thoughts on the Taipei County campaign

[note: I apologize for the rambling nature of this post.  However, it does reflect the muddled nature of my thinking on this subject.  And I feel the need to post something, since I have been quiet for such a long time.]


I’ve been trying to think about the mayoral race in Xinbei City, and I think I have some ideas about what each side is trying to do and what assumptions underlie those strategies.  I also think I don’t buy most of those assumptions.

Taipei County is something of an urban city overlaid on the foundation of a rural society.  Like Taipei City, there is a highly dense and fluid population.  Mobility is important, because when lots of people are moving in and out, they don’t have as many ties with local organizations and can’t be mobilized by traditional networks.  The best way to reach these unattached voters is through the media campaign.

However, Taipei County also has a different side.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Taipei County was a relatively small county, with a population much smaller than Chiayi, Yunlin, or Changhua Counties.  Its politics were arranged around local factions.  However, unlike most counties, Taipei County never developed county-wide factions.  Instead, the factions were all based at the township level.  So Banqiao had the Liu, Guo, and Haishan factions, Danshui had the Mai and Chen factions, Zhonghe had the Jiang-Lin and Lu-You factions, Yonghe had the Big Chen and Little Chen factions, and so on.  Even the small towns, like Wugu, Ruifang, and Shulin had their own local factions.  The critical point is that these factions never formed permanent alliances with each other, so that Taipei County developed a bewildering array of largely independent factions.  When the Taipei County population boom started in the 1970s, some of these factions faded away, their local networks swamped by the huge numbers of outsiders.  Others managed to survive and even thrive by somehow building ties to all these new immigrants and incorporating them into the factional networks.  So even today, urban Taipei County rests upon this more rural architecture.

In the past twenty years, most of the county executive races can be explained by reference to what the local factions did.  In 1989, the KMT nominated a NTU professor, and many of the local factions were not pleased.  The DPP’s narrow victory was attributed to the lack of cooperation from local factions.  In 1993, the KMT nominated a Sanchong faction member, and, again, many other local factions refused to support him.  He lost badly.  In 1997, most of the KMT factions supported the KMT nominee, but two local faction candidates ran independent campaigns and took just enough votes away for the DPP to eke out a narrow victory.  In 2001, Su Zhenchang won his re-election campaign in part because he had spent much of his first term building up good relations with lots of local organizations.  I wouldn’t say that he made friends with the factions per se, but he did steal away a significant amount of the support that the factions would normally be able to mobilize on behalf of the KMT.  It didn’t help that his opponent was Wang Jianxuan, a politician with a reputation for incorruptibility.  Factions probably didn’t see too much benefit in going all out for him.  In 2005, the KMT finally unified all the various factions around its candidate, and won easily.  Of course, there are other explanations for all these outcomes, but the faction-centered explanations aren’t easy to dismiss, especially from the KMT’s point of view.

So I think that the central assumptions of the KMT campaign are these.  First, Taipei County has fundamentally a blue-leaning electorate.  If everyone votes their party identity, the KMT should win.  The DPP only wins when it steals some KMT votes or the KMT vote is split.  Zhu Lilun does not need to win any DPP votes; he just needs to turn out his base.  Second, the way to turn out the base is to maintain good relations with all the local factions and various local networks and organizations.  There really is no need to engage the DPP in a media campaign.  He just needs to protect all the local networks, and he will win.  As a result, the Zhu campaign to this point has been all about meeting with locally important people.  And since the Cai Yingwen campaign hasn’t showed much inclination to try to horn in on this territory, Zhu has to be feeling pretty good right now.

I don’t like these assumptions very much.  The factions collectively matter, but I don’t think they are sufficient.  My guess is that they can turn about 10% of the total votes in one direction or another.  The KMT needs all or almost all of that 10%, but I doubt that this will be sufficient.  The KMT also has its base of loyal party voters who will turn out for the KMT regardless of what the local factions do.  However, I’m concerned that the KMT is ignoring a vital part of its potential coalition.  There are many voters who lean to the KMT and would probably vote for the KMT if they bothered to vote.  However, unlike the Zhu campaign, I would not assume that you can turn out all of them through local organizations.  Taipei County still has lots of people who are not plugged into any organizational networks.  The way to get these people to the polls is by raising the temperature of the campaign.  You have to get them excited so that they will mobilize themselves.  Zhu doesn’t seem to be doing anything for them.  I wonder if his campaign will be undone by a low turnout rate.  He might get all the loyal KMT votes, all the faction votes, and still lose.


The DPP campaign is hard to figure out.  Cai Yingwen seems to be spending all of her time visiting traditional markets.  (Note: exaggeration.)  She doesn’t seem to be trying to attack any of the local networks that Zhu Lilun is working so hard at cultivating.  I’m also getting a distinct feeling that she just isn’t working very hard at all, at least by the standards of most candidates.  I’ve traveled with a few candidates for a day, and the pace they keep up is generally stupendous.  I’m exhausted by mid-afternoon.  I’m getting a general impression (and I can’t cite anything in particular) that Cai Yingwen simply isn’t willing to live that kind of all-consuming campaign life.  Look, politics is difficult.  The winners are akin to professional athletes; they are at the very pinnacle of their profession.  This is Cai Yingwen’s first real campaign test, and she simply might be out of her league.  (And for those who think she is really concentrating on the 2012 presidential election, don’t imagine that that campaign would be any less demanding or that she also wouldn’t have to cultivate lots of grassroots power brokers.)

