Public opinion and Pelosi’s (unimportant) visit

September 29, 2022

About a month ago, I started writing a post about the August My Formosa poll. It was not a good poll for President Tsai and the DPP. Given that Nancy Pelosi’s visit occurred in early August, I thought it was important to address this. To make a long story short, I don’t think Pelosi’s visit or cross-straits politics were driving the dip in President Tsai’s popularity. The My Formosa poll didn’t ask anything about that, but two other polls did. Both showed that the public generally approved of Pelosi’s visit. Instead, the dip seemed to be driven by purely domestic events. The most obvious thing was the plagiarism scandal that forced the DPP’s candidate for Taoyuan mayor to withdraw from the race, but there have been a few other things as well.

Unfortunately, I got distracted by other things, and I never got around to finishing that post. One of my conclusions was going to be that we should probably wait for more data to come out to see if August was a lasting change or just a blip in the long-term trends. Well, now the September survey is out. Tsai and the DPP have bounced back a little, though not all the way.

For the purposes of getting this post out as quickly as possible, I’m going to copy my draft from a month ago (denoted in blue), and I will add a few comments to update things for this month.

August was an important month in Taiwan. Speaker Pelosi visited, China reacted by holding unprecedented military drills that redefined the status quo, Senator Markey visited and China continued its drills, and Senator Blackburn visited and China apparently got tired of complaining. The KMT reacted to this by sending a delegation to China, a move that was criticized by KMT politicians as well as everyone else. So what effects did these BIG EVENTS have on Taiwanese public opinion?

The August My Formosa poll is out, and President Tsai and the DPP did not do well. The talking heads are not being subtle. I heard the words “collapse” and “crisis” screamed several times.

Before you jump to any conclusions, you should keep in mind two things. First, it wasn’t a good poll for Tsai and the DPP, but “collapse” and “crisis” are overstating things juuust a bit. President Tsai has had several months this bad during her second term, including one earlier this year. And “bad” puts her at a level that Presidents Chen and Ma would have salivated at during their second terms.  Second, the primary driver in the DPP’s decrease in popularity in August may not have been Pelosi and China. It was probably due to LITTLE EVENTS little events in domestic politics, specifically a plagiarism scandal resulting in a DPP mayoral candidate withdrawing from the race.

 So what did this poll find? Let’s start with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. In July, 56.2% were satisfied with her overall performance in office, while 41.0% were dissatisfied, yielding a net satisfaction of 15.2%. In August, satisfaction plunged to 50.4%, dissatisfaction skyrocketed to 46.5%, so net satisfaction plummeted to 3.9%!! What a disaster!! (Sorry, I got carried away there.) But seriously, this wasn’t a good result for the DPP. A 5% shift against you is pretty significant.

However, if we look at the August results against the last several years instead of just July, a somewhat more nuanced picture emerges. Over the past two years, Tsai has often had somewhere around a 55/40 satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating. However, there have now been three 5% shifts that produced a 50/45 balance, one after the May 2021 Covid outbreak, a second in the May 2022 Covid outbreak, and now this one. The softest supporters are the first to jump ship, and perhaps they just did it again. We will have to wait and see if they drift back in the next few months, as they did after the first two drops. At any rate, Tsai’s current satisfaction rating is at the bottom end of her previous range, but it is still within that established range. This isn’t a fundamentally new pattern. We certainly aren’t in the world of late 2018.

[update: Tsai’s approval rating bounced back a little in September, but it is a lot closer to August than July. Her net satisfaction is now at +5.9%. I didn’t expect it to bounce all the way back in one month, but I thought it might bounce back a little more than this.]

It’s the same basic story for party ID. The DPP didn’t do well in August (26.3%, down 2.3% from July). If you look at the past few years, the DPP has generally been somewhere between 25% and 33%, so this puts them at the lower end of that range. It’s not good news for them, but it also isn’t breaking any new ground.

Meanwhile, the KMT had a pretty good poll result. Between the summer of 2020 and the end of last year, the KMT usually got around 15%. However, they had several months of dismal results in the spring and summer getting 11-12%. In August, the KMT rebounded to 14.4%. That’s better than they had been doing recently, but well within the range of the previous two years. They’ll be very happy to have stopped their recent slide, but that’s about the extent of it. This is a good, not great, result for them.

[update: It’s actually not quite the same story for party ID. The DPP bounced back quite a lot in September. Their September support was actually a bit higher than in July. It’s interesting to see the difference in recoveries between Tsai and the DPP. The KMT fell a little, but their drop was fairly mild. The biggest story in party ID is over on the TPP side. The TPP got 10.4% in this poll. They had never even gotten 9% in a My Formosa poll before. The TPP has had a pretty good 18 months in party ID, so they might have high expectations for the upcoming elections.]

I could go through a few other standard questions from the My Formosa survey, but they are all basically the same story. The DPP had a bad month, falling near the bottom of its “normal” range. The KMT had a good month, recovering to the middle of its “normal” range.

So why do I think that this isn’t a reaction to Pelosi’s visit and Chinese military aggression? My normal inclination is to ignore the day-to-day minutia and pay attention to the big events. My basic assumption about Taiwanese politics is that an enormous proportion of things – maybe 80 or 90% – can be understood through the lens of national identity, attitudes toward China, party ID, sovereignty, and other questions that fit into the single dominant political cleavage. Everything else is fiddling around the edges. The last few things to really shake up the political system – the Sunflower movement and the Hong Kong protests/China’s suppression of political freedoms – were directly related to the dominant political cleavage. China making an aggressively threatening gesture like this could have mattered.

But it doesn’t look like that is driving these changes in the polls. My Formosa certainly doesn’t think it is the big thing that we all need to focus on. They didn’t even bother to ask any questions about Pelosi or the military drills.

There are two reasonably good quality surveys that focused on these questions. One was done by the Chinese Association of Public Opinion Research (CAPOR), an organization formed by blue-leaning academics who are primarily interested in China and international relations rather than public opinion. The CAPOR survey was done by Apollo Research, a pollster originally associated with the Want Want Group. (To be fair to Apollo, their polls are pretty professional, and I know several respected academics who trust them to produce data for their research.) The other poll was by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), which is run by deep green (though not necessarily pro-Tsai) figures. I think it’s fair to say that, if these polls are biased, they should be skewed in opposite directions. In fact, they paint similar pictures.

TPOF asked if respondents welcomed Pelosi’s visit. 52.9% said they welcomed it, against 24.0% who said they did not welcome it. They then asked, “If we knew then that China would react by holding such a large-scale military exercise, should we have refused Pelosi’s visit?” Respondents rejected this suggestion by a 52.9% to 33.6% margin.

CAPOR asked if Pelosi’s visit had substantively helped Taiwan-USA relations. 53.7% said it had helped, while 27.4 said it had not helped. CAPOR then asked a few questions that looked to me like they were designed to attack the DPP. If so, they didn’t get the responses they were looking for. First, “Some people think, ‘Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan only benefitted the DPP; ordinary people didn’t feel anything at all.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 35.7% agreed, but 47.7% disagreed. Second, “Some people think, ‘If Taiwan still maintained the 1992 Consensus, Pelosi’s visit would not have caused such an extremely tense situation in the Taiwan Strait.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 36.1% agreed, and 41.3% disagreed.

The takeaway from both these polls is that there was no public backlash to Pelosi’s visit. On the contrary, it was popular, even though respondents could see China’s reaction. President Tsai and the DPP suffered in the polls following Pelosi’s visit, but it wasn’t because of Pelosi’s visit. Big events can have big consequences for public opinion, but that isn’t what happened this time.

Overall, Taiwan public opinion is still roughly the same as it was before the December referendums and perhaps even the January 2020 elections. Of course, these are local elections, and the individual candidates matter quite a lot. However, they are building their campaigns on fairly stable partisan turf. If the KMT candidates win easily in New Taipei and Taichung (as all signs indicate), it will be in spite of their party, not because of it.

Pelosi visit: What is China thinking?

July 31, 2022

A lot of people have written a lot of words about Nancy Pelosi’s possible upcoming visit to Taiwan. Many of these are very smart and well-informed people whose opinions I respect tremendously. However, there is one question that keeps eating away at me that almost no one is talking about: Is Xi Jinping in trouble?

Almost all the commentary has looked at the situation from the American point of view. Very little has thought much about the Chinese point of view. A lot of analysts have noted that China will make several important decisions about its leadership over the next few months, so this is a particularly sensitive time. Several have worried that Xi would find a Pelosi visit humiliating and might feel the need to act rashly. However, I have only read one column going much deeper into internal Chinese politics than that. These analysts also seem almost universally to assume that a third term for Xi Jinping is a foregone conclusion. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t quite add up to me.

Disclaimer: I am not a China specialist. I don’t know what is going on inside China.

Let me lay out a few basic assumptions that shape my thinking.

First, I assume that domestic power is Xi Jinping’s (and every other major Chinese actor’s) top priority right now. You have to secure power first before you can do anything else.

Second, Nancy Pelosi’s visit is not inherently worthy of a crisis. Members of Congress visit Taiwan all the time, and Pelosi does not have the power to decide American foreign policy. Arguably, the visits of cabinet-level figures over the past few years have been more significant than this visit. China could, if it wanted to, follow the normal script of issuing indignant complaints that everyone ignores. Instead, China has chosen to escalate the tension around this particular visit. I reiterate, this is a CHOICE.

Third, several well-informed American voices have argued that China is making threats about using force that seem more credible than normal. In many versions, this involves threatening the military plane carrying Pelosi; in others, it involves holding live fire exercises, sending fighters deeper into Taiwan’s airspace, or just ambiguous dire consequences. I am not in any position to dispute them. I’ll assume that China has, indeed, staked out a fairly extreme position, and the US military is quite concerned about Pelosi’s physical safety.

Fourth, China’s goal is to prevent Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has now invested quite a bit of political capital telling its domestic audience that it will not tolerate this visit. Its ideal outcome is that she will back down and cancel the visit.

Fifth, the chances that Pelosi will cancel the visit in the face of public Chinese pressure are pretty low. Once the visit became public, canceling it would have been a humiliating option for Pelosi. It also would give Republicans a powerful weapon to hammer Democrats with. China could get its preferred outcome, but it is highly likely that it will not. This is a risky bet for Xi and China.

Where does that leave us? China would seem to be faced with the choice of backing down or carrying through with its threats against Pelosi’s plane. Those are terrible options for the PRC. Backing down would be humiliating, but engaging would probably be worse. Pelosi will be flying on an American military plane, so threatening or attacking that plane would be directly confronting the American military. For China, this would be just about the worst way to get into a war with the USA.

