Over the past few weeks, I have heard a specific narrative about turnout many, many times. Most people argue that high turnout is good for the KMT because DPP supporters always turn out to vote while KMT voters are more fickle. Sometimes they will vote, and sometimes they won’t.
I suspect that this narrative is completely wrong.
Turnout is an incredibly hard phenomenon to study. We all know that mobilizing your voters is a key part of the election game. If you can get a high percentage to the polls and your opponent can’t get many of his supporters to vote, you have a huge advantage. However, the final number that we see is the combination of both these groups mixed together. You can’t really study this with opinion polls either. For whatever reason, the results you see in opinion polls don’t look anything like the actual election results when it comes to turnout. Reported turnout is always much higher than actual turnout in both pre- and post-election surveys.
That is a way of saying that I don’t have any good evidence to back up my ideas, but neither does anyone else. I think the lack of hard evidence is part of what is driving the narrative.
I think the turnout narrative is driven by lazy thinking. It emanates primarily from people in the blue camp (though I have heard it repeated by people in the green camp as well), and I think it reflects a blue camp perspective of the turnout problem. People always have a tendency to think that their own problems are more daunting than those of their opponents. For blue politicians, turnout is one of the major components of a traditional campaign. You put together a large, complicated, and expensive grassroots network of people, and you spend a lot of energy and money motivating those people to go to the polls and vote for you. Blue politicians must look at the green camp with envy. Green politicians traditionally have much, much less organization at the grassroots level, and yet their voters somehow show up at the polls. It would be easy to conclude from this that green voters are ideologically motivated (read: fundamentalists) and always show up to vote. Blue voters, in contrast, require a lot of work.
This narrative has blue supporters wringing their hands in anxiety. As one radio commentator put it, “If the weather is bad, people will stay home. If it is too good, they will go out and play somewhere. Why can’t our voters be more like those fundamentalist DPP voters?” Note that this also makes a nice message for the last few days of rallies: the other side is going to turn out in force; we have to match their intensity.
Several years ago, I seem to remember a similar message, but it came from the other side. It was the KMT that had iron voting brigades, and DPP supporters wondered how they could ever overcome that obstacle. In fact, the KMT military or government villages made up only a small part of the electorate in most districts, just as the DPP fundamentalists account for only a portion of the electorate today. Everyone tends to emphasize the difficulty of their own challenge.
I recently spent a few hours combing through Taipei City electoral data looking for evidence of a rock-solid DPP vote and a variable KMT vote. I looked at data at the li level from 2002, 2004, and 2006. This includes high and low turnout elections and good and bad KMT elections. If this turnout narrative is correct, there should have been some discernable patterns, with strong KMT li behaving differently than strong DPP li. Now, as I said before, turnout is notoriously difficult to analyze, and I doubt I got everything specified correctly, so I’m not going to present any data here. I will just note that every time I managed to find a statistically significant pattern, it was in the opposite direction as expected. In other words, every time something showed a clear pattern, it seemed to indicate that higher turnout helped the DPP, not the KMT. However, I’m not at all confident that I did any of this correctly, so let’s leave it at that.
A quick glance at the data is probably better evidence against the narrative. The total number of blue camp votes goes up and down in various elections, but so does the total number of green camp votes. I simply don’t see any rock-solid green vote that always turns out. Some of the highest turnouts in Taiwanese electoral history produced pretty good results in Taipei for the DPP, including the 1998 Taipei mayoral campaign and the 2004 presidential campaign. The 2002 and 2006 mayoral campaigns, in which the DPP did relatively poorly, had relatively lower turnout.
In fact, the DPP spends a lot of energy on turnout; they just do it in a different way from the KMT. Instead of building a grassroots organization that will contact individual voters, the DPP excels at wholesale politics. All those enormous rallies are not about changing minds, they are about increasing turnout.
At any rate, I believe the general proposition that high turnout is good for the KMT because KMT voters are more fickle is a lousy one.
That said, I don’t necessarily believe that high turnout is not good for the KMT THIS YEAR. This year, I suspect we are looking at a DPP wave, with energized DPP supporters and lackluster KMT supporters. This year, enthused DPP voters will probably turn out en masse, and the overall turnout rate will probably depend on how successful the KMT is in turning out its more begrudging supporters. A moderate turnout of 65% would probably spell disaster for the blue camp.
In other words, this year looks to me a lot like 2008 in reverse.