I’m also wondering about Cai’s media strategy.  She hasn’t gotten much press coverage at all, partly because she has decided to run a positive campaign.  Positive platitudes just aren’t very interesting, and policy positions in the middle of a campaign are cheap.  Of course the media is ignoring her.  This would be ok if she were cruising to an easy victory, but most polls show that she is losing.  One problem is that she isn’t winning enough of the swing voters because Zhu has an image as a capable administrator.  Now, I don’t have any idea whether Zhu is or is not a capable administrator, but I am sure that he will retain this image unless Cai decides to challenge it.  Zhu has a track record of about eight years from Taoyuan County, and I wonder if the Cai campaign has decided that voters in Taipei County don’t want to hear about Taoyuan.  The thing is, all these images are very shallow and could be changed dramatically with a bit of information.  We really don’t know anything about the Taoyuan experience (and Zhu isn’t trumpeting his triumphs there either), so one or two clear examples of bad administration might severely damage his reputation as a capable administrator.  I think that would go a long way to reducing his appeal to all the independent voters (who he isn’t courting very energetically anyway).


So right now I’m not terribly impressed with either candidate.  Both are courting their base almost exclusively.  Neither is projecting much of a dynamic image.  If nothing changes, turnout will probably be quite low.  The KMT will probably win because its base is slightly bigger than the DPP’s (though the margin is smaller than they seem to think).  However, both are leaving themselves wide open to defeat.  By ignoring the floating voters, Zhu is betting everything on the idea that his base will carry him to victory.  (Hey, it isn’t 2006 or 2008 anymore!  The gap between the parties is a lot smaller in 2010.  It’s a lot closer to the 2004 balance.)  Cai seems unwilling to follow Su Zhenchang’s strategy of ripping away some of the KMT’s organizational strength, and she doesn’t seem willing to engage Zhu directly in the media.

This will probably change over the last six weeks of the campaign.  Sooner or later, we will start seeing big rallies and appeals to all the undecided voters.  And maybe I’m missing a lot because I haven’t seen it reported in the news.  But so far (and so far as I can tell), I don’t like the choices that either campaign is making.


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7 Responses to “thoughts on the Taipei County campaign”

  1. nohobobo Says:

    wow. very informative. The seemingly strange and low-key campaigns make a lot more sense after reading your explanation of factions. But could it be that Cai’s lackluster effort has more to do with the fact that she actually doesn’t want to win because it might make it more difficult for her to run for president in 2012?

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    Losing a winnable race, not having the energy to campaign twenty hours a day, failing to win over any of the local bigwigs, and being reluctant to engage the opponent all seem like lousy ways to audition for the 2012 campaign. Her stock as a presidential candidate has declined sharply since the ECFA debate.

  3. David on Formosa Says:

    Interesting to read your comments about Tsai Ing-wen. If she loses then I think she has little chance of getting the DPP nomination for president in 2012. If she can’t win Taipei County then she has little chance of winning the presidential election. Winning Taipei County might take her out of the race for 2012, but would put her in a good position for 2016.

    Do you think perhaps Tsai is preoccupied with other matters in the DPP? There have been some significant shifts in international relations with the recent kerfuffle over the Senkaku Islands. These might be causing the DPP to have some internal debate over its strategy and policy for 2012. Or perhaps everyone in the DPP is just focused on the elections and has ignored the recent happenings. See Michael Turton’s recent post for some comments on this.

  4. David on Formosa Says:

    I should add that I think Tsai Ing-wen would be a great president, but I doubt her ability to win a presidential election.

  5. Okami Says:

    I think you left out some options:
    1. Tsai knows how to be an effective administrator, but not a politician. They’re just separate skill sets.

    2. Tsai would rather lose and manage to keep the party together and focused(as much as that is possible) rather than have to deal with kissing the ass and holding hands of even more petulant politicians.

    3. Tsai has gotten far with an image of quiet administrating and relatively low key appearance. If she won, I’d expect to see the knives come out. From what you have wrote before she has no faction base as of yet. She’s still looking young and would still have a shot in 5 years for president.

    She has to be cognizant of the media attention and harassment that Chen Shuibian received and would rather not deal with it.

  6. nohobobo Says:

    David and Okami both suggest that Tsai would be better off running for president in 2016. Does that mean you’re assuming the DPP will lose in 2012 and so there won’t be any DPP incumbent in 2016 (ha)?

    I think the politician/administrator distinction that Okami mentions is important. Su seems to have a reputation as being both a competent politician and administrator, and for that reason would probably make a better presidential candidate than Tsai.

  7. Okami Says:

    nohobobo, I think the DPP will lose the 2012 elections due to outright fraud and intimidation. It will cause a huge backlash that will reverberate throughout Asia as China openly and actively meddles in Taiwan. We’re just seeing the beginning of it as the pieces are slowly being put into place. I think this will become more apparent in the middle of 2011 as people start realizing all the new paperwork and taxes soon to hit the US economy causing a 2nd recession. If they start the counter-valing(sp?) duties against China, we’ll all get to relive the Great Depression thanks to Smoot-Hawley 2.0. As the US economy worsens, China’s will also worsen, causing the more militaristic elements to come forward due to the rampant indoctrination of country first policies and nationalistic tones.

    I could also be very wrong, too. 😉

    Soon Taiwan will probably have something like sort of like some guy who put up a website named after a cold smelly vegetable.

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