China might be preparing for a war to take Taiwan, and it might assume that it will inevitably get into a military conflict with the USA. However, they should probably prefer to choose an advantageous time and place for that. Forcing down Pelosi’s plane wouldn’t gain them any Taiwanese territory. Instead, it would probably galvanize American public opinion against China and for a rapid military buildup. It could create a huge backlash against Chinese manufactured goods that would inflict severe pain on an already weak Chinese economy. That is, it would probably force the USA to prepare more aggressively, making it less likely that China would win any future war. Moreover, Chinese strategy on Taiwan has been predicated on persuading the USA to stay out of any conflict, or, failing that, to take Taiwan quickly before the US military has time to mobilize. By directly attacking a US military plane, they would be cutting Taiwan out of the equation and forcing the US to get involved. In addition, attacking a non-threatening transport plane is a pretty good way to ensure that international opinion is firmly against you. Oh, and let’s not forget that any moves against Pelosi’s plane might not be successful. The American military has been alerted to the danger, and it has its own forces that it can use to protect her plane. There is a real possibility that China could create all that backlash AND find out that its military isn’t as strong as it had hoped.

In short, there are a lot of ways that this could go very badly for China.

Let’s go back to Xi Jinping. According to most analysts, Xi is firmly on course to secure a third term. There are complaints about the economy, the Covid response, and several other things, but most people don’t seem to think that anyone is ready to make a serious challenge to Xi’s power. If this is an accurate description, Xi’s strategy should be to hold everything steady. If nothing big changes, he will win. They should downplay Pelosi’s visit as unimportant and insignificant, while issuing all the standard complaints about Chinese sovereignty and Taiwan separatists. If there is nothing to see here, then there is no humiliation for Xi or China. Xi’s Taiwan strategy is still on track, and Xi marches inevitably toward a third term.

Yet what is happening with the Pelosi trip is just the opposite. China is actively creating/escalating an international crisis in which there is a high probability that it will not obtain a good outcome. Effectively, China could be inviting everyone to see Xi and the current government as weak and ineffective. This is precisely the sort of thing that could derail Xi’s pursuit of a third term. Why would Xi allow China to pursue a strategy that has the potential to remove him from power?

The only way China’s actions make sense to me is if everyone is wrong about Xi’s grip on power and Xi Jinping is in serious trouble. There are two versions of this story.

The first scenario is that Xi Jinping expects he will lose. In this version, opponents have taken advantage of all those complaints about the economy and the general direction of China to secretly put together a coalition broad enough to unseat Xi. Western scholars and journalists, who have largely been kept out of China for the past two years, have not picked up the scent of this rebellion, but Xi has. Moreover, it is so large and powerful that he can’t just purge his opponents. He has to persuade them. In this scenario, he needs a major victory to re-establish his prestige. Even though there is a high risk of failure over Pelosi’s trip, he feels he has to take this chance in order to maintain his grip on power.

In the second scenario, Xi is still on track to win, but there is a significant challenge and his grip on power is looser than most people think. In this scenario, Xi understands that risks involved in escalating the conflict over the Pelosi visit. However, Xi is not fully in control. His opponents, sensing an opportunity, have used their influence over the media and other institutions to escalate the tension and forced Xi to go along with them. Essentially, they are pushing him into a situation in which there is a high possibility that he will come out looking weak. It is possible they might be able to push Xi out of power, and a significant defeat in Taiwan policy might be the thing that secures that outcome.

Again, most analysts reassure us that Xi is firmly on track to secure a third term, so neither of these scenarios should be in play. However, China’s actions and statements about the Pelosi visit make a lot more sense if Xi is in trouble.

Alternatively, perhaps no one in China is actually that worked up about Pelosi’s visit, and the USA is just taking China’s standard (insincere) doomsday rhetoric seriously yet again. I don’t think it is that simple, but it is logically consistent.

Postscript: While I was writing this, Nancy Pelosi’s office issued a press statement saying that she is leading a delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. This doesn’t mean she is definitely not coming to Taiwan, but it seems more likely that she will not. China’s gamble might be paying off.

Not much change?

July 17, 2022

It has been six months since I last posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my inactivity. It has been a difficult period in my personal life, and I just didn’t have the energy to work on this blog.

Lots of things have happened since January, so there has been plenty to write about. Covid has swept through Taiwan, Taiwan and the USA have started trade talks, Russia invaded Ukraine and the world has become more aware of Taiwan’s security challenges, KMT chair Eric Chu took a trip to the USA, there is no water crisis this year but now we are starting to worry about electricity, and on and on. The news never stops. However, if you step back and look at the wider picture, I’m not sure anything has fundamentally changed. President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings haven’t changed much, and neither has the relative popularity of the two major parties. The PRC’s ambitions for Taiwan probably haven’t changed that much, and neither has Taiwan’s willingness or ability to defend itself. The two parties have almost finished putting together their nominations for this year’s local elections, and none of the candidates are big surprises (with one glaring exception: the KMT in Taoyuan). The KMT is still in relatively good shape for this year’s elections, and they are still clueless about how to fight the 2024 national elections. VP William Lai still has the clearest path to the presidency. There are lots of new leaves and even a few new trees, but it’s still basically the same forest.

As always, I like to use the My Formosa polls as a standard reference. They ask the same questions over and over using the same methodology at regular intervals. They aren’t picking and choosing dramatic moments when someone will look better or worse, and they aren’t designing new questions each month to highlight someone’s successes or failures. This is a pretty good snapshot of how public opinion is evolving. There hasn’t been a lot of dramatic movement thus far during 2022.

President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings remain quite good. She’s had about 55% satisfied and 40% satisfied all year. There was a dip in May when the Covid outbreak seemed scariest, but her ratings rebounded in June. The Covid effect has turned out to be pretty small. About 20% of the population has been confirmed with Covid since January, but society has mostly shrugged it off. People haven’t been anywhere near as panicked as they were in the outbreak last summer. While last year’s outbreak was much smaller, it was scarier. The population was almost entirely unvaccinated, and about 1 of every 20 people who contracted the virus died. This year, nearly 90% of the population has gotten at least one shot, and only about 1 of every 500 cases has been fatal. Of those fatalities, nearly half have come from the small portion of the population that is still completely unvaccinated and a disproportionate number of the rest are from people who only got one shot. About 2/3 of the population has gotten three shots, and fatalities are quite low among that group. The public is no longer ecstatic about the government’s pandemic response, but it also isn’t particularly angry about it. Covid is still in the news, but it is usually the fifth or eighth most important news story of the day. There was a small but temporary effect in the May survey, but it doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect. Covid is not going to be the dominant issue for the 2022 local elections unless there is a big change. In the meantime, President Tsai is still enjoying positive, stable job approval ratings.

If you want to look for some change in the data, perhaps there is something happening in party ID. It is possible that the KMT is losing popularity. The June poll was downright horrifying for the KMT. Only 9.5% expressed support for the KMT, barely more than the 8.9% for the TPP. We’ve seen plenty of lousy, sensationalist polls find that the TPP and KMT are even, but this is the first time I’ve seen them so close in a poll that I trust. This chart shows party ID aggregated into camps, and My Formosa always finds a few more people who said they support parties in a particular camp without naming which one, so the blue camp is noticeably higher than the TPP. Still, that is a dismal result for the KMT. Now, this is one poll, and the KMT’s party ID is quite different from previous months. It is possible that large numbers of previous KMT supporters were alienated by Chu’s trip to the USA or by nomination conflicts, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. I’ll watch this number over the next few months, but I expect it to bounce back from the June data point. However, even ignoring the June number, if you squint your eyes a bit, you can see a slight downward trend in the blue camp’s popularity over the first half of 2022. It’s a small change (prior to June), but if I were a KMT strategist I’d feel a bit queasy looking at this overall trend.

Meanwhile, support for the DPP and green camp seems to be pretty stable. You might think that two years after the national election and six years into Tsai’s presidency, people would be getting tired of the status quo and itching for change. This is normally the time period in which the governing party is running out of steam and the energetic opposition party is gearing up to challenge for power. However, we don’t see much evidence of that this year. The DPP seems to be steadily maintaining its popularity, and the KMT isn’t showing many signs of rejuvenation.

As I have told several people this year, this might create an unusual context for local elections. In almost all of the recent election cycles, the government has been unpopular. This has meant that the opposition party has had a powerful appeal: send a message to the government and teach them a lesson! There was strong anti-government sentiment in 2018, 2014, 2005/6, and 1997. There was moderate anti-government sentiment in 2009/10 and 2001/2. I think the last time the government was actually popular might have been 1993/4. In 1993, I was a recent college graduate teaching English in a rural Nantou township and just starting to learn some of the basics of Taiwanese elections. That’s so long ago that the Central Election Commission website doesn’t even bother to report the 1993 results. Since many readers will not immediately think back to 1993/4, let me quickly recap. The DPP, which was still a fledgling party with no realistic hopes for taking power, made a big push in 1993 to exploit KMT factional rifts and win local power. It didn’t work. The KMT comfortably won most of the “contested” races. They even defeated the DPP incumbents in Changhua and Pingtung, the latter of whom was a charismatic bald guy who no one would ever hear of again. The next year, Taiwan held its first election for governor of Taiwan Province. The DPP had a fantastic nominee, the popular former Yilan County magistrate and widely respected Chen Ting-nan. The KMT could only put up a party hack with no electoral experience at all, a mainlander who didn’t speak any Taiwanese. All the energy was on the DPP side. Naturally, James Soong and the KMT won a decisive victory. At the same time, the KMT comfortably maintained its majority in the Provincial Assembly. The last time the government was popular in local elections, the opposition got swamped. I’m not predicting that the DPP will have a smashing victory in 2022. However, I do think it is worth remembering that the context might be different this time. We don’t really know what a popular government should expect from local elections in the current fully democratic regime.

At the beginning of this post, I said that the KMT seems to be in relatively good shape this year. It has a good roster of nominees. One of the effects of the 2018 KMT wave is that this year it has a lot of incumbents running for re-election. That is usually a big advantage. Hou Yu-ih in New Taipei and Lu Hsiu-yen in Taichung seem comfortably positioned to win their races. Those two are the traditional swing areas, so it’s a big deal if the KMT can safely put them in its column. The KMT should also be favored in Hsinchu County, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Taitung, and, of course, Kinmen and Lienchiang. Even if they don’t win anything else, that’s a pretty solid result for a party that is showing such meager popularity in the national polls. And of course, they could certainly win a few other races. Taipei City might be hotly contested, but I’d still put my money on Wayne Chiang and the KMT to emerge victorious. And their incumbents give them a shot in greener-leaning areas such as Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu. However, that latter group of races is where we might see the national partisan trends change some outcomes. Again, we don’t know how much it matters for local elections that people are mostly satisfied with the Tsai administration. But we can be fairly sure there won’t be a massive wave of voters angrily trying to send a message to the national government the way they did in 2018.

