legislators and re-election

I was thinking about the re-election incentive[1] for a paper I am planning to write, and I realized I’ve never put together numbers on how many people run for re-election.  So I put together a dataset of all legislators from the 2nd to 6th terms (1993-2007), looking at whether they ran for and/or won re-election.  Each legislator in each term counts as a separate case (ie: there are five separate cases for Wang Jinping since he had to decide whether to contest re-election each time).  Also, this data set includes everyone who served in the legislature, including people who won by-elections and people who were substituted in for party list legislators who quit or were kicked out of their party (and therefore forfeited their seats).  A legislator is considered to seek re-election if s/he is a candidate in the next general election.   So here are some cuts of the data.

First, the big picture.  About a fourth of legislators don’t run for re-election, and another fifth run and lose.  So three-fourths of legislators seek re-election, and a fourth of those who do seek re-election lose.  This looks like the re-election incentive is very strong.  Of the quarter who do not seek re-election, probably a very high percentage of them would have liked to be re-elected but simply saw that it was not very likely and chose not to fight.  Many of them sought but did not get nominations and chose not to run.[2] Another chunk of them sought election to other offices, generally county executives.  It is hard to know exactly what percentage of the retiring legislators were forced out and what percentage retired willingly, but my guess is that at least half were unwilling.  All in all, re-election looks very desirable.

It also looks very hard.  Lots and lots of incumbents lose.  This is nothing like the 90% re-election rates in the USA or Japan.  In Taiwan, losing is a very realistic possibility for everyone every time.  (In fact, I wrote a paper a couple of years ago in which I demonstrated that strategic voting makes the most popular candidates the most vulnerable.  There are no safe seats in Taiwan’s SNTV elections.)  If re-election is desirable and difficult, then it seems safe to assume legislators will respond to the re-election incentive in predictable ways.  (Hooray!)

count %
Did not run for re-election 276 26.7
Ran and lost 225 21.8
Ran and won 531 51.5
Total 1032 100.0

We can break down the data in other ways.  There are big differences between district and list legislators.  80.4% of legislators elected in districts ran for re-election, while only 50.4% of list legislators did.  However, there wasn’t much difference in their winning percentage, given the decision to enter the race.

Didn’t run Ran and lost Ran and won N
District legislators 19.6% 23.5% 56.9% 786
List legislators 49.6% 16.3% 34.1% 246

You might wonder about party differences.  Fantastic!  Here’s a breakdown by party affiliation (at the time of the original re-election.)

Didn’t run Ran and lost Ran and won N
KMT 26.4 15.5 58.1 458
DPP 28.4 24.7 46.9 373
NP 18.6 46.5 34.9 43
PFP 21.7 22.9 55.4 83
TSU 33.3 41.7 25.0 24
IND 29.4 25.5 45.1 51

It looks like politicians from all parties seek re-election at about the same rate, and they all have a strong possibility of losing, especially those from small parties.

But wait a minute, what about legislators who are elected as member of one party, don’t get re-nominated, and run as independents in the general election.  Don’t they lose at a higher rate?  Perhaps they are the ones driving these re-election rates down.  Ok, let’s consider people to be KMT only if they won the original election as a KMT member AND contested re-election as a KMT member.  (Since they have to have a party affiliation at time two, this rules out all the people who didn’t run for re-election.)

Ran and lost Ran and won N
KMT 19.8 80.2 308
DPP 31.9 68.1 254
NP 50.0 50.0 30
PFP 30.0 70.0 40
TSU 50.0 50.0 12
IND 42.3 57.7 26
Changed parties 45.3 54.7 86

Party switchers don’t do well as expected, but after we get rid of them, KMT members still lose once in five times and DPP candidates lose once every three times.

Why are those DPP re-election rates so low?  One big reason is that we are including incumbents from the 6th term who ran for re-election in the new mixed member system.  As we all know, the DPP was massacred in that election.  However, if we confine our data to the old SNTV/closed list system, the difference between the two big parties is not as marked.

KMT DPP
term Ran, Won% N Ran, Won% N
2nd 81.2 69 70.0 40
3rd 90.2 61 79.1 43
4th 60.8 74 88.2 51
5th 91.3 46 74.2 62
6th 84.5 58 34.5 58
Total 80.2 308 68.1 254

One of the most well-known lessons from the American context is that if you want to beat an incumbent, you had better do it the first time they come up for re-election.  After they win the first re-election, they are basically bulletproof.  That is not true here.

Number of terms served Didn’t run Ran and lost Ran and won N
1 26.0 21.0 53.0 523
2 26.0 24.9 49.1 281
3 29.6 20.8 49.6 125
4 34.0 22.0 44.0 50
5 16.0 16.0 68.0 25
6 30.8 23.1 46.2 13
7 28.6 14.3 57.1 7
8 50.0 0 50.0 4
9 0 0 100.0 2
10 50.0 0 50.0 2
total 26.7 21.8 51.5 1032

It is striking just how little this table changes as legislators gain seniority.  The number of cases decreases in an almost perfect pattern: each row has half the cases of the previous row.

