Thoughts on Tainan and Kaohsiung mayoral races

I’m starting to wonder if I should reassess the way I’ve been thinking about the two southern mayoral races, and especially the one in Tainan.  I’ve viewed these basically as easy DPP victories.  This is due as much to the weakness of the two KMT candidates as anything.  There enough KMT-leaning voters in both districts that, under the right conditions, either could be a close race.  However, neither of these KMT candidates looks even remotely capable of assembling a 50% coalition.  I’m quite impressed with Chen Ju 陳菊 in Kaohsiung and less so with Lai Qingde 賴清德 in Tainan, but Lai has a bigger margin of error to work with due to the larger percentage of DPP-leaning voters.  So I’ve been thinking of both races as roughly 60-40 wins for the DPP.

Both DPP nominees won hotly contested primaries, and it has become increasingly apparent that the losers in those primaries are not going to accept defeat.  Most people expect both Yang Qiuxing 楊秋興 and Xu Tiancai 許添財 to announce that they will run as independents in the general election.  However, this has not inspired me to fundamentally change my opinion of the races.  I think both will get some votes, but neither will be strong enough to change the outcome.

Why will they get some votes?  Both have been in office for nine years and amassed a fair amount of political favors.  Both have reasonably good records, more so for Yang and less so for Xu.  Xu will enjoy strong support from former president Chen, and as a non-DPP nominee, will be the co-flagship candidate (Chen’s son being the other) of Chen’s alliance, to the extent that he decides to put one together.  Yang might join this alliance in order to gain some sort of national political backing, but his background is in the New Tide faction, so the fit is not quite as natural.  Regardless, neither one should prove to be an absolute turkey.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Yang and Xu will change the outcome of the races.  Many people who supported them in the primaries will not do so again in the general election.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  Many of their supporters are really DPP supporters.  Within the DPP, they preferred Yang or Xu to Chen or Lai, but their first loyalty is to the party.  More importantly, the third candidates almost always get crushed in single seat elections.  Even if a voter still prefers Yang or Xu, he or she might have to face the possibility that they are mired in third place with very little chance to win.  Pre-election polls will make the horse-race widely known, so Yang and Xu have to establish themselves as credible candidates early on if they are to have any chance at all.  Since I haven’t seen any evidence that Yang and Xu are anything but distant third-place candidates, I think the most likely outcome is that their support will be reduced to only their die-hard supporters.  I’m guessing that will be somewhere in the 5-10% range.  In a 60-40 race, a 5-10% candidate will not affect the outcome.

However, let’s assume for a minute that I am fundamentally wrong about the strength of Yang or Xu.  Perhaps one of them could get 20-25% of the votes.  Even that might not be enough to change the outcome.  One of the basic mistakes that people make in thinking about splinter candidates is that they draw their support exclusively from one candidate or party.  This is incorrect.  Xu will draw his support disproportionately, but not exclusively, from Lai.  Some of his votes will come from people who would not have voted in a two-way race, and some of his votes will come from people who would have voted for the KMT candidate in a two-way race.  Remember that there are all kinds of personal networks that overlap party affiliations.  For example, Yang has done lots of work promoting agricultural products, so many farmers who might otherwise lean to the KMT, might support Yang (but never Chen Ju) in appreciation for Yang’s good agricultural policies.  There are probably some voters (not too many) who would vote for Xu based on his surname, who in the absence of a candidate named Xu would vote for the KMT.  Perhaps none of these groups has lots of members, but there are some.  And remember, shedding the DPP party label frees a candidate to court voters who would never consider supporting the DPP.

So let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that 80% of Xu’s or Yang’s votes would have gone to the DPP in a two-way race, while the other 20% would have gone to the KMT.  (80% is arbitrary, but 4 out of 5 seems reasonable to me.)  What would it take to change a 60-40 race?  If Xu gets 10%, this would become a 52-38-10 race.  At 20%, it is 44-36-20, still a comfortable 8% DPP victory.  At 30%, it is 36-34-30, still barely in the DPP’s favor.  In other words, if you start from a 60-40 cushion, the splinter candidate might have to win the election outright to change the result.  Admittedly, we are making lots of assumptions here, but the general point is that simply having a splinter candidate in the election does not mean that the DPP nominees should panic.  The KMT nominees are weak enough that the DPP should be able to withstand the pressure.

I started this post by saying that I might be reconsidering this vision of the Tainan race.  The reason has to do with a small news story a few days ago.  Lai’s campaign team announced that legislator Li Junyi 李俊毅 would be working for their campaign in some capacity.  Li immediately announced to the press that this was incorrect and that he had not agreed to work for the campaign.  He also complained that it had taken Lai two months to come and see him to ask for his support following the primary.

It is not unusual for losers such as Xu to be upset about losing and be unable to accept that outcome.  However, their campaigns rarely attract broad support.  Li’s reaction is something else entirely.  Li also contested the nomination, but he lost decisively.  This is the kind of politician who you would expect to fall into line and support the party nominee, even if he doesn’t really like the guy.  Li will probably be running for re-election as a legislator, and he will want to be seen as a good party soldier.  Even if he doesn’t actually do any work for the Lai campaign, it is strange that he wouldn’t accept the title, wave a flag at big events, and smile politely.

In short, Li’s actions make me wonder about Lai’s broader coalition.  If he can’t persuade people like Li to at least pretend they are all on the same team, does this forebode serious problems for Lai’s team?  Is there something about his personality that repulses outsiders and prevents them from becoming insiders?  I am probably making too much of this, but it is possible that I am vastly underestimating Xu and ex-president Chen, overestimating the value of a DPP nomination in Tainan, and completely in the dark about problems Lai is experiencing in trying to transform his primary campaign effort into a general election campaign team.

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