12 Years of FG

January 24, 2022

Frozen Garlic has hit a major milestone. I started writing this blog 12 years ago. Elections in Taiwan is a very niche topic, so I never expected a wide readership. Further, it’s written in English, and most of the people who are most interested in this topic prefer to read about it in Chinese. And the nature of the electoral cycle means that I go several months at a time without writing anything. When you don’t post any content, readers stop reading. When I started, I thought I was writing as much for personal expression as for the benefit of any readers.

Today, WordPress informs me that the blog has achieved 500,000 page views. In our modern world, we are used to seeing extremely large numbers, so half a million might not seem like a lot. However, I have done a lot of data entry over the years. In the old days when we had paper surveys, it only took a few minutes to enter the data for one survey. However, when you need to do that a thousand times, it starts adding up. That was a job for a team of RAs, and it took several days to plow through the pile. My database of candidates in Taiwanese elections is currently at about 69,000 candidates, and I have put a great deal of time and energy into that over the last decade. I think 500,000 is an enormous number.

I’d like to thank everyone who has spent several minutes plowing through one of my long, poorly edited screeds over the years. I hope it has been as informative and interesting for you as it has been fulfilling for me.

I’m going to start planning a small party for February 2034 when I should hit 1,000,000 page views.

Pro-KMT gender gap? Think again!

January 20, 2022

Recently a foreign scholar asked me about the importance of gender in Taiwanese elections, and I gave the standard answer. Women are more likely to vote for the KMT than the DPP. This always surprises people unfamiliar with Taiwan. Do you mean that when a woman was one of the two main presidential candidates, more female voters supported the man?? Wait, I thought the DPP was a bit more progressive than the KMT. Are you saying that female voters preferred the more conservative party?? Well, yes.

However, I wondered whether that might be changing. More specifically, I wondered whether younger voters followed the same patterns as older voters. So I spent far too much time rummaging around in old survey data, and I came up with some interesting answers. The gender gap in 2020 was not like the previous three elections. And younger voters are, in fact, different.

In voting, the gender gap can be defined as the difference between support for two parties among men minus the difference among women [(Am-Bm)-(Af-Bf)]. This gives you a magnitude and a direction, so that we can say something like “women support Democrats 14 points more than Republicans, compared to men.”

I looked at the Taiwan Elections and Democratization Study (TEDS) post-election face-to-face surveys for each of the past five presidential elections. As you can see, there was a mild gap in 2004 in favor of the DPP. However, in 2008 and 2012 there were very big gaps in favor of the KMT. 2012 is the one that everyone paid attention to since Tsai Ing-wen was the first female presidential candidate representing a major party. However, this did not attract much support from women in the general electorate. The gender gap was much smaller in 2016, though it was still mildly in the KMT’s favor. In 2020, however, the gap had shifted in the other direction. In her third run, Tsai finally achieved a gender gap in her favor. It isn’t a huge gender gap, but it is markedly different from the previous three elections.

That’s the headline, but there is always more to dig up. After reflection, I decided to ignore 2004 in the rest of this post. There wasn’t much of a gender gap in 2004, and the jumbled data seemed to cause more confusion than clarity. At any rate, the patterns we have been talking about for the past decade emerge clearly with Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.

My suspicion is that younger voters are different from older voters. How should I define younger and older? Normally, we just break samples into ages 20-29, 30-29, and so on. That’s fine for a single survey. However, I’m looking at four-year intervals over a couple of decades. Nearly half of each group graduates to the next age group in each subsequent survey. Instead, I need to look age political generations, so that I’m looking at the same group of voters in each survey. There is a fairly large literature on political generations, and each scholar cuts the population slightly differently. Ideally, you would like each generation to go through the same critical formative experiences. I don’t want to get into those battles since I don’t have strong feelings about exactly where the lines between generations should be drawn. I’m simply going to borrow a definition from scholars who have thought extensively about this question. Lin Pei-ting, Cheng Su-feng, and T.Y. Wang recently published a paper on political generations and national identity, and since they are all knowledgeable and trustworthy scholars, I’ll just steal their definition.

cohortBirthAges 2008Size 2008Ages 2020Size 2020

Cohort1, the oldest cohort, has been slowly aging out of the electorate. In 2008, there were still many C1 members who were active and energetic. Now, however, they are almost all octogenarians or older, and their share of the electorate[1] has declined to less than 5%.  At the other end of the spectrum, C5 were all still too young to vote in 2004, so they have slowly been aging into the electorate, making up a larger share in each election cycle. The middle three cohorts are largely the same people in each election. We probably won’t be able to say that much longer, since the oldest people in C2 are now nearing their 80th birthdays. C3 and C4 represent Taiwan’s era of rapid population growth, and these are the largest two cohorts for most of the era we are looking at. In 2008, they accounted for roughly 2/3 of the electorate, and in 2020, they still made up 57%.

Rather than putting up one chaotic chart with too many jumbled lines to see a clear pattern, I’ll tell this story cohort by cohort. I start with the chart of all voters. Blue lines represent support for KMT and PFP presidential candidates, while green lines represent the DPP. Darker blue and green represent men and lighter blue and green represent women. You can see the national gender gaps quite clearly in this picture. In 2008, there is a huge gap between the light blue and light green lines, reflecting a 25% difference in support for Ma and Hsieh. The gap is about half that size among men. Hence, we get a double-digit gender gap in favor of the KMT in 2008. In 2012 and 2016, the two green lines are very close; there wasn’t much difference in support for the DPP among women and men. However, there is still a sizeable gap between the two blue lines; women gave significantly more support to the KMT than men did.[2] That gap disappeared in 2020, and a gap emerged between the two green lines.[3]  

C1, the oldest cohort, doesn’t show much of a gender gap in 2008 and 2012. The lines go in all crazy directions in 2016 and 2020, but we probably should ignore that. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t pay attention to subgroups with fewer than 200 cases. In 2016 and 2020, C1 had shrunk so much that it was under 100 cases in the TEDS surveys. This isn’t the group creating the gender gap.

C2 does show a consistent pattern. For the blue side, there isn’t much difference between men and women. However, on the green side, women consistently give less support to the DPP than men.

C3 also shows a consistent pattern, though it is different from the C2 pattern. From one angle, it is the mirror image. In the first three elections, there wasn’t much difference on the green side, but women were consistently more supportive of the KMT than men. However, while C2 showed the same pattern all the way through 2020, C3 did not. In 2020, C3 suddenly reversed its previous pattern, with women swinging dramatically toward the DPP and away from the KMT.

C4 is very similar to C3. In the first three elections, there is a strong pro-KMT gender gap. However, in 2020 this suddenly reverses. Recall that C3 and C4 make up most of the electorate. When these two groups show the same pattern, it’s a good bet that the national pattern will also look like that.

C5, the youngest cohort, is very different. If we ignore 2008 because the cohort was still small, C5 has had a consistent pro-DPP gender gap. Even while the older cohorts were producing pro-KMT gender gaps in 2012 and 2016, C5 was showing the opposite pattern. C5 is also the only cohort that reported a big increase in support for the DPP in 2020 over 2016. Men increased their support for Tsai by 18%. One might expect that it would be nearly impossible for women, who were starting from a higher base, to match this, but women also increased their support for Tsai by 15%. I have written about the phenomenal levels of youth turnout in 2020, and you can see it here. Typically, about a quarter of the sample does not report a vote, and this number is typically higher among young voters. Non-response rates among young men commonly reach 40%. However, in 2020 it was only 22% among men in C5, and only 14% among women. In 2020, C5 turned out at extremely high rates, they overwhelmingly supported Tsai, and, as is their established pattern, women exceeded men’s already sky-high support.

A pro-DPP gender gap is a new experience for C3 and C4, and we don’t know if it will last. I am much more confident about the pro-DPP gender gap in C5. At any rate, I will no longer confidently tell foreign scholars about the pro-KMT gender gap. 2020 put an end to that.

[1] OK, actually this is their share of the TEDS sample. However, TEDS is weighted by age groups, so it might not be that far off the general electorate.  

[2] The numbers don’t add up to 100% because some respondents didn’t vote or did not tell us who they voted for.

[3] Post-election surveys often find too much support for winners, and these are no exception. The KMT lines are too high in 2008 and 2012, and the DPP lines are too high in 2016 and 2020. Likewise, the estimates for the losers are too low. This seems to be especially true for 2012 and 2020, which were both years in which an incumbent won re-election. However, I am not aware of any research suggesting this phenomenon is related to age or gender.

ROC Taiwan: First steal ROC, then nationalize CCK

January 14, 2022

In her National Day address in 2019, President Tsai laid out her vision of the what this society is. To put it briefly, she defined the country as ROC Taiwan, a society that has been defined by common experiences for seven decades. The KMT has campaigned for years on the ROC, but Tsai essentially told the KMT that they no longer had sole ownership of that concept. The DPP was also going to claim the ROC, which she explained was equivalent to Taiwan. This country, ROC Taiwan, belongs to everyone, and she hoped everyone would work together for its prosperity and sovereignty.

Somehow, I have never found time to write about the ROC Taiwan discourse. I believe it is one of the most important developments in Taiwan politics in recent years. Tsai basically stole the KMT’s heritage and symbols, and the KMT hasn’t figured out how to react. One of my friends told me (with disbelief in his voice) that his polls showed that people trusted Tsai Ing-wen to protect the ROC more than they trusted Han Kuo-yu. The DPP has become the party of stability, while the KMT has become the party with radical and dangerous ideas.

If you haven’t read the 2019 address or the 2021 address in which she restated the ROC Taiwan discourse, it’s worth it to read them carefully and think about what a monumental shift this is in the DPP’s traditional positions. DPP true believers don’t like the ROC name or symbols. However, Tsai has convinced them that it’s more important to fight the substantive battle over solidarity, sovereignty, and security than the symbolic one over the name ROC and the flag. It’s hard to give up cherished positions, but sometimes that is what is necessary to move forward.

Why am I talking about this today? Well, the Tsai government is making an even more audacious move against KMT symbols. It isn’t enough to steal the ROC and the flag, now they want to coopt the legacy of Chiang Ching-kuo as well!

The Veterans Affairs Commission is holding a big event this weekend in memory of the 34th anniversary of CCK’s death. If there is one thing most military veterans, especially the older ones, can agree on, it is that CCK was a great man. However, it’s a bit surprising for a DPP administration to try to bask in his legacy. After all, he was the dictator that the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s struggled against. Yet this is exactly what they are doing. And by using the VAC to send their message, they are going right into the heart of what has always been enemy territory. This is a bit like Kennedy going to Houston to speak to Southern Baptist ministers about his Catholicism.

Yesterday Deputy VAC chair Lee Wen-chung 李文忠 gave an interview on a radio show hosted by Huang Ching-lung 黃清龍, former editor-in-chief of the Want Daily 旺報, to talk about CCK. Keep in mind that Lee is very much a DPP political appointee. He is a former legislator (from the New Tide faction), and he ran for office under the DPP banner as recently as 2014 and 2016. He is a member of Team Tsai, not merely a technocrat. His comments about CCK are part of the broader ROC Taiwan discourse.

