What should Hao do?

From the perspective of the KMT, the Taipei mayoral race is currently a disaster.  Let’s recount the situation.  The KMT has an incumbent (that’s supposed to be an advantage!) running for re-election in a district that the KMT/pan-Blue side has never lost when it is not divided.  By all accounts, the DPP faces a hard ceiling at about 45%.  Here is some election history:

year race KMT DPP
1998 Mayor 51 46
2000 President 62* 38
2002 Mayor 64 36
2004 President 57 43
2006 Mayor 54 41
2008 President 63 37

*Lien + Soong

The only close race there is 1998.  Chen Shuibian was running for re-election after a transformative first term as mayor.  It’s hard to overstate just how good his performance was.  He still didn’t win.  Granted, the KMT nominated its own start that year in Ma Yingjeou, but 1998 has always been seen as the upper limit for the DPP.

A base of around 40% would not be an insurmountable obstacle in other areas.  In February, the DPP won a by-election in Hsinchu County starting from a much smaller base.  However the electorate in Taipei is much more politicized and polarized than anywhere else in Taiwan.  Party identification is stronger here, and candidates’ personal qualities matter a lot less.  Everything runs much more according to party lines here.  This makes elections a lot easier to understand, since you simply aren’t likely to get wild swings.   If the underlying electorate of Taipei City is basically a 55-40 split, it’s extremely difficult to envision that turning into a 49-51 result in any particular election.

However, at this point, we have to start imagining that such a result is, in fact, not only possible but increasingly probable.  Most polls still show Mayor Hao with a tiny lead, but he is getting hammered in the media every day.  If nothing changes, he is going to lose.

What’s going on?  Right now the election is all about Mayor Hao.  Every day brings new criticism for something he is not doing well.  It might be the condition of roads, public exercise centers that cause headaches for neighbors, rising property prices, his comical efforts to get people to lower their air conditioners to 26C, the Xinsheng Elevated Expressway, and, above all, the Flora Expo.  He just can’t seem to get credit for doing anything right.  Today’s news had a story about how his inner circle only has three people – he even gets criticized for the way he gets advice!  So right now, when voters think about the election, a large number are thinking in terms of what a lousy job Hao is doing.  In other words, this is fast becoming a nonpartisan election about good governance.

Where is Su in all this?  He’s barely a factor.  He says a few non-controversial things, sighs, and says he wishes Hao could do a better job.  Then he flies off to Singapore or Los Angeles.  Ok, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but Su’s strategy thus far has been to stay out of the way.   When your opponent is drowning himself, why get involved?  (Note: Su should get a bit of credit for this restraint.  Not all politicians can resist the lure to do something.)

What does Hao need to do to turn this around?  He needs to reorient this election as a choice between the KMT and DPP.   He needs to remind the electorate that the alternative to him is a DPP politician with clear presidential aspirations.  They can’t escape the partisan implications that this race has, so they need to vote for the party they like best.  In Taipei, that ensures a KMT victory.

Hao needs to go negative.

He should stop talking about flowers and start talking about Su’s presidential dream.  He should label Su as a Taiwan independence extremist.  He should start calling him Su Shuibian.  Attack his record as Taipei County Executive and Premier.  Revive the attack that Su spent wildly with a bit of sensationalism added.  If he spent NT600million a month every month he was in office, call him Su Liuyi (Su 600m).  Challenge him to a debate in English and ridicule his (perceived) lack of cosmopolitanism.  Lampoon his lousy ideas about the environment.   And then, I’d advise Hao to roll out the slander.  Comb through Su’s records in office and find something that either is or could be made to look suspicious.  Get the attack dogs of the blue media to start frothing.  Force Su to respond and call you a liar.  Turn this campaign into a nasty slushball fight.  Make sure that by the end of the campaign, voters have lost all sense of what is and what isn’t factual, so that all they have to go on is party label.  If both candidates are rats, all voters can do is vote for the rat from the better party.

Maybe you worry that this type of strategy would ruin Hao’s reputation, that even if he won, he would destroy himself in the process.  To this I answer, would it be better to lose?  One term mayors who lose in spite of overwhelmingly favorable partisan electorates don’t enjoy good reputations.  Historians, journalists, and the average person have to explain the loss somehow, and the only good answer is that the mayor did a lousy, lousy job.  If Hao loses, all people will remember is ineptitude and corruption.  (Case in point: How is Huang Dazhou 黃大洲 remembered?)  If Hao wins, the discourse will say he wasn’t great in office, but he wasn’t enough of a disaster to lose the election.  Moreover, he will have four more years to try to build a new, better reputation.