The final thing I did was to look at people who switched districts.  For example Hong Qichang ran in Taichung City in 1992, the party list in 1995, Taipei City South in 1998, and the party list again in 2001, 2004, and 2007 (he originally was elected to the legislature in 1989 from Tainan City, but that isn’t in this data set).  So in my data set, the first three re-elections are coded as district changes while the last two are not.  Somewhat surprisingly to me, people who changed districts didn’t do a whole lot worse than people who stayed in the same place.

Ran and lost Ran and won N
Same district 28.7 71.3 624
Changed districts 34.8 65.2 132
total 29.8 70.2 756

I don’t think this means that politicians can run anywhere and have about the same probability of winning.  Rather, legislators are very strategic about changing districts.  The ones who do actually change districts have good reason to believe they might find success in the new districts.  The ones who can’t foresee anything good happening from a change simply stay put.

All in all, this was a fun exercise for me.  More importantly, I managed to convince myself that the re-election motive should be very powerful in Taiwanese elections.  No matter how you cut the data, legislators want re-election and have difficulty in securing it.  If American legislators are, as Gary Jacobson famously put it, “running scared,” then Taiwanese legislators must be positively terrified by the possibility of losing.


[1] One prominent tradition in political science suggests that we can understand quite a lot about why legislators act the way they do if we assume that they are entirely motivated by re-election.

[2] The only group I have good data for on nomination contests is the DPP in the 6th term.  Of the 39 DPP legislators who did not run for re-election in 2008, 10 sought a nomination but lost out in the telephone survey stage.

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9 Responses to “legislators and re-election”

  1. James Chen Says:

    I am finding your blog to be fascinating! Thank you for sharing your insights. Keep up the great work!

  2. A-gu Says:

    Given this data, it would seem to be a good idea to remove the party lists all together and keep all legislators directly elected. That should improve responsiveness of the party caucuses, no?

  3. frozengarlic Says:

    A-gu, that was not exactly what I was suggesting. Legislators are almost always responsive, they just respond to different incentives. SNTV puts a premium on responding to localism (doing constituency service, attending weddings and funerals, building networks of local followers). Party lists put a premium on responding to what the parties want. Most electoral systems scholars would argue that if you want cleaner and more nationally focused politics, you should increase the weight of the party list tier, not reduce it. (By the way, the single member districts in the new system fall somewhere between these two extremes in the incentives they create.)

  4. A-gu Says:

    Ok gotcha, thanks.

  5. Okami Says:

    Could the churn in legislators be due to the lack of core beliefs/views in each party beyond China that is and the fact that they actually do very little legislative wise as most decisions are made and implemented by executive branch ministries according to their wishes and legislative intent, but only too happy to carve out exemptions should the need arise to maintain their power.

    You probably will never see a Bob Bennet(R-Utah) who got kicked out of the primary due to ideological reasons and the fact that a more conservative candidate was around that better exemplified the core beliefs of the Utah voters.

    I’d also like to know what legislators do after they lose or retire. Any insight would be appreciated. Do they still get to stay on the state run corp payrolls?

  6. frozengarlic Says:

    Okami, these are really thought-provoking questions. I too would like to know what legislators do after they retire. I have never seen systematic evidence on this. I’m guessing the number that stay in government (in other elected positions, appointed positions, or sinecures) is somewhere around 20%. Probably about the same percentage actually retire (health, old age, lack of interest). The rest go (back) into the private sector, mostly making money in private enterprises. You hear quite a few stories about ex-legislators in China. For obvious reasons, these people usually (but not exclusively) come from the blue camp.

    I have to both agree and disagree with the idea that legislators have no core beliefs beyond China. I agree that the statement is true in the aggregate. Individual legislators have lots of beliefs about social welfare, national defense, agriculture, environment, transportation, taxation, and every other policy realm. However, these beliefs aren’t systematically reflected in the party system. This is not for lack of trying. Over the years, the parties have tried to reposition themselves as champions of various positions on these issues. However, with only a few exceptions, none of these proved to have a strong enough resonance with enough people to make a dent into the dominant social cleavage. In the 1980s and early 1990s, democratization was a second social cleavage. At various times, the governing party has been hurt by corruption, ties with organized crime, and money politics. However, it always comes back to China, and everything else is tertiary. (Or as we say in Texas, the most popular sport is football, and the second most popular is spring football.) As long as you are in the right camp on China, you are in the right camp.

    American politics are not like this. The Republicans are a coalition of social conservatives, economic conservatives, foreign policy hawks, libertarians, and so on. Different people have different reasons for being Republicans. Labels such as “conservative Democrat” or “liberal Republican” usually mean that the politician is out of step with one of these groups. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t terribly concerned about homosexuality, and he finds himself allied with the Democrats more often that the Republicans on environmental issues. He is a Republican because he is generally an economic conservative. So when we say Bob Bennett is out of touch with the base, that usually means that a different group with different priorities within the Republican coalition has assumed dominance.