Lee said that, like every political figure, CCK[1] had good and bad points, and that we should be fair to him and acknowledge his contributions. He discussed several. First, CCK did away with the dream of reconquering the mainland through military force. At most, he talked about unification under the Three People’s Principles.  Second, Taiwan faced several economic crises in the 1970s, and many people unsure about Taiwan’s future emigrated to other countries. CCK stabilized the country with the Ten Major Construction Projects. Third, he realized that the government needed to bring in native Taiwanese talent. As an example, he paid close attention to Lee Teng-hui’s career and routinely held conversations with LTH when he was Taipei mayor. He even said, “I am Taiwanese.” Fourth, he was a liberalizer. When DPP was founded, no one was arrested. Democracy is not his credit, but not using suppression was a very big contribution. Fifth, he supported innovation. He was willing to confront problems such as lifting restrictions on media and political parties and opening up elections, and he used his authority to convince others to accept these changes. After CCK passed away, LTH became famous for the silent revolution. In fact, he was building on the foundation laid by CCK.

Lee defined the CCK path in six characters: 反共、革新、保台 (resist communism, promote innovation, protect Taiwan). He then spoke directly to “friends in the KMT” and delivered the hammer blow: you have discarded the CCK path. Resist communism? The KMT is not merely friendly to communism, it is kissing up to communism.

What Lee did not explicitly say is that the DPP is now the repository of those values. If you are a follower of the CCK path, the place to find politicians who believe in resisting communism, embracing innovation, and protecting Taiwan is now in the DPP. He didn’t say that, but it wasn’t difficult to make the leap in your mind.

I learned about the VAC event and this interview because Tsai Shih-ping 蔡詩萍, a blue-leaning media figure, made that leap in his head and wrote a pained message about it on Facebook. Tsai put all these ideas together, including the idea that the DPP was about to coopt CCK. Several media outlets then reported on this Facebook post.

Tsai argues the DPP is using an old KMT trick of cloaking itself in a great historical tradition. The KMT had traditionally placed itself in a grand Chinese narrative, starting with Yao and Shun, going through Confucius and Mencius, and ending up with Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Now the DPP is constructing a historical narrative of Taiwan’s democratization starting with CCK, continuing through LTH, and presently embodied by President Tsai. Critically, there is no place for the modern KMT in this, since they adamantly reject everything to do with LTH and the DPP. All they can do these days is to criticize Taiwan’s democracy. Since most people are proud of Taiwan’s democracy, the KMT is placed outside Taiwan’s mainstream.

Tsai reiterates Lee’s point about resisting communism, pointing out that when the CCP talked about creating a “new form of democracy,” no KMT figures jumped out to respond, “Sorry, that’s not democracy.”

Tsai ends his post by exhorting the KMT to return to the true path of CCK: resist communism, promote democracy, protect Taiwan.


Ok, so I don’t think the DPP is going to successfully steal the legacy of CCK. I don’t expect DPP candidates to start running under the slogan, “Support CCK, Vote DPP.” But that’s not really the point. They are trying to win the large group of voters in the middle of the electorate who learned as schoolchildren that their country was the ROC, sang the national anthem, saluted the flag, and supported the national team 中華隊 athletes in international competitions. There are a lot of people who absorbed the symbols of the state without necessarily absorbing the Chinese identity or ideology behind them. CCK was president during a time that many people remember fondly because of the economic miracle, so it is natural to think that he must have been a good president. The DPP has argued for a few decades that he was actually an evil dictator who made the people miserable, but they haven’t gotten too far with that. These days, CCK is the KMT’s last trump card. So the DPP is now arguing that CCK had some real contributions, but the modern KMT has walked away from all the values that led to those contributions. The next time Han Kuo-yu, Ma Ying-jeou, or Eric Chu go onstage and weep about their love for CCK, the DPP hopes that some voters will wonder why they aren’t actually following him these days. Moreover, they want to redefine CCK’s beneficial values as what are now consensus (read: our) values. Ideally, the DPP wants CCK (like the ROC) to belong to all of Taiwan, not just the KMT.

[1] Lee referred to CCK several times as 經國先生 (Mr. Ching-kuo). This is a very polite way to speak of him, implying respect and even reverence. DPP politicians do not habitually call him this.

Unification, independence, SQ, and polling

January 10, 2022

The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University has released an updated version of our big three political indicators today. Let me save you some time: there isn’t much dramatic change. The 2020 numbers for the green side were inflated a bit by the successful response to the pandemic, and now they have regressed a bit toward the mean and were dragged down by the lower numbers in the summer during the outbreak. Anyway, I’m not going to talk about the 2021 data points at all in this post.

The ESC has been tracking three indicators since the early 1990s: Party ID, Taiwanese/Chinese (T/C) identity, and preferences on unification or independence (UI). Every delegation of election observers, diplomats, media workers, or academics who has been to a briefing at the ESC has seen these, and these days they are widely cited in the popular media every time we update them.

There has been some discussion about the usefulness of polling data on preferences for Taiwan’s future status, with some people arguing it is fatally misleading. I believe the UI question continues to be useful.

Let me be clear about my biases. I hold a joint appointment at the ESC and have been associated with it in one role or another since 1995. I’m not a neutral observer; this is my family.

Here are the updated versions.

Of these three, I think UI is the least important. If you want to know what is happening today or tomorrow, look at party ID. If you want to understand the longer-term trends, look at the T/C identity. The party system and all national politics are ultimately grounded in identity. T/C identity is a simple question that asks respondents who they think they are. Respondents don’t need to worry about what anyone else is saying or doing, they just need to think about what they feel. Of course, what it means to be Chinese or Taiwanese is a shifting target in a world in which the PRC looms ever larger and demands the right to define terms for everyone. Nevertheless, this is a relatively easy and readily understandable question for most respondents.

In contrast, UI is a more complex question. It requires people to think about a lot of different questions, many of which are about unknowable things in the future. What does unification/independence mean? What would that world look like? What kind of life would I have in it? Is it realistic? Is it inevitable? What is the military capacity of the USA, PRC, ROC, and all the other countries that might be relevant? How willing are those countries to use their capacity?

In general, I’m not a big fan of questions that require people to imagine the future. Imagine, for example, that back in 2018 a prescient pollster had asked people, “If there were a global pandemic and scientists developed a vaccine, would you be willing to take it?” Would those results provide an accurate picture of what unfolded in 2021? Could our 2018 respondents even fathom what the pandemic would look like, much less the way various pundits would react to it? There are a bunch of people right now trying to ask whether Taiwanese citizens would fight back if the PRC invaded. Well, it depends. On what? Well, everything. The UI question isn’t quite this extreme, but the complex considerations make it less informative than party ID or T/C identity.

Nonetheless, the UI question remains useful for understanding how Taiwanese people understand the world today and their aspirations for the future. It doesn’t provide definitive answers, but it does provide some insights.


First, let me establish that the status quo respondents are different in important ways from respondents who tell you they want independence or unification. Pundits on both sides are eager to claim that the SQ respondents really agree with their position. As pollsters, we are responsible for asking – not telling – respondents what they think. And it turns out that you can’t just put the SQ respondents on one side or the other. They are different from both. Here are some simple crosstabs from the 2020 TEDS post-election survey.

 T/C identity  
Immediate unification25.062.56.3
Eventual unification28.056.813.6
SQ now, decide later55.140.14.6
SQ forever55.937.54.0
Eventual independence88.211.00.8
Immediate independence89.09.61.5


 Party ID   
Immediate unification62.
Eventual unification49.
SQ now, decide later23.421.93.58.8
SQ forever25.622.11.43.7
Eventual independence6.852.08.57.4
Immediate independence4.457.44.42.2


 SoongHanTsaiDidn’t vote
Immediate unification0.056.312.531.3
Eventual unification8.355.319.79.8
SQ now, decide later6.327.140.715.9
SQ forever3.430.541.710.3
Eventual independence1.96.977.47.7
Immediate independence0.75.977.012.6

Ok, so respondents in the different groups think and behave differently. That isn’t the same as their UI preferences. TEDS probes a bit more deeply into the conditionality of UI attitudes, asking them to agree or disagree in four different scenarios, which I will label easy and hard independence and unification.[2]

  • Easy independence: If Taiwan could still maintain peaceful relations with the PRC after declaring independence, then Taiwan should establish a new, independent country.
  • Hard independence: Even if the PRC decides to attack Taiwan after Taiwan declares independence, Taiwan should still become a new country.
  • Easy unification: If the economic, social, and political conditions were about the same in both mainland China and Taiwan, then the two sides should unify.
  • Hard unification: Even if the gap between the economic, social, and political conditions in mainland China and Taiwan is quite large, the two sides should still unify.

(I have combined immediate and eventual unification (independence) into one category.)

SQ now, decide later59.534.734.157.3
SQ forever47.437.128.453.7
SQ now, decide later34.758.510.482.0
SQ forever19.362.98.373.1

I have no idea what to make of the 20.3% who say they want unification in our standard question, but they disagree with unification in the easy unification scenario. I don’t really understand the 20.4% who agree with hard independence either, though at least you can imagine some of them thinking a Chinese invasion would be the fastest way to bring about unification. Similarly, I don’t have an explanation for why 15.2% of people who want independence in the base question disagree with easy independence. These results are good reminders that every respondent has their own ideas, and they don’t always match up with the categories or logic that we think are reasonable. Every respondent is a unique soap opera.

The rest of the respondents make more sense (to me).  Many readers will wonder about the SQ respondents, and these responses make it clear that they are not actually neutral between unification and independence. Clear pluralities are willing to have easy independence, but strong majorities are not willing to accept unification even in the easiest scenario.

The SQ forever respondents are particularly interesting. Just under half of them are willing to accept easy independence. The DPP insists that SQ forever is effectively independence, so we should just lump them together with the other independence supporters. This says otherwise. A good number of them seem to mean it when they say they want to maintain the SQ forever rather than seeking formal independence. You might argue that this is splitting hairs since the only difference is a formal declaration of independence, but that’s not nothing. Many of those people in the independence category actually want – some of them demand – a formal declaration. They had the opportunity to chose SQ forever and found it not good enough for them. They want independence, dammit! These two groups are not equivalent.

Why don’t we ask these four conditional questions in every survey? Why don’t we report these results to the media as breathlessly as the standard UI question? For one thing, it takes a lot of time to ask four questions, and we don’t ask them in every survey. More importantly, these are hypothetical conditions, and people differ quite a bit on how realistic or satisfactory these scenarios are. It’s hard to say that any of these questions provides a more definitive answer to what people want than the standard question in which we let them imagine the future for themselves.


