losing well, winning ugly

We are getting close to the finish line, and I am starting to think about how the final results will be interpreted.

A quick caveat.  The most important result come the evening of January 14 will be whether Tsai or Ma has won.  The second most important thing will be the balance of seats in the legislature.  What I want to discuss now is merely the third most important outcome, and it is far, far behind the other two in significance.

That said, how many votes the presidential candidates get matters.


Both Ma and Tsai are running against two sets of numbers.  In 2004, the two sides both got 50%.  In 2008, the KMT won 58-42%.  Those numbers are important not just because they are the two most recent results, but also because, in many people’s opinions, they represent the best and worst case scenarios for the two parties.  In 2004, the DPP broke 50% for the only time, but it needed an incumbent running for re-election, a wooden opponent, and an assassination attempt on the eve of the election.  Exceeding 50% would take a superb campaign with everything going just right.  In 2008, the DPP was in nearly the opposite position.  It did not have an incumbent running for re-election, but it carried the burden of having an extremely unpopular president.  Moreover, it faced a new and appealing opponent in the person of Ma Ying-jeou.  The 42% that the DPP managed to win in that election probably represents a floor on the DPP’s support.

There are three possibilities for Tsai Ing-wen.  She can win, lose well, or lose ugly.  There is no such thing as an ugly win for Tsai.  If she wins, it will be a fantastic win.  It really doesn’t matter much whether she goes over 50%; the interpretations will be roughly the same.  If Tsai loses, I suggest that the critical line between losing well and losing ugly is 47%.  At 46% or lower, her vote share would look closer to 2008 than 2004, and her rivals within the DPP would have ammunition with which to challenge her leadership.  In 2010, Tsai lost New Taipei City with 47.4%, and people saw this as close enough.  I think if she breaks 47% she will be able to survive as party chair and will still be a leading contender for the 2014 Taipei mayoral race or the 2016 presidential race.

If Soong does particularly well and pushes Ma’s vote down, the line might move down to 46% for Tsai.  That is, a result of 52-46-2 looks like a failure for Tsai, but if Ma wins by only 47-46-7, Tsai might be able to maintain her power base.  However, I think losing with 45% or less is a bad loss for Tsai no matter how well Soong does.  45% is simply too close to 42%, and the expectations within the DPP are for significant improvement.


For Ma, there are two (or perhaps two and a half) possibilities.  There are only winning and losing.  There is no such thing as losing well for Ma.  Four years ago he got 58%.  If he loses, he will have lost at least 3 of every 20 people who voted for him in 2008.  That is terrible, and there is no way to spin it.  Simply put, losing means disgrace for Ma.

I don’t think that winning well is a realistic possibility for Ma either.  Ma won by a huge margin in 2008, and he wouldn’t have to exceed or even match that for a victory to be considered a good win.  However, he would have to be somewhere in the ballpark.  I think Ma needs a minimum of 54% to claim a good victory.  Right now, 54% simply doesn’t like a realistic possibility.  Even if you push Soong’s vote down to 2%, a 54-44-2 result would be a 10% KMT win, and nothing that I’ve seen in the past few months has suggested that the KMT is winning by that much.

This means that any victory for Ma will be ugly.  He might survive, but he will lose a lot of votes compared to four years ago.  However, we might distinguish between an ugly win and a terribly ugly win.  The line here is 50%.  If Ma breaks 50%, he will be able to say that he won and that a majority of people still support him.  He won’t have a strong mandate to do things like negotiate further economic treaties with China, but he will have a certain level of legitimacy.

Then there is winning terribly ugly.  If Ma falls under 50%, it will be a severe embarrassment.  He will put on his bravest face and say that winning the office is the most important thing.  However, if he fails to win a majority just four years after winning a landslide, it will be a severe blow to his prestige and power.  Expect to see minor rebellions in the party that will become more and more severe as the term wears on.  Ma will probably become a lame duck fairly early in his term, and, if he lacks the authority to hold his party in line, the KMT will be consumed by the battle to succeed him.  In this atmosphere, it will be a challenge for Ma to get anything positive done.


Right now (and this changes every few hours according to my mood), my best guess is that Ma will win terribly ugly, by 49-48-3.  But that is so close to a Tsai victory that it really doesn’t make sense to say that I am predicting a Ma victory.  Right now, I’m just guessing there will be a very close race and a high likelihood that Ma’s vote will dip under 50%.


[If you disagree, please remember that these are simply my opinions and feelings, and they are not based on any hard data.  Feel free to insert “I believe” at the beginning of each sentence.]

3 Responses to “losing well, winning ugly”

  1. tommyinasia Says:

    I think that regardless of how Ma wins, the biggest winner would be Wu Dun-yi. As a VP with a base in Nantou and four years to burnish his credentials, he will be in an excellent spot to vie for the presidency in 2016. Of course, a lot can happen in four years, but, unless he hits a rough patch, the DPP will have to compete against him later on. Of course, I hope that Tsai can pull off a win, but I think her odds are much longer than those for Ma. Soong would have to do brilliantly (6-8 percent) and the voters would have to turn out in just such a way that Tsai is pushed over the top. Ma can win (ugly or terribly ugly) merely with the combination of a high turnout of KMT voters and a poor showing for Soong. Despite the surprising consistency in Soong’s support rating across TVBS, United Daily, and China Times (between 6 and 7 percent), I suspect that this number may be a bit high.

    My prediction would be similar to yours, although I wouldn’t put it past Ma to just edge over 50 percent (50-47-3). Perhaps this is my pessimism talking. However, a recent piece on Ballots and Bullets did comment on the seeming lack of enthusiasm for Ma within Taiwan during the election. We can hope that more blue voters will simply feel as though they are not in the mood to go to the polling station than the numbers suggest.

  2. tommyinasia Says:

    “Despite the surprising consistency in Soong’s support rating across TVBS, United Daily, and China Times (between 6 and 7 percent), I suspect that this number may be a bit high.” — I suspect that because, it is one thing to tell a polling agency that you support Old Soong. It is another to actually make the effort to go to the polling station to cast a vote for a certain loser.

  3. Michael Turton Says:

    Yes to everything. That’s pretty much the way I see it. I don’t see Soong getting more than 3-4% of the vote. Which means he won’t affect the election as much as the KMT feared.

    I can’t wait to see what the polls say about these two weeks.


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