    That said, elections do actually sort out issue positions, if only indirectly. The ability of factions to win larger proportions of their party’s seats matters. In the SNTV elections, you saw this work in both the nominations and the general election. In 1992 for example, almost all from the non-mainstream New KMT Alliance won, while the pro-business, pro-Lee Teng-hui Wisdom Coalition didn’t do so well. This was a key in emboldening several of the New KMT Alliance members to leave the KMT and form the New Party. Similarly, in the recent city council primaries, the Chen Shui-bian faction has been crowing about winning nominations for almost all of its candidates. This is not simply a triumph for Chen, it is also a triumph for the fundamentalist wing of the party. Of course, they have to confirm this strength in the general election before they can really demand a reconsideration of the balance of power within the DPP. We don’t have much history in the new system, but I can think of at least one case offhand. In Taipei City, the battle for the DPP nomination in Datong district between Wang Shijian and Bi-khim Hsiao was about, among other things, how strident a position the DPP should take toward China.

    So I disagree (mildly) with the idea that I think underlies your comments: that serious political issues are not actually at the heart of Taiwanese politics.

    As far as legislators not doing anything, I have two answers. First, actually, that’s what most legislatures around the world look like. Most action takes place in the executive. The US Congress is far and away the strongest legislature in the world. (Numbers 2-4 are perhaps California, New York, and Chile, in some order.) Japanese, British, Italian, and Brazilian legislators don’t do much actual legislating either. In three of those four cases (which I just pulled off the top of my head), securing pork is perhaps the most important thing that individual legislators do. (British backbenchers do exactly one useful thing: vote for the prime minister.)

    The second answer is that there are a lot of reasons for the way the legislative yuan works. However, laying those out would take up a lot of time, so they will have to wait for another day.

  7. Okami Says:

    I think legislators in most socialist democratic countries don’t do much as most decisions are made by the executive branch. Therefore they spend as much time as possible turning their political clout into social and economic capital as possible. In most socialist democracies decisions and laws are made with very little clarity, hence why you see most promising to make govt work for the common man via populist caudillo-style promises.

    I often ask myself what could a party in a socialist democratic country actually stand for. They tend to do a very poor job of disabling/repealing dumb laws and regulations. For Taiwan, what other defining idea could a politician use to differentiate themselves from the others. With VAT, you don’t even have to worry about taxes because people don’t see it. Most people are knowledgeable enough to realize how much traffic tickets play in the budget to actually do something. Having tried to open a business and dealing with other things in Taiwan I can see where a legislator would come in handy. I know of one guy whose son almost died due to medical inattention before a legislator stepped in.

    Some of the things you put up:
    “Individual legislators have lots of beliefs about social welfare, national defense, agriculture, environment, transportation, taxation, and every other policy realm.”

    I don’t see a legislator able to gain control over any of these areas or reign them in. Like I said in a previous post, the ministry under question would grant exemptions as needed in order to retain their control and power, common sense be damned otherwise.

    Btw, do the chances of re-election change if the legislator is a known gangster?

  8. Michael Turton Says:

    I think this is incomplete, though quite interesting, since your analysis focuses solely on legislators/parties and not on local faction politics, which are powerful drivers of winning and losing at the local level. It might be more revealing if you could somehow drum up another table like this that classed the legislators by local faction allegiance. Who did people lose to? For individual legislators, the possibility of loss might be real, but for the KMT and the factions that serve it, loss is probably only an individual issue — so long as a KMTer retains the seat it is no big deal.

    Although I totally agree with your analysis that legislators are strongly focused on re-election.

    One thing that strikes me, if the possibility of losing re-election is real, is the function and effectiveness of vote buying.

    Also, is it your perception that the new legislative system means fewer losses, or more, or what?

  9. frozengarlic Says:

    I think legislators have lots of beliefs. I think one of the basic reasons that the Legislative Yuan is so weak is precisely that they cannot grab control over various policy areas (that might be a tautology), so it doesn’t make sense to spend your time developing expertise or specializations.

    I have no idea on whether being exposed as a gangster hurts your chances of re-election. It’s almost never a black/white label. Politicians are associated with organized crime to some degree or another. Very few (Luo Fuzhu, Yan Qingbiao) are actually the organized crime leaders themselves. Also, it’s not as if we really understand the structure of organized crime.

    I’ve tried to do some factional analysis in the past. It has generally crashed and burned. We can identify core leaders and members of factions, but the people on the periphery are impossible to classify. Then things get reshuffled for the next election. Some factions are more stable (such as Taichung County factions), but even there, it is really hard. The other thing I’ve tried to do is look at transferring support (ie: when one faction member goes all out in support of another). Generally, the vote patterns show very little resemblance unless the two people are family members. In other words, I can tell you roughly what a “normal” KMT vote in Taichung County looks like, but I can’t tell you what a “normal” Red Faction vote looks like. It looks completely different every time.

    I’m still thinking about what the new electoral system means for incumbents. My current thoughts are that it means both fewer and more losses. Fewer, because for the first time there are safe seats. For example, there is basically no chance that Sun Daqian (Taoyuan 6) or Lai Shibao (Taipei City 8) could lose their seats to a DPP challenger. On the other hand, what we saw in Japan is the possibility of big partisan swings. For 40 years, the LDP won no matter if it was popular or not. With SNTV, it is much harder for voters to transfer their anger into the election results. With single member districts, it is much easier.

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