Let me reiterate that, while the SQ respondents are qualitatively different from the independence respondents, they are NOT halfway between unification and independence. A very large number of them are openly hostile to the idea of unification. A decade ago, my colleagues (and fellow members of the ESC family) Hsiao Yi-ching 蕭怡靖 and Yu Ching-hsin 游清鑫 published a fantastic paper using data from 2009 in which they followed up on all those SQ answers. They first asked respondents what their second choice was, and if the respondents chose the other SQ option or refused to answer, they then asked which option the respondent could least accept. This produced a new six-category classification. What starts out as a two-to-one preference for independence (with only 30% expressing an opinion) ends up as a … two-to-one preference for independence (with 60% expressing an opinion) and a two-to-one preference against unification (with 90% expressing an opinion).

Base UI question Hsiao and Yu Revised UI battery 
Immediate unification0.8Immediate unification0.8
Eventual unification10.9Eventual unification18.7
SQ now, decide later32.3SQ, oppose independence9.6
SQ forever24.6SQ, oppose unification19.9
Eventual independence17.5Eventual independence30.1
Immediate independence3.9Immediate independence10.0

If you want to know more about what people think when they talk about unification or independence, there is no easy answer. They think about all sorts of different things. My colleague Cheng Su-feng 鄭夙芬 (who was the first person I met at the ESC and has been there since before we started asking any of these questions) has done a lot of focus groups over the past twenty years listening to people. She can tell you lots of stories about what people think they want. Unfortunately, the nature of this sort of qualitative research means that it is nearly impossible to summarize in one table or chart. It’s complicated; there is a person contradicting every clean narrative.


We are scholars, not pundits, and our primary reason for producing these data is to understand what has just happened rather than to try to predict the future or win a partisan argument. UI continues to be very useful for understanding a lot of things that we care about. As an example, let me present two very basic voting models in which I want to know who voted for the DPP candidate. The first is from the 1994 governor election, the first single-seat national election in Taiwan’s history. The second is from the just concluded 2020 presidential election. I’m just looking at T/C identity, UI preference, party ID, and ethnicity. I’m ignoring all the other standard variables (age, education, occupation, etc) because I’m lazy and this is a blog post, not a research paper. Still, look at the continuity over the past 26 years.

 1994 governor  2020 president  
T/C: Taiwanese.719.273**1.137.194***
T/C: Chinese-.368.414 -.543.474 
UI: unification.318.353 -.604.309$
UI: independence.666.335*.982.220***
PID: KMT-2.146.429***-2.529.240***
PID: DPP3.256.382***3.138.419***
PID: New-1.5961.070    
PID: NPP   2.189.759**
PID: TPP   -.506.273$
Hakka-.212.370 -.187.272 
Constant-1.533.202 -.038.175 
N800  1328  
Model: logistic regression. Significance: $ p<.10; * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001


(A quick stats lesson: A positive coefficient (b) means respondents in that category were more likely to vote for the DPP candidate, and a negative coefficient means they were less likely. A zero coefficient means the variable doesn’t matter. If a coefficient is large relative to the standard error, it will be statistically significant. So powerful coefficients will be positive and significant (like Taiwanese identity) or negative and significant (like KMT party ID). These independent variables constructed from categorical variables and are compared to the missing reference category. So a person with a Taiwanese identity is significantly more likely to vote for the DPP candidate than a person with both Taiwanese and Chinese identities.)

The first conference I went to in Taiwan was in early 1995 when scholars were still figuring out how all these variables related to each other. I remember one professor (can’t remember who) saying that party ID, T/C identity, and UI preference were all “three sides of the same coin.” That is pithy and brilliant, though it overstates the correlation a bit. The three are all a bit different, so they all add a bit to the models. If, for example, I took out the party ID variables, the others would suddenly become much more powerful. The fact that they still matter even with party ID in the models illustrates their impact. The point here is that they do all matter. In fact, they arguably matter even more today than they did back when the modern party system was much younger. Since this post is about UI, let me point out that a respondent preferring either immediate or eventual independence votes differently than one who prefers one of the two SQ categories (SQ is the reference category in this model). Again, people who tell you they prefer the SQ cannot simply be lumped together with people who prefer independence or people who prefer unification. UI continues to be an important tool for understanding why things are happening the way they are.


Questions like this that we ask again and again, year after year are extremely valuable for trying to figure out the impact of various events, telling convincing stories about what is happening, and simply identifying important trends. In recent years, the UI responses have been fairly stable and at the same time quite volatile. If we look at the results from the TEDS quarterly polls on presidential satisfaction since Tsai’s election, you can see a few peaks and valleys. For the first two years, it was pretty stable. 25% supported independence, 10% supported unification, and 60% supported the status quo. There was a sudden increase for unification in 2017, and in the three surveys from March to September 2018, unification was around 16% while independence was near 20%. Suddenly, the two were almost equal. Then 2019 reversed that trend and went even further in the opposite direction. By the early months of the pandemic, unification was down at 5% while independence soared to the high 30s. Since then, the numbers have regressed toward that original baseline, though they haven’t gone all the way back. Who changed?

I don’t have the time or energy to do a full breakdown of these shifts, so I’m just going to look briefly how at different age groups changed in four different surveys. I use June 2016 as a baseline; September 2018 was the peak of the unification wave; March 2020 saw the peak of the independence wave; and September 2021 is the most recent survey that we have data for.

It is fairly well-known that younger people have stronger support for independence. In fact, there is a fairly sharp dividing line at around 40 years old. People under 40 look pretty similar and people over 40 look fairly similar, but those two groups are notably different from each other. This is even clearer in T/C identity, but you can see it in UI as well.

One clear age divide involves support for the status quo. Younger people are not nearly as interested in SQ as old people, and this is especially true for SQ forever. Perhaps “forever” means something different to people who are 25 and 75. However, young people are also not that interested in deciding later, even though they have plenty of time left to make that decision.

What happened with that that spike for unification in Sept 2018? It occurs in all age groups, though it is a bit smaller in the 20-29 group. It wasn’t just gullible old people or naïve youngsters; all ages were susceptible to whatever suddenly made China look more appealing. Where did all those new unification supporters come from? The over 50 groups saw huge drops in support for SQ forever. The under 40s actually saw slight increases for the two SQ categories, but they saw huge drops in support for independence. Now, young people are generally less entrenched in their beliefs and more open to new ideas, but I don’t think all those youths went straight from independence all the way across the political spectrum to unification. I think it is more likely that many young independence supporters shifted to SQ, while many SQ supporters shifted to unification. At any rate, there were different patterns among young and old respondents.

What about the surge for independence in March 2020? It was much larger among younger voters. However, those big gains for the younger voters have mostly faded. Support for independence for people in their 20s and 30s is not that much different in September 2021 from its level in the June 2016 baseline survey. March 2020 was a temporary surge for them. It looks as if they tried out some new ideas but eventually ended up back where they started. Older voters had a much smaller surge in March 2020, but those changes have persisted. I assume that it is harder to change an older voter’s mind, so it is quite dramatic to see support for independence among people in their 40s, for example, go from 16.7% in June 2016 to 28.6% in September 2021. Most media coverage about the effect of Hong Kong has focused on young people and their sense of “dried mangos” (existential national crisis), but the more powerful impact might be on older voters who were thoroughly disillusioned by China’s actions.


One of the interesting rabbit holes I dug into while thinking about this topic was the early days of UI questions. We didn’t get it right the first time. This was back when we were still figuring out lots of things about how to do polls, and we didn’t yet have a lot of standardized questions that we asked in exactly the same form year after year. The first time I can find a UI question is 1991. (We might have asked it in 1989, but I don’t have the 1989 data on my hard drive.)

We didn’t do a national face-to-face survey after the 1991 National Assembly elections, but we did do a national post-election telephone survey. The question asked was:


Some people support Taiwan independence, some people support Chinese unification, there are also people who believe it is best to maintain the status quo. What is your opinion?

1991 ESC national telephone survey%
Taiwan independence2.6
Chinese unification18.3
Maintain status quo62.4
Don’t care4.3
Don’t know10.2
Other non-response11.2

This is a comically disastrous polling result. More people gave a non-response than expressed a preference for unification and independence combined. These answers tell you almost nothing interesting about what people wanted. You certainly can’t use this in vote decision model.

UI wasn’t a trivial question in 1991. The DPP had treated the 1991 National Assembly election as a test case for its independence plank. The entire campaign was centered on its call for independence. The KMT, sensing the unpopularity of the DPP’s position didn’t shy away from this question. In the end, it was a catastrophic result for the DPP, which only managed to get 23.5% of the votes. The KMT won 254 of 325 seats, more than the 75% threshold needed to allow it to unilaterally amend the constitution.

Still, independence must have had more than 2.6% support in the electorate. Remember that Taiwan was still only a few years removed from martial law. People were still hesitant to answer questions openly and honestly, especially when their opinions ran counter to the KMT’s positions. This continued to be a problem until about 1995. So the challenge for the ESC in the early 1990s was to rephrase this question in a way that coaxed hesitant respondents to reveal useful information about themselves while still remaining neutral.

The 1992 post-election survey tried adding a fourth category. It asked the question:


In last year’s legislative election, some people supported Taiwan independence, some people support Chinese unification, some people supported One China One Taiwan, and there were also people who supported maintaining the status quo. What is your opinion?

1992 ESC national post-election survey%
Taiwan independence3.6
Chinese unification17.1
Maintain status quo52.9
One China, One Taiwan3.4
Don’t care2.2
It depends4.1
No opinion5.8
Don’t know9.8
Refuse to answer1.1

That’s a little better, but not much. You still have 23.0% of people giving non-responses, and more than twice as many people placing themselves in the neutral SQ category as in one of the more interesting positions. You just can’t do much interesting analysis if most people either put themselves in a neutral category or refuse to answer the question.

The ESC scholars revamped the UI question for the 1993 post-election survey, producing what is more or less the modern form.


Concerning the relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland, there are several different opinions. Which one do you lean toward?

[Respondents were shown a card listing the six different options.]

1993 ESC national post-election survey%
Unification as soon as possible
Maintain status quo, later move toward unification
Maintain status quo, judge the situation, then decide independence or unification
Maintain the status quo forever
Maintain status quo, later move toward independence
Independence as soon as possible
Difficult to say2.1
No opinion3.8
Don’t know10.7
Refuse to answer1.7

This was a major improvement over previous versions. First, the percentage of non-responses was reduced significantly, dropping from 23.0% to 18.3%. Second, the enormous status quo category was cut into two smaller categories. Third and most importantly, more people were coaxed out to express a preference for independence and unification, which is what we really cared about. 17.1% expressed a preference for unification in 1992, while the 1993 wording produced 27.5% support for unification. Similarly, the 1992 survey found 3.6% for independence, while the 1993 survey found 10.4% supporting independence. To the naked eye, it looks as if respondents in the earlier surveys heard “independence” as equivalent to “immediate independence,” and the addition of a less threatening “eventual” independence category coaxed some reticent respondents to reveal a preference.