If you, dear reader, are repulsed by my advice, fear not.  There doesn’t seem to be any chance that Hao will follow my suggested course.  (I am not, after all, one of the three people who has his ear.)  In fact, Hao seems to be taking the exact opposite tack.  In the past week, he has stated a couple of times that the election is no longer important, the important thing is to have a successful Flora Expo.   In other words, he is going to continue to focus on governance instead of politics.  This means that the media will continue to focus on his performance in office.  Moreover, by stating his priorities thusly, it seems Hao is tacitly admitting that his performance so far hasn’t been great.  In other words, he is asking you to judge him on the basis of credentials that even he admits are not very appealing.

Meanwhile, Su stands by as the alternative, quite content for voters to think of him in the context of his long-established reputation as a good administrator rather than as the next DPP presidential candidate.

(Splash of cold water:  Hao is still leading in the polls.  Maybe I am over-reacting.  His strategy might still win.  I’m sure mine would.)

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3 Responses to “What should Hao do?”

  1. Okami Says:

    Poisoning the well so only hardcore partisans vote since you have more as a strategy while effective can be countered with bright sunny ideas and a common sense approach. Sort of like what Sharron Angle is doing to Harry Reid currently.

    1. Su Shuibian could backfire with a before and after shots of what Taipei was like before Chen. Most voters are older though may not have long memories.

    2. I don’t read a lot of Taiwan news so does Su actually have a plan or is he going for the lose well and run for president strategy?

    3. I think you left out how important Lee Denghui was for Ma to win the Taipei Mayoral race. IIRC

    4. Running on ignoring the election is actually not a bad strategy if you can run out the clock on the media’s ADD.

    Will you have a post later on the Taipei County race?

  2. Michael Turton Says:

    You’ve missed a key datum looking at the percentages. Hau is a lackluster candidate and in the last election drew just 4,000 votes more than Chen Shui-bian did in the DPP’s 1998 peak. In other words, if the DPP reaches its peak — and I see no reason why it shouldn’t with a strong candidate, KMT disaffection, independents disliking Ma, everyone disliking Hao, and continued income stagnation and high housing prices — only 2,000 votes need switch. Or 4,000 more need be picked up. It’s a lot closer than the numbers you’ve put up suggest.

    Michael Turton

  3. frozengarlic Says:

    Okami, Su doesn’t have a whole lot of bright and sunny ideas concerning city governance. The numerous white papers with his proposals for education, garbage collection, sewer repair, etc. are conspicuous in their absence. As far as I can tell, he’s just campaigning on his general reputation as a competent politician. And he seems to be projecting that presidential candidate air.

    As far as Su Shuibian, I was just throwing out ideas. However, I don’t think that you need to worry about memories of Mayor Chen being more powerful than memories of President Chen. Concerning LTH’s endorsement, it is true that Chen’s campaign team had enormous hopes for LTH’s support and was crushed when he famously endorsed Ma. (I was at the rally when he asked Ma “Who are you?”) However, it is hard to know exactly what impact this had on the final results.

    I’ll write about Taipei County when I think of something to say. Right now, nothing much seems to be happening in that race. This works in favor of the KMT, I think.

    Michael, it is wishful thinking to imagine that Su can just put together the old 1998 coalition again. There are two problems: turnout and conversions.

    Turnout in 1998 was 81%. You simply aren’t going to get there this year. I’d be somewhat surprised if turnout was above 70%. However, I generally don’t pay too much attention to turnout because I’ve never been able to figure out any reliable patterns for how turnout affects results (a failing the rest of the political science discipline shares with me). In exceptionally low turnouts, such as American primary elections or Taiwanese by-elections, it might be the case that one side does a much better job of turning out its voters. However, my gut feeling is that in anything over 60%, both sides are basically maxed out on their mobilization capacity. You get from 60% to 80% by raising general enthusiasm for the election, and those extra voters tend to split the same way as the first 60%. But this is all speculation, no one knows, and no one has good data. At any rate, comparing Chen’s vote in a 81% turnout election to Hao’s vote in a 65% turnout and saying that Su only needs to make 4000 votes is dubious, in my opinion.

    The other thing is that Chen 1998 was an exceptional candidate. His performance was head and shoulders above any other mayor Taipei has had, going back to Henry Kao in the 1960s. In fact, the only other local executive in the same class in any city/county is Chen Dingnan (Ilan 1981-9) and maybe You Xikun (Ilan 1989-97). I’m sure there were a significant number of voters who voted for Chen in 1998 and have never voted for another DPP candidate in their lives. There was just so much that Chen did that was easy to see (and widely reported by the media). If you were a voter in 1998 and asked yourself what the mayor had been doing and whether it was good, the answer was pretty obvious. Su simply isn’t in that same category.

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