever elected to public office in Kinmen under the DPP label. However, because he was dissatisfied with the Tsai government’s performance, Chen withdrew from the DPP and did not run for re-election to the county council in 2018. Chen ran as an independent this time, but I did not expect that it would be so easy for him to shed the stench of the DPP label. I assumed that his former association with the DPP would have been toxic in Kinmen. That proved not to be the case, as he came shockingly close to winning.

The Kinmen election was probably a fascinating story. However, this is the kind of race that you need to have detailed local knowledge to fully understand. I’m sure there was all kinds of intrigue and interesting coalitions, but only the people on the ground involved in the campaigns will ever know the whole story. Without strong party lines to structure political conflict, the possibilities (and chaos) are limitless. From my perch at 30,000 feet, I can only sense that I am missing out on a fantastic soap opera.


Finally, there is Tainan 2. Tainan 2 is a D+16 district, and it is either the DPP’s best or second-best district in the entire country. (Neighboring Tainan 1 is the other; no other district is within four points of them.) This is a district that not only should the DPP never lose, it should never even come close to losing. The KMT just came very, very close to winning Tainan 2.

For the KMT to come so close to winning here, it needs a perfect storm. I see at least three important ingredients. First, the DPP is undergoing nasty factional infighting in Tainan between the New Tide faction (led locally by former mayor and premier William Lai) and the Chen Shui-bian/Independence faction. In the recent mayoral election, Huang Wei-che (the former legislator from this district) and Chen Ting-fei were more or less the representatives of the two sides, though it was a little messier than that. At any rate, it is safe to say that the eventual nominee and winner (Huang) has not yet managed to unify the local party. In this by-election, the DPP candidate was from the New Tide faction. I think it is safe to speculate that probably not all of the CSB/independence faction was working 100% for Kuo. Second (and related), there was a splinter candidate. Chen Hsiao-yu lost the DPP nomination fight and then ran as an independent. She is from a local political family. Her mother 郭秀柱 is a longtime city council member who has sometimes been inside and sometimes outside the DPP but has always claimed to be a strong supporter of CSB. During the mayoral primary, one minor DPP aspirant accused Huang Wei-che of cooperating with organized crime, by which he meant Chen Hsiao-yu’s mother. (Note the illogical factional alliances. Local politics don’t always make sense.) In the last few days of the campaign, CSB made a video endorsing Kuo. This probably saved the election for the DPP.

Third, even if you ignore the split in the green camp, the KMT overperformed in this election. Hsieh got 44.3%. For reference, when Ma Ying-jeou won re-election in 2012 (with 51% of the national vote), he only got 34.8% in Tainan 2. To put it another way, Hsieh’s 59,194 votes this time were more than the KMT mayoral candidate in 2018 won (58201), even though the turnout was 20% lower this year than last. In 2016, the KMT collapsed in this district, losing the legislative race by a comical 76-19% margin. It seemed like the KMT might never be competitive here again. Yet, they lost yesterday by less than 3%.

After 2016 I said that the KMT had to figure out some way to appeal to voters in the south if they wanted to win a future presidential election. When Han Kuo-yu ran for party chair with a distinctly different discourse than everyone else, I suggested that they might want to test that message in a general election to see if it could be the solution. It certainly worked in the Kaohsiung mayoral election, and I think the KMT’s excellent performance in Tainan 2 has a lot of elements of that same general approach.

Hsieh Long-chieh is, like Han, an outsider who parachuted into a strange new district. Hsieh is from the southern urban part of Tainan, not the rural north. He has some experience talking to farmers in small towns (he was chair of the KMT city branch), but most of his experience is in talking with urbanites. Like Han, he made a few outlandish claims related to agriculture. Hsieh railed about the pomelo industry, exaggerating how badly it was doing and making wild promises about how wonderful he would make it if only he were elected. Finally, Hsieh is TV personality. He is nowhere near the cult hero that Han is. Han gets 24-hour blanket coverage on some stations and merely excessive coverage on the others. No one can match that. However, Hsieh is a regular talk show guest, and he gets more than his fair share of media coverage. I suspect that the combination of extensive media exposure and being an outsider is critical to the recipe. People with long local associations might be better known and have more established reputations. The outlandish promises might be more “credible” or easily swallowed if you don’t have direct evidence from years of experience that this fellow is not actually superman.