As for those two SQ categories, it wasn’t simply a matter of cutting a big category into two smaller pieces. Unlike the 2020 data I presented above, those two SQ categories were a bit different in 1993. The SQ forever respondents were a bit more likely to have a Taiwanese identity and a bit less likely to have a dual identity. On exclusively Chinese identity, the two SQ categories were clearly in the middle. Still, these two SQ categories had some subtle differences from each other. This was something scholars could chew on. (Eventually, we collectively decided it wasn’t worth the effort to focus too much on this difference, since other differences were much more powerful. Also, the distinction has faded over time. We didn’t know that in 1994, though.)

1993 ESC post-electionT/C identity  
Immediate unification30.035.031.7
Eventual unification15.247.834.8
SQ now, decide later31.246.219.9
SQ forever39.735.921.8
Eventual independence36.847.213.2
Immediate independence72.525.02.5

It was somewhere around this time that the ESC made a commitment to track the three big indicators. Since the mid-1990s, we have asked these three questions in every survey we do. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. We might be commissioned to do a survey on health care or gender equality, but we will insist of having these three questions. We are more likely to agree to drop a demographic question than one of these three. To give you an idea of what an enormous investment this is, remember that you can only ask about 30-35 substantive questions in a telephone survey. These three questions are a 10% tax on the available time and space. Those three charts I showed at the beginning of this post don’t represent one survey each year. Each year combines all the surveys we did in that calendar year; each data point represents tens of thousands of respondents. We firmly believe that these are critical to understanding political events in Taiwan.

I have one more point to make. This is more about politics than polling. The DPP went through a monumental shift in the 1990s. In 1990, they adopted the Taiwan independence plank in their party platform, making the pursuit of Taiwan independence a central goal of the party. They were not referring to maintaining the status quo or just maintaining a de facto separation from China. They wanted a formal declaration of independence, a new constitution, and a change of the country’s name from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan. They did not consider Taiwan to already be independent; independence was something that had to be pursued. As I noted, this was the core appeal in their disastrous 1991 National Assembly campaign. The 1991 election was the first national election with all seats elected, and no one quite knew what to expect. The independence activists were confident that the voters had been waiting for an opportunity to support independence. It turns out they badly misjudged the electorate. The DPP toned down their demands for formal independence in the 1992 legislative elections and did much better. The rest of the 1990s were a gradual process of distancing themselves from the Taiwan Independence Plank. In 1995, Shih Ming-teh 施明德, who was widely understood as a Taiwan independence radical, was elected DPP party chair. Upon taking office, Shih made the momentous declaration that the DPP could not and would not 不能也不會 declare independence if it came to power. As the 2000 presidential election approached and it seemed plausible that the DPP might be competitive or even win, Chen Shui-bian pushed the party to pass the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future 台灣前途決議文, which downgraded the Taiwan Independence Plank to a mere historical document. At some point, the DPP started claiming that the status quo was already independence, and the large group of people who supported maintaining the status quo forever should actually be understood as Taiwan independence supporters. The KMT spent most of the 1990s and 2000s ignoring this shift and gleefully trying to tie the DPP to formal Taiwan independence. For the first two decades of democracy, the conventional wisdom was that formal independence was ballot box poison 票方毒藥。In the Tsai era, we hear almost nothing about formal independence. The status quo is widely understood as de facto independence, and unification would require a dramatic change to the status quo. Unification is now the radical idea that is ballot box poison. It’s amazing what a dramatic shift this has been.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I wonder if the ESC surveys played some role in this transformation. Elections showed that formal independence was not as popular as activists had thought, and the new surveys backed this up. Meanwhile, the new surveys showed that there was an enormous group in the middle of the electorate that could easily be redefined being for de facto independence. It’s never easy to abandon a cherished position, and formal independence was a cherished position. However, the new surveys might have been a slap in the face telling the DPP elites and activists why they were losing and how to stop losing. It’s possible that the “SQ forever” category has been a catalyst for the modern independence movement.

[1] Tsai didn’t actually get more than twice as many votes as Han. Post-election surveys often find too much support for the winner and not enough for the loser. And turnout wasn’t 88% either. Post-election polls aren’t perfect, and the government won’t let us do exit polls. This is the best we have.

[2] A fair number of respondents will react to these hypothetical conditions by protesting that they are impossible and refusing to answer. Not everyone imagines the same possibilities for the future.

Taipei 5 and Taichung 2 results

January 9, 2022

Today’s vote is now complete. In Taipei 5, Freddy Lim 林昶佐 has survived the recall attempt. In the Taichung 2 by-election, the DPP’s Minorta Lin 林靜怡 has defeated the KMT’s Yen Kuan-heng 顏寬恆.

The vote in Taipei 5 was tighter than I expected. From the earliest results, it was pretty clear that the yes votes would outstrip the no votes. Yes ended up with 55.8% of the valid votes. The only question was whether they would pass the threshold of 25% of eligible voters. The KMT needed at least 58,756 yes votes, and they ended up getting 54,813, or 23.3% of eligible voters. 4,000 votes isn’t a comfortable cushion, and for the 45 minutes I thought they might have enough votes.

Interestingly, the main reason the KMT lost is that it didn’t turn out enough votes in Zhongzheng, which was supposed to be their stronger part of the electoral district. Given 55.8% yes votes, 45% turnout would have been enough to pass the threshold. It almost reached that target in Wanhua (43.2%), but it was quite a distance away in Zhongzheng (39.6%). When the election is that close to the threshold, you can point to a million factors and say that each one was decisive. For example, Taiwan has had a few domestic transmissions of Covid in the past few days, so maybe a handful of people didn’t want to risk voting. Or maybe the Sunday election (rather than the normal Saturday) depressed turnout.[1] More probably, the KMT couldn’t quite muster enough anger against Freddy. It was close, though.

The fact that it was so close is another example of how ridiculous the current recall law is. Freddy was elected with 81,853 votes two years ago. There is no evidence that a significant number of those people have changed their minds. In fact, 54,813 is far smaller than the 100,392 who voted for other candidates in that election. That isn’t what I would consider the picture of universal outrage. It is ludicrously easy to overturn an election.

At any rate, Freddy has survived and will be able to finish his term in the legislature.


Turnout might also have been decisive in Taichung 2, but turnout there was sky high. By-elections usually see turnout in the 30s. 40% is high, though not unheard of. Turnout in Taichung 2 was a whopping 58.3%. That is unheard of. The 2008 legislative election had 58% turnout, and that was a national general election. 58% in a by-election is insane.

A low turnout in this by-election probably would have decisively favored the KMT. Tsai beat Han by 20% in this district in the presidential race, but that election had very high turnout. More specifically, it had extremely high turnout among young voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the KMT. However, young voters are famously inconsistent, and I did not expect many of those voters to show up in this by-election. In a low-turnout election, you expect the voters to be hard-core party supporters on both sides, people in the candidates’ mobilization networks, and only a few other people. The DPP probably has more partisans in this district, but Yen’s powerful local network should have given him a significant advantage. However, that third group was far bigger than could have been expected, and they might have swung the race.

Or maybe turnout wasn’t decisive. As I discussed in the previous post, perhaps the intense national media focus on Yen’s corruption had an impact on the effectiveness of his organizational network.

In 2020, Yen lost by a mere 2.3%. In this election, that margin doubled to 4.6%. That’s not a crushing victory for the DPP, but they were running an unfamiliar candidate with no previous electoral experience. (It seems she turned out to be pretty good at this game, though.) This wasn’t an indication of a KMT collapse, by any means. The KMT is still just about as strong as they were before. As with the recall vote a few months ago, it seems the electoral balance right now is just about the same as it was in January 2020. However, losing is more damaging to patronage-oriented politicians than to those who build their careers on ideas. The latter can shrug off losses and start preparing for the next fight. If you rely on money to motivate your machine, it helps to be in office to secure a steady source on income. Moreover, this campaign pointed out several places for the judicial system to attack the Yen family. The election is over, but the inquiries might continue. Now Yen will have to resist those inquiries as a private citizen, not as a national legislator.[2] Old-school factional politics have been on the decline for a couple decades, and the Yen family’s defeat is one more symbolic step in that process.


Today’s votes mark the end of the recalls and by-elections, at least for a while. The recall of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu sparked a series of KMT-initiated “revenge” recalls.

  • Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Chieh: recall failed
  • Taoyuan city councilor Wang Hao-yu: recall succeeded
  • Taichung 2 legislator Chen Po-wei: recall succeeded but DPP won by-election
  • Taipei 5 legislator Freddy Lim: recall failed

At the end of this process, the KMT has one clear victory. They (barely) got Wang Hao-yu. Not coincidentally, his electoral district is the bluest of the four. This isn’t a huge reward for all that effort. The KMT has been pursuing a strategy of fighting like hell at the behest of the deep blue wing of their party. Chao Shao-kang has been calling on them to be “the fighting blue” 戰鬥藍, and the Johnny Chiang, Eric Chu, and the rest of the nominal party leaders have obediently followed him. This combative posturing didn’t win the referendums, and it hasn’t produced a great track record in the recalls. The KMT base likes it, but the base is small. The broad masses that the KMT needs to attract don’t seem energized by the KMT’s campaign of resistance.

Perhaps the main reason the “fighting blue” strategy isn’t working is that the general population isn’t as dissatisfied with the DPP’s performance in office as the deep blue believes. President Tsai had a 54.6% satisfaction rating in the December My-Formosa poll, and being 12.6 points above water is pretty darn good. It has been a long time since a sitting president has been this popular in the middle of a term. I was trying to remember the last time a president who wasn’t unpopular going into a round of local elections. It has been a long time.

  • 2018 Tsai: quite unpopular
  • 2014 Ma: extremely unpopular; massive protests
  • 2009-2010 Ma: mildly unpopular
  • 2005-2006 Chen: very unpopular; massive protests
  • 2001-2002 Chen: maybe mildly popular??
  • 1997-1998 Lee popularity was tarnishing; large protests
  • 1993-1994 Lee: popular!

Tsai is probably the most popular president going into local elections in nearly 30 years. We really don’t know what this will mean, since the last time this happened Taiwan was still in the early years of the democratic system. DPP chair Hsu Hsin-liang 許信良 went into the 1993 elections asking voters to give the DPP a mandate by surrounding the central government 以地方包圍中央; since Taiwan had never had a national election and polling was still developing, we didn’t know if that was a reasonable demand. Hsu was sorely disappointed; the KMT did really well in 1993 and 1994. But that was such a different world; it’s probably not a great precedent to understand what just happened or what will unfold over the next year.

Tsai’s popularity has almost certainly been the crucial factor in the recent referendums, recalls, and by-elections. The fightin’ KMT is behaving as an angry electorate wants to send her a message. That is usually a good assumption. In normal years, there probably would have been enough anger to pass the referendums, recall Freddy Lim and Chen Po-wei, and replace them with KMT members. This hasn’t been a normal year, though. Tsai’s resurgence in 2019 was one of the most astounding political reversals I have ever seen. Her ability to maintain that popularity over the past two years has been only slightly less impressive.

