After a month of burying my head in a looming paper deadline, I have emerged, albeit momentarily, in the airport waiting lounge. I guess I am like Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who pokes his head out of his hole, sees the sun, and disappears back underground for six more weeks of winter. I’ll be on the road for most of the next month, so this site won’t be too active for a while. In the meantime, I thought I’d write a few lines while waiting for EVA to get the plane fueled up.
The presidential election is going a bit as I had imagined, while also surprising me in several ways. After Soong entered the race, I thought he would enjoy a two-week honeymoon with the press and polls before the race would settle down and things would stabilize. After all, Soong hasn’t been a serious candidate in any election since 2000. An entirely new generation has to be exposed to his strengths and weaknesses. There are, of course, lots of weaknesses to be explored. For example, he hasn’t had to explain his position on national identity, China policy, the 92 Consensus, and so on to a critical audience. It is a lot easier when no one really cares what you say. Moreover, it isn’t just the DPP Soong has to worry about. In a three-way race, the KMT might be expected to turn the whole force of its propaganda machine against him.
It doesn’t seem to have unfolded that way. Soong’s initial wave was more powerful than I expected, and Hung is barely hanging on. As of now, I’m not completely sure she will withstand it and stay in the race all the way to January 16. Even if she does, she has unexpectedly been thrust into third place, and she will have to expend an enormous amount of effort just to get back into second place rather than taking aim at first place. This changes her entire focus. Rather than attacking Tsai every day, she has to justify her continued campaign and focus her energy on Soong. She should be appealing to the broad middle of the electorate by now, but instead she is still stuck trying to consolidate the base. Every time she speaks to veterans and unification hardliners she moves just a bit further away from the median voter and strengthens the public image of the KMT as out of touch with mainstream Taiwanese public opinion.
Meanwhile, Soong is going around the island putting a large fraction of his old 1990s supporters back together. Every time he shows up in Kaohsiung or Miaoli, the coalition of local politicians who are willing to come out and publicly support him is impressive or terrifying, depending on your perspective. At first, I thought Hung might be able to hang on to the KMT’s Hakka base, but their local politicians have turned out in force for Soong. Local factions simply don’t want to be associated with her campaign. Once you peel them away from the KMT coalition, what is left? Remember that phrase from a few months ago: the New Partyization of the KMT? That’s what is left. I don’t see how this is going to get much better for the Hung campaign.
There is quite a bit of speculation that Hung will drop out of the race. That would be humiliating for President Ma. Moreover, since Soong doesn’t seem likely to win a one on one contest with Tsai, there is only a limited incentive to consolidate the blue vote. Ma can lose with Hung, a candidate he likes, or he can lose with Soong, a candidate who has repeatedly been calling him incompetent and out of touch for about six years. As long as Ma retains substantive control of the party, Hung will remain in the race. In fact, because a Hung withdrawal would be interpreted as an indication that Ma is a lame duck, Ma has a strong incentive to keep her in the race. After all, he is going to be president until May 20, and he wants to exercise power for that entire period.
There is a line of speculation that the PRC has given up on Ma and Hung and has thrown its support behind Soong. According to this line of thought, the PRC could force Hung to withdraw. That move would send the messages that (1) Ma is powerless and (2) the PRC has more influence in Taiwan’s domestic politics than is commonly believed.
Meanwhile, Tsai just keeps plugging along toward the presidency. All the dramatic movements in the polls have been on the blue side of the spectrum. Tsai has been steady in the high 30s or low 40s for several months, and her support has almost always exceeded the combined support of Hung and Soong. This race is starting to remind me of the 2010 Kaohsiung mayoral race, in which lots of energy was spent in the blue camp trying to decide whether to support Huang Chao-shun or Yang Chiu-hsing. In the event, Chen Chu made that moot by winning an outright majority (53%).
One of the strange things about this year’s campaign is that it feels like it hasn’t started yet. By this time four years ago, Tsai was deep into her Highway #1 and #3 tours, the three piggies had been launched, and the Ma campaign was building up steam for the 100th anniversary of the ROC celebrations. This year, Tsai still doesn’t quite know who she is campaigning against, so it is hard to know which themes to emphasize. It seems like her campaign is doing roughly the same sorts of things it was doing in March and June. When will the campaign shift into high gear?
As for the legislative races, I still think the DPP is headed for an outright majority, though it is hard to tell how big that majority would be. The nature of plurality elections is that a national shift of a percentage point or two can have massive repercussions in seat share. Moreover, I still don’t have a good read on how much Hung’s unpopularity is going to carry over into the legislative races. I’d love to see polls on a handful of legislative races, but so far the media has not obliged. I’d love to know about the tier of races that the DPP doesn’t have to win but that could possibly be in play. I’m thinking about places like Taipei 1, New Taipei 1, New Taipei 12, Taoyuan 1, Taoyuan 4, Miaoli 2, Taichung 4, Hsinchu City, and Keelung City. In the KMT’s nightmare scenario, all those places go green, and the KMT is reduced to the hardcore deep blue areas in the southern parts of the Taipei metro area, the Hakka areas of north-central Taiwan, indigenous seats, the east coast, and the Fujian offshore islands. That still leaves them with more than the 13 district seats the DPP won in 2008, but it would be devastating nonetheless.
Ok, enough of that. I’m taking off my blogging hat and putting my professional political scientist hat back on. For the next few days, I’ll be sitting on panels and thinking about exciting topics such as electoral systems, personal votes, parliamentary politics, and legacy politicians. Let me practice a few stock phrases: “This was an interesting paper…” “What if you control for _____?” “You are making an incendiary argument…” “Have you thought about the direction of causality?” “That is such a stimulating idea…” Maybe you should add data on the case I care about and write your paper on questions that I’m interested in. (This one is never a direct quote.) Yep, I’m ready to go.