At any rate, I expect we will see a wave of Han Kuo-yu imitators in the upcoming legislative general election. Not all of them will be able to pull it off. Some won’t have the personality. Not everyone is comfortable with blowing smoke or promising outlandishly wonderful and immediate results. Very few will be able to match the media exposure. There is only so much exposure to go around, and not everyone can be a media superstar. If the KMT nominates Han at the top of the ticket, he might be able to drag a lot of local candidates along, but I don’t think they can follow his recipe individually. Finally, most of the KMT candidates will be locally established politicians. If being an outsider is important, most will fail that test. However, this might be Ko Wen-che’s opportunity. If he tries to run a slate of legislative candidates, he won’t get the A-List politicians on his team. He will be forced to choose from the D-List politicians (remember: two years ago everyone would have considered Han Kuo-yu a D-List politician), and that might work to his advantage in this climate.

To sum up, if we ignore Tainan, the DPP didn’t do too badly. However, you can’t ignore Tainan. Following the Kaohsiung mayoral race, the KMT has once again made dramatic inroads in the south. The Han Kuo-yu recipe seems to be working, and that should terrify the DPP. I don’t know if this recipe is scalable, but I suspect we will find out next January.

Taipei 2 and Taichung 5 by-elections

January 28, 2019

There were by-elections for the legislative seats in Taipei 2 and Taichung 5 districts today. These fill the seats vacated when Yao Wen-chih and Lu Hsiu-yen resigned prior to the mayoral elections two months ago. (Another three seats that were vacated after the election by winners in Tainan, Changhua, and Kinmen will be filled in by-elections on March 24.)

Taipei 2      






Chen SY (Ko)






Chen YC  



Turnout: 30.4%      


Taichung 5      
Shen KMT



Wang DPP



Chiu (PFP)






Turnout: 25.3%      


The result of today’s election was that the DPP held the seat in Taipei while the KMT held the seat in Taichung. In short, nothing changed hands, so there is nothing to see here. #analysis. That banal conclusion is probably, in fact, the best headline. However, we can always add a bit of color.

I’ll start with a bit of context. Taipei 2 is a green district. If you take Tsai Ing-wen’s vote share in the 2012 and 2016 elections and sort all 73 legislative districts from her best to her worst districts, Taipei 2 was her 25th best district in 2012 and her 20th best district in 2016. In other words, this is a district that the DPP needs to win. To put it another way, she won 61.6% of the vote in 2016, 5.5% more than her 56.1% national vote share. Similarly, she was 4.6% higher in Taipei 2 than nationally in 2012. So let’s drop the decimal places and call Taipei 2 a D+5 district.*

(*For people familiar with the American jargon, my D+5 is not equivalent to a standard American R+5. In the USA, R+5 means that a Republican is expected to beat the Democrat by five points. Here, I mean that the DPP vote should be five points higher locally than nationally.)

Taichung 5 is nearly a mirror image of Taipei 2. Taichung 5 was Tsai’s 51st strongest district in 2012 and 52nd strongest district in 2016. In the two elections, she was 4.6% and 4.7% worse locally than nationally. So let’s call Taichung 5 a D-5 district. This is the kind of district that the KMT needs to win if it is planning on winning a majority in the legislature.

Of course, needing to win and actually winning are different matters. When a party is having a bad year, it won’t win lots of places that it “needs” to win. The DPP lost Taipei 2 in 2008 and barely won it in 2012. The KMT has never come close to winning Taichung 5, but it did lose seven districts in 2016 where Tsai got a lower vote share than in Taichung 5. The expectations are that this is a bad time for the DPP, so the KMT should probably have easily won the race in Taichung 5 and we might expect a tighter race in Taipei 2. Historically, the lower turnouts in by-elections tend to produce extreme results, probably due to the enthusiastic side being able to turn out a higher percentage of its potential support. Back when the DPP had the energy, it won by-elections in deep blue territory such as Taoyuan 3 and Hsinchu County. Given the results from two months ago, it wouldn’t have been a shock at all for the KMT to win a green (but not deep green) district like Taipei 2.


The simplistic way to look at this election result is purely through the D+5 and D-5 lens. The DPP candidates got 47.8% in Taipei 2 and 38.6% in Taichung 5. That implies that a national DPP vote should be roughly 43%. This is a bit higher than the 39% they received in the mayoral races two months ago. So, relative to that stepping in dog poop, this result was good news. Maybe it was like having a bird poop on your car windshield. After all, 43% isn’t great, but it’s easier to clean poop off your windshield than off your shoe.


Of course, these two races aren’t quite comparable. The third candidate in Taipei was far stronger than the third candidate in Taichung. In fact, I think all the candidates in Taipei were probably stronger than all the candidates in Taichung.