The KMT has a lot of advantages going into the local elections. They have lots of popular candidates, and the open seats are pretty favorable. If they can make this a calm election about individual candidates and local issues, they should do pretty well. The worst thing they could do is keep using the fightin’ blue strategy, screaming about how terrible the DPP is and the need to send President Tsai a message. Unless her popularity suddenly tanks, they might find once again that, if it is a choice between Tsai and the KMT, voters still prefer Tsai.

[1] If you want to make those arguments, you have to explain the high turnout in Taichung 2.

[2] His sister is still the deputy speaker of the Taichung city council, so the family isn’t entirely defenseless.

Taipei 5 recall and Taichung 2 by-election

January 7, 2022

On Sunday, Taiwanese voters in two legislative districts will go to the polls. In Taipei 5, they will vote on whether or not to recall Freddy Lim 林昶佐. In Taichung 2, they recalled their legislator Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 a few months ago, so on Sunday they will vote to choose the replacement.

I don’t have any special insights or information about either of these votes, but I think it’s worth thinking about the two districts. In 2020, both of these districts elected a legislator who was associated with the green camp but who was not a DPP member. It takes a special kind of district for that to happen. In solid blue districts, the green politician can’t win. In solid green districts, the DPP has an entrenched incumbent or a gaggle of ambitious members eager to take over an empty seat. In swing districts, the DPP usually isn’t willing to step aside for another party. However, under Tsai, the DPP has been willing to leave a few less promising seats open for allied smaller parties. Tsai seems to have a strong belief that the DPP should not seek to ruthlessly squash all smaller competitors, as was the common KMT and DPP practice. Instead, she seems willing to let them develop their organizations with the assumption that they will end up in a larger DPP-led coalition. Small party supporters overwhelmingly voted vote Tsai and, to a lesser extent, DPP district legislative candidates in 2020, so maybe this is smart strategy.

Moreover, sometimes the smaller party wins one of those “less promising” seats. This is not usually because the smaller parties have fantastic candidates who can build bigger coalitions than a DPP candidate could have. Rather, the district usually wasn’t all that hopeless to begin with. In 2016, the DPP designated any district in which their 2012 legislative candidate had gotten less than 42.5% as “difficult,” and it yielded some of these to smaller parties. However, there are lots of reasons a DPP candidate might do badly: it could be a very blue district, it might have a very popular KMT incumbent, a small party might split the vote, or it might just be a lousy DPP candidate. It’s also important to remember that districts change. Developments go up, and people move in and out.

At first glance, Taipei 5 doesn’t look like a classic “difficult” DPP district. The DPP’s strongest areas in Taipei are along the Tamsui River, where the city first grew up back in the Qing and Japanese areas. When the KMT showed up and needed to find spaces for all of its followers, the areas to the east were much emptier. And over the next few decades, the development was all to the east, and the old neighborhoods slid into decay. Wanhua 萬華 is the oldest part of Taipei, and it has been one of the DPP’s best areas in Taipei since before there even was a DPP. However, Wanhua has changed in the last two decades. Developers realized that it had some of the lowest land prices remaining in the core urban area, and Wanhua has seen a fair amount of new, expensive housing go up. The people moving into Wanhua have been a bit bluer than the old residents. More importantly, Wanhua is only half of Taipei 5. The other half is Zhongzheng 中正. The Qing bureaucrats didn’t want to get involved with the rivalry between (modern) Wanhua to the south and (modern) Datong to the north, so they established the government center in (modern) Zhongzheng in between those two towns. The Presidential Building, the Legislative Yuan, the Executive Yuan, and most of the central government ministries are in Zhongzheng. When the KMT arrived, many of their most important followers established residency in Zhongzheng. Juancun 眷村 is usually translated as military village, but in Zhongzheng the juancun were mostly filled with high- and middle-ranking civil servants and their dependents. Today, most of the juancun are gone, but Zhongzheng is still disproportionately filled with civil servants. While this is changing, civil servants are still more likely to vote blue than green.

The upshot is that Taipei 5 hasn’t been as blue as most of the rest of Taipei, but during the Chen and Ma eras it was more blue than green. It was the type of place that the DPP might win every now and then if everything went right. In 2012, the DPP nominated a city councilor which a few problems who could only manage 42.4% of the vote. And that was how it came to be designated a “difficult” district and left open for the NPP and Freddy Lim. However, when the partisan lines shifted after Ma’s turbulent 2nd term, Taipei 5 shifted from slightly blue to slightly green. Lim won in 2016 and 2020 by soaking up Tsai Ing-wen voters. I suspect most of the DPP city councilors would have also narrowly won this district.

If you take all 73 legislative districts and arrange them in order of Tsai Ing-wen’s vote share in the 2020 presidential elections from worst to best, Taipei 5 is #26. That is to say, if the KMT is going to win a legislative majority, it needs to win Taipei 5. If the DPP can win Taipei 5, it’s probably going to have a solid legislative majority. That has been the case in the last two elections. In 2020, Tsai beat Han in Taipei 5 by 13.9% (54.8% to 40.9%). However, Tsai ran ahead of most of the DPP candidates, and most of the KMT candidates ran ahead of Han. On average, Tsai was 7.9% better than green legislative candidates while Han was 3.2% worse. If the candidates in Taipei 5 were average, Freddy should have won by a narrow 2.8%. In fact, he won by 3.0%, almost exactly that margin.

If you were a KMT strategist looking to target someone for a recall, Freddy was an obvious candidate. Most importantly, of course, he is not a DPP member. The KMT has concentrated its fire on small party politicians who don’t have a solid local network to support them rather than directly challenging the DPP. (It feels a bit like the Cold War, when the USA and USSR fought their battles in places like Angola and Nicaragua rather than directly facing off against each other.) He’s also Freddy Lim, and blue politicians and voters still can’t fathom how they have lost to THIS GUY – twice!! That aside, it helps that this is a marginal district for the green side. There are enough blue voters in Taipei 5 to give the recall reasonable hope of success.

Taichung 2 is a very different district. It’s part of the old Taichung County, stretching along the southwest part of the old Taichung City from the coast nearly to the foothills of the Central Mountain Range between the Dadu Mountain (between the city and county) and the Dadu River (between Taichung and Changhua). The five townships[1] are the kinds of places where people think of themselves as living in small towns even though the rest of the world would think of them as outright urban. When I lived in Nantou, I went through Wufeng 霧峰 every time I went to Taichung. It was the most rural part of my trip, but even Wufeng had a significant downtown area. Historically, it is the home of the Wufeng Lin clan, one of the four or five great clans of the Japanese era.[2] The three towns in the middle of Taichung 2, Lungching 龍井, Dadu 大肚, and Wuri 烏日, form a county assembly district and are often thought of as a single group.[3] Some of my earliest experiences in Taiwan were in Lungching, which includes the neighborhood right outside Tunghai Unversity. This area also includes Chenggongling 成功嶺, a military installation that was traditionally the first place for draftees in central Taiwan. Nowadays, the area is changing quickly due to the presence of the Taichung high speed rail station. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of eligible voters in Taichung 2 increased from just under 250,00 to just under 300,000.[4]

Taichung 2 has long been the stomping grounds of Yen Ching-piao 顏清標. Yen got into politics winning a seat in the county assembly in early 1994. Later that year, he moved up to the provincial assembly. At the time, the media often referred to him as a leader of the Zongguanxian 縱貫線 Gang. In the 1990s, Taichung was littered with brightly lit “barber shops” (ie: brothels), and it was evident to anyone paying attention that organized crime was pretty profitable. This was the heyday of organized crime in KMT local politics, but Yen usually ran as an independent. Evidently, he was too toxic even for the KMT. After a stint back in the county assembly (where he was elected speaker), he moved to the legislature, where he served four terms. He was stripped of his seat for illegally using public money to visit hostess bars, but his son Yen Kuan-heng 顏寬恆won the by-election.  Yen’s daughter is now the city council vice speaker. Yen has an extensive network on the ground. I don’t know if he can still do widespread vote buying, as was common back when he broke into politics, but the rest of his operation feels like a throwback to the glory days of “black and gold politics.”

Nonetheless, Taichung 2 is changing. With the population group, new people are moving in who aren’t part of the old mobilization networks. Moreover, as with the rest of Taichung County, this is no longer a desert for the DPP. In 2020, Tsai Ing-wen won Taichung 2 by 20.4% (57.5% to 37.1%). In the ranking of the 73 districts by her vote share, Taichung 2 came in at #37, which makes it exactly the national median district. Since the DPP won a clear majority, you would expect this to be solidly in the DPP column. However, all things are not equal. The Yen family runs Taichung 2, and you can see the impact in the votes. The average KMT candidate ran 3.2% ahead of Han; Yen ran a whopping 11.7% ahead. He didn’t win, but he only lost by 2.2% rather than the 9.3% you would expect with generic candidates.

In a recall, fewer voters turn out, and Yen’s local organizational advantage should be magnified. Again, this was a logical place to try a recall vote, both because the incumbent was not a DPP member and because the special local circumstances gave them hopes of winning.

All this said, if I had to bet, I’d probably bet against the KMT in both races. In Taipei 5, there just doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm around the recall. The media coverage is pretty sparse, and it doesn’t feel like many people are furious at Freddy. I’m expecting that that yes and no votes will be close and that neither will hit the 25% turnout threshold. Taichung 2, which has no legal threshold, is much more intense. As Donovan Smith has pointed out, the grand break with the past in this by-election is that the media has suddenly overcome its collective fear of accusing the Yen family of corruption. Suddenly, the Yen family is facing a multitude of accusations. I suspect that the weight of all these charges will have an impact. Candidates like Yen are best when they can slip under the radar. However, this race has been the focus of most media coverage for the last two months. Even during the last days of the referendum campaign, the talk shows were more eager to talk about Yen and corruption than the imminent referendums. The Yen family has never been under such a harsh spotlight. Organizational votes involve a vote broker telling the voter that the candidate is one of us, a good guy who we can trust to look out for us. Suddenly, voters have a lot of competing information telling them that actually he isn’t such a good guy. I expect that this vote will be close, but I think I’d rather be in the DPP candidate’s shoes.

[1] Yes, I know they have technically been “districts” for a decade. I’m stuck in the past.

[2] We Nantou people have never forgiven the dastardly Lin clan for stealing so much land from the noble and honorable Hung clan of Tsaotun. Ironically, one of my wife’s aunts married into the Lin clan, and I never miss an opportunity remind them of their rapacious perfidy!

[3] Together, they are often referred to as dawulong 大烏龍, which can also loosely be translated as a “big fucking mess.” Sometimes Taiwan gives us strange and wonderful gifts.