The Taichung race was a contest between Shen Chih-hui and Wang Yi-chuan. Shen is an old KMT warhorse. She was elected to the legislature for the first time way back in 1989. She was one of several young, attractive, female, mainlander politicians sponsored by the KMT’s Huang Fu-hsing branch (which was comprised mostly of military veterans). Hung Hsiu-chu is the most notable of this cohort. The others (people like Hsiao Chin-lan, Wang Su-yun, Chu Feng-chih, and Pan Wei-kang) are (mostly) gone from the political scene, and I thought Shen Chih-hui was pretty much gone as well. When the legislature was cut in half in 2008, she was the KMT Taichung legislator left with no seat. She wanted to run in (what is now) Taichung 5, which was always her best area in Taichung. Beitun District has the largest concentration of military veterans and mainlanders in Taichung. However, this group was also Lu Hsiu-yen’s political base, and Lu won the nomination. Shen tried to get back into the legislature in 2016, but she ran in Taichung 6 and got wiped out. Legislators who have been out for over a decade rarely get back in. In my imaginary candidate quality coding scheme, I don’t generally consider candidates like her as particularly strong. On the other hand, in that same rubric, the DPP candidate might be even worse. Wang Yi-chuan has no electoral experience at all. He comes out of the Taichung city government, where he was part of Lin’s mini-cabinet. Historically, candidates with this type of background are dismal at winning votes. The third candidate is even worse. Chiu Yu-shan just ran for the city council. Two months ago, running as a PFP candidate, she managed to get a measly 3293 votes. We are guessing about the other two, but I had hard evidence that Chiu was not an electoral juggernaut. Somebody had to win, but it didn’t have to be pretty. Most by-elections get 35-40% turnout. This one got 25%. Yuck.


On paper, the candidates in Taipei 2 all looked pretty good. The KMT and DPP candidates have both spent two terms in the city council, so both are at the perfect spot in their careers to move up. The third candidate was sponsored by Mayor Ko, who just won an impressive victory in an intense three-way race two months ago. Ko supported a few city council candidates, but this was really the first time he was going to test his strength in a single-seat race against the two major parties. He had a pretty good representative. Chen Si-yu is a young and bright member in Ko’s inner circle. Beyond that, she has a local network to draw on. Her father is a prominent politician, having spent the past twenty years in the city council and legislature as an independent (and previously as a TSU member). (In fact, all three of the main candidates come from political families.) I was curious to see how much support Chen would command, and whether it looked like that support was primarily drawn from the KMT or DPP side.

In fact, Chen did terribly. She only got 12%. This is a terrible result for Ko. Think about all the politicians considering whether they should jump from the KMT or DPP into Ko’s camp. He was unable to throw any support to a credible candidate with an established local network in his home city. How much will the Ko label be worth for a random politician in Changhua or Taoyuan? Maybe it is best to try to win a nomination inside the KMT or DPP, since we know those party labels reliably bring votes. This election will make it harder for Ko to build a network for a 2020 run. Does he really want to depend on an organization like the neo-MKT? Ick.

I do wonder if Chen’s candidacy helped the DPP in this race. In many ways, the outcomes of these two by-elections resembled a theme we saw in November. In one-on-one races, it looked like swing voters mostly supported the KMT. When they had another viable option, those voters seemed to turn to third candidates. In both scenarios, the DPP is left with not much more than their base vote. I’m not sure how much I believe this story, but it seems plausible. If it is correct, if Chen had not been in the race, her 12% would have mostly turned to the KMT or stayed home.

[This is a note that I’m not sure how to fit in. Ho’s victory speech tonight was interesting. He thanked his supporters and his volunteers, and then he thanked the KMT candidate for running an honorable and respectable race. And then he absolutely lit into Chen Si-yu, accusing her of running a dirty, underhanded, nasty, ugly, shameful, not-nice campaign. He went on to extend his attacks to Ko Wen-je, telling his crowd (and TV audience) that we were seeing Ko’s true nature. He clearly had some pent-up anger that he wanted to get off his chest. Victory speeches are usually magnanimous, but Ho was in the mood to kick Chen and Ko a few times while they were down on the ground. There are not many good feelings between Taipei city DPP politicians and Ko Wen-je’s people right now.]

I might be tempted to call tonight’s results moderately good news for the DPP. By winning Taipei 2, they held serve and stopped the bleeding. However, when turnout is 25% and 30%, there are no winners. Every winner should feel embarrassed at their low winning tally, and every loser should be appalled that they couldn’t meet such a low threshold. No one was able to inspire voters to go out to the polls. Ho and Shen probably feel happy tonight, but they really shouldn’t. Everyone else involved might want to question their career choices. Blecch.