[4] It was actually over 250,000 in 2008, but that includes nearly 10,000 voters from Dali who have since been shifted into Taichung 7.  

Rethinking referendums

December 21, 2021

What have we learned from this round of referendums?

The most surprising outcome was that votes for the four ballot items were essentially identical. The polls suggested that many voters saw differences among the four items, and the parties certainly acted like they expected differences. However, the people who voted seem to have almost all voted the same way on all four. I didn’t see this coming, and it forces me to rethink some previous ideas about referendums in Taiwan.

I had thought that the strongest argument for separating referendums from general elections was to create a richer information environment for the referendums. Without candidates to soak up everyone’s energy and attention, voters have more opportunity to learn about the issues involved in the referendums. With more information, they might be less prone to make decisions based on superficial cues. And indeed, there was a pretty robust discussion about the details and wider implications of each referendum. However, with more information, I expected some voters to decide that some items were reasonable while others were not. I did not expect everyone to become highly informed and for half the people to reach one conclusion and the other half to reach exactly the opposite conclusion. One might think that the richer information environment did not matter at all. People voted with their party, just as they would have if the referendums had been combined with a general election.

However, I just cannot believe that all this discussion and all this information did not matter. It may not have mattered in the way I expected, but it must have mattered in some way.

One way it could have mattered was in convincing partisans to vote with their party. The November My-Formosa poll showed that significant numbers of partisans planned to vote against their party’s position on all four items. Another sizable group (though not quite as large) of partisans weren’t sure about how to vote. These voters seem to have either changed their minds and voted with the party or just stayed home. Voters tend to listen to trusted sources. For partisan voters, this often means partisan media or the parties themselves. The information these voters got could certainly have played an important role in aligning voting decisions with their preferred party’s positions.

 % of green identifiers% of blue identifiers
 against or unsure aboutagainst or unsure about
 green positionblue position
R17 4NPP19.230.7
R18 pork30.814.2
R19 same day41.534.2
R20 LNG/reef35.545.3

Another possibility is that the campaigns taught voters that what initially looked like a very easy decision was actually very complex. It is easy to imagine many voters two months ago saying, “of course I want to protect the reefs” or “of course I want safe food.” At the time, there wasn’t really a reason to doubt these positions. No one had made a serious argument against them. On pork, for example, the DPP government opened up the pork market last August, but there wasn’t a big information campaign to persuade people that ractopamine is safe. In the referendum campaign, the parties had to face these issues head on and make serious arguments about each topic. These arguments were often hard to follow. For example, in the 4NPP debate, the sides cited numerous technical reports on geology, nuclear waste disposal, energy prices, the status of the construction at different time points, safety inspections, and so on. To make a fully informed decision on the four items, you needed to be an expert in nuclear physics, climate science, oceanography, food science, international trade, political institutions, and a half dozen other fields. It is possible that the rich information environment taught people that these were difficult choices. Without an obvious right answer, I can imagine large numbers of people deciding to just stay home. This seems especially likely for nonpartisans. The partisans could trust that their party’s experts had looked at all facets of the problem and had come to a good conclusion. They could also ignore the difficulty and go out to vote to support their party (or oppose those jerks in the other party). Nonpartisans overwhelmed by the complexity of the choice didn’t have any easy solutions. And if you don’t know what the right answer is, there isn’t much incentive to go vote to express your opinion or to prevent the wrong choice from being made.

I’m not unhappy that all four items failed. Part of this is that I have my own partisan preferences. However, I also have a general skepticism toward referendums. When in doubt, I always vote no. It should be difficult to pass laws, and it should be prohibitively difficult to pass laws when you can’t figure out what you are passing. Moreover, Taiwan’s referendum law stipulates that referendum results can’t be overturned for two years. If you make a mistake, you are stuck with it.

What about the small parties?

The small parties didn’t play much of a role in this referendum. The NPP and TPP both supported some but not all of the items, but their endorsements don’t seem to have had much of an impact at all.

I guess it’s not all that surprising. Referendums are a majoritarian institution. When you need a majority of votes, the small parties are never going to play much more than a supporting role. Still, it’s surprising they didn’t even play a supporting role. They were basically absent.

The most shocking absence wasn’t the TPP or NPP, though. It was the Green Party. Where the hell was the Green Party?!? Two of these referendums were right in their wheelhouse, and pork should also arguably be one of their best issues. How is it possible they weren’t out on the front lines every day screaming about their ideals? Honestly, I don’t know what the environmental position on R20 (reef/LNG). It’s complicated. But this is precisely the kind of thing that an environmentally-centered party should take the lead on. If the Green Party doesn’t have an opinion on environmental questions, what good are they?

What should we expect from future referendums?

R19 failed, so future referendums will be held in August of odd-numbered years. This creates two very different environments. The 2025 referendums will be held a year and half after the 2024 national elections and over a year before the 2026 local elections. That’s a relatively dead time in the electoral calendar, and the referendums will be the biggest story for a couple of months. In contrast, the 2023 referendums will be held just as the 2024 presidential race is heating up. In August 2023, the two big parties will probably already have nominated their presidential candidates and most of their legislative candidates. Smaller parties will also be making their decisions about how to position themselves. The 2023 referendums are going to be completely subsumed by the upcoming national elections. They will almost certainly be seen as a dress rehearsal for the big clash. There will be very little oxygen for nonpartisan discussion of the various referendum issues.

Taiwan desperately needs to revise its electoral calendar. The easiest thing would be to shorten one presidential term[1] so that the president is inaugurated in early February. All elections and referendums could be held in late November or early December, and there would be a full year between each vote. I’m not holding my breath, though. I think we will have two very different referendum experiences depending on which part of the election cycle it is.

All four items failed, and both parties missed the threshold by about a million votes. One thing we learned from this experience is that you can’t just assume that people will turn out to vote for a referendum. It may simply be easier to mobilize people to vote for a candidate. In 2018, the concurrent general elections meant that the referendum threshold was not a problem, and seven items passed. This includes a few that I have almost no impression of. I learned very little about R7, R8, or R16. My biggest fear was that activists and special interests of all stripes would try to imitate these, putting their pet issue on the ballot and hoping it sails through without much consideration. I’m relieved that R19 didn’t pass, so the threshold will remain an obstacle. It costs money to launch a petition drive, so hopefully only efforts that can withstand public scrutiny and inspire intense, broad public support will bother. Free rides are likely to be more of a problem in the referendums five months before the presidential election because the parties and the general public will be treating them as a dress rehearsal for and bellwether of the upcoming (more important) contest. It will be much easier to get over the threshold, so that is where you might see more efforts by special interests to piggyback on partisan emotions to pass their pet law (which can’t be undone for two years – ka-ching!).

Why do we have referendums?

Ko Wen-je, Hou You-yi, and a few others complained that the two big parties were perverting the referendums by turning them into ordinary party-based election campaigns. They weren’t having rational[2] debates about the issues. Instead, they were just telling people to vote all four yes or all four no.

I don’t have a lot of patience for this complaint. If Ko and Hou sincerely believed this point, they are political simpletons. First, there was a lot of good debate. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, but I heard a lot of people delving into the nitty-gritty of complicated policies. Second, of course the main political parties are going to take a position! These are significant policies, and they are tightly related to many of the parties’ other goals. Ignoring the referendums would be irresponsible.

Third, these referendums were politicized right from the start. The KMT directly sponsored two and enthusiastically supported the other two. They didn’t do that because they were pursuing some apolitical goal. The primary purpose was to inflict political damage on the DPP government. They wanted to give the DPP a black eye and obstruct its policy agenda. The KMT directly or indirectly sponsored all four, so of course they asked voters to vote yes on all four. By the exact same logic, the DPP naturally opposed all four. In a system dominated by two strong parties, this is how almost all referendums will inevitably unfold. If it matters, it will be partisan and politicized. The calm, rational, detached, apolitical debate that Ko, Hou, and others are imagining is just never going to happen.

One of the interesting things in this campaign was that both the KMT and DPP seemed to understand referendums in the same way. Americans often talk about them as a way to go around the parties to make public policies that the parties can’t because of their conflicts of interest. That wasn’t how the KMT and DPP talked about them. Rather, they seemed to understand referendums as a mechanism to restrain a government that has gone too far. Referendums are a roadblock for elected politicians, not a detour around them. As I wrote in a previous post, this is how Sun Yat-sen understood referendums a hundred years ago, and that thinking seems to have trickled down to contemporary politicians. It is significant that three items were attempts to undo a current government policy (and the fourth was an attempt to reverse the longstanding DPP anti-nuclear policy).

Of course, in a democratic polity there exists another mechanism to discourage government overreach: general elections. I generally think that referendums are a lousy way to make public policy. I also think they ask too much of the voters. Representative democracy allows voters to make a fairly simple decision. This set of politicians has a vision for the society based on a set of ideas about what is desirable and possible. That set of politician has a different vision based on a different set of values. Voters don’t need to figure out all the details. They can choose a vision and a set of values and let the elected politicians figure out how to make all the complicated tradeoffs necessary to pursue that vision. Representative democracy works because voters don’t need to understand everything. Referendums demand much more from voters. It might be great in theory, but it isn’t practical to expect each voter to understand the details of every policy. Referendums simply produce decisions by uniformed policymakers.

However, I will suggest two constructive roles for Taiwan’s referendum system. First, in Taiwan’s strange electoral calendar, the 34-month gap between the national elections and local elections is just too long. It’s always difficult to be in the opposition, and it is especially difficult if you don’t have an outlet for your frustrations. Putting the referendums in the middle of that long gap provides that outlet. The opposition can put their energy into referendums that might show the government is out of touch with public opinion and should be restrained. It is important to have an institutional mechanism for opposition to keep it inside the system.

Second, Taiwan’s system is fairly majoritarian, and the party system is grounded in national identity. As you are doubtless aware, the national identity trends have turned pretty decisively against the KMT. There is a danger that the KMT might be turned into a permanent minority, too small to win but too big for a different challenger to emerge. And with this, there is a danger that the DPP will become entrenched in power, unconcerned with electoral pressures because the KMT is unacceptable to most of the population. Japan managed to get through most of the second half of the 20th century with this sort of dominant party system, but an entrenched government with no credible opposition is not generally a recipe for democratic stability. If the KMT insists on remaining unelectable, perhaps referendums can keep the DPP afraid of the voters. One can imagine unhappy voters approving KMT-sponsored referendums in order to show their displeasure and punish the government without facing the risk of actually putting the KMT in power.

All in all, I’d prefer to have elections every 24 months with two (or more) viable parties and no referendums at all.

[1] If it is politically impossible to shorten the current term because Tsai wants her full eight years or the upcoming term because Lai, Chu, Hou, Ko, and others think they will be the president, then change the 2032 inauguration date.

[2] I cringe at the term “rational” in Taiwanese political discourse. It seems to mean “arguments that I agree with.”