Three critical races

I guess I should probably stop obsessing over the American midterm election and start writing about Taiwan. This is the first time I can remember that I have been more engrossed in an American election than in a Taiwanese election in the same year. The American election seems monumentally important, while the Taiwanese election seems destined to be relatively unimportant in the historical scheme of things. I don’t think I need to explain why I think the American election is important, but let me briefly explain why I have thought for most of the year that the context here in Taiwan is rather unremarkable.

As we are all probably aware, the DPP won a smashing victory in the 2014 elections, and then followed that up by winning the presidency and legislature 14 months later. As we are all also probably aware, the national DPP government hasn’t gotten rave reviews. President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings are low. They’ve been in the thirties for most of her presidency, but in the last few months they’ve dipped into the twenties. To most of the world, that looks untenable. In the USA, the Republicans just got hammered, President Trump has a 42% approval rating. However, Taiwanese are a pretty tough crowd. 25% approval doesn’t mean the same thing here that it would in the USA (where roughly 25% was the point at which Nixon was forced to resign). Here, Presidents Chen and Ma both spent much of their second terms in the teens, and President Ma was re-elected fairly comfortably after spending most of his first term in the thirties. So the DPP government isn’t doing great, but neither is it a complete disaster. We should expect the DPP to slip somewhat from its 2014 results (which, remember, were unprecedented and probably unsustainable). At the same time, there aren’t massive street demonstrations, popular rebellions, or calls for impeachment. The DPP isn’t likely to collapse.

The other notably feature of this year’s races is that it seemed to lack any exciting or detestably candidates to drive turnout. None of the six big races had a fresh face who might be headed for the presidency some day (like the 2010 matchup between Tsai and Chu) or a wacky underdog outsider against an offensively tone deaf favorite (like Ko verses Lien in 2014). Every where you looked you had vaguely unlikeable incumbers (Ko, Lin), uninspiring challengers (Ting, Yao, Lu), and tired old war horses past their prime (Su). It was a whole field of blah.

I had expected that we were heading toward a dismally low turnout. People weren’t furious or inspired enough to vote. I thought overall turnout might be in the high 50s, or maybe even the low 50s.

As you are probably aware, this all changed rather dramatically about a month ago, when everyone suddenly realized that something unexpected was happening down south in Kaohsiung. Before I get to that, let me say that I think one of the effects of Han Kuo-yu’s surge in the polls has been to jolt both blue and green voters out of a stupor. Turnout probably will be a bit higher, though there are limits to just how much higher we can expect. I’ll guess that turnout will break 60%, though I doubt it will reach the 66.2% turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

 

Kaohsiung City

About a month ago, the DPP collectively freaked out when a series of polls showed that the unthinkable was happening: the KMT was leading in Kaohsiung. For that to happen in such deep green territory requires both a massively underperforming DPP candidate and a massively overperforming KMT candidate. I was surprised by the former. I’ve always thought highly of Chen Chi-mai. He is a very effective legislator who is hard working, sees the big picture, yet has a firm grasp on detailed minutia. He has been preparing for years to run for mayor, and he seemed to me like an ideal candidate. I was completely unaware that he would be such an uninspiring candidate on the stump. His command of the issues has not been matched with any charisma that might help him to make any emotional connection with voters. I don’t get the feeling that people dislike him. He just doesn’t inspire much passion.

I also misjudged Han Kuo-yu. When the KMT was nominated, I thought it was a worthwhile longshot for the KMT. The KMT has utterly failed to develop a discourse attractive to southern voters. If they want to win a presidential election any time in the future, they are going to have to figure out how to woo southern voters, and what they were do wasn’t working at all. Han promised to try something else. I didn’t think it would work, but it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. The most likely outcome was that Han would fall flat and that the KMT would lose miserably, but that was the likely outcome with a conventional candidate too.

What happened is that Han caught fire. The blue TV stations’ newscasts are basically wall-to-wall coverage of Han Kuo-yu, breathlessly reporting his every action, fawning over his rhetoric, and interspersed with softer stories about his background. His combination of complaints about the lack of economic development in the south and wild, bombastic promises somehow struck a chord with voters. I don’t quite understand this. As long as I can remember, southern voters have resented the more prosperous north. However, this has always been a reason to resent the KMT. The KMT, after all, decided that the south would have heavy industry while the north would have all the high tech, education, finance, and corporate headquarters. Suddenly this year, voters seem to have forgotten that. Huh? Moreover, while Kaohsiung has been governed by the DPP for the past 20 years, it has generally been considered to have one of the most effective local governments in the country. Both Chen Chu and Frank Hsieh consistently got high marks from Kaohsiung voters. But suddenly that record seems to be a burden.

Han has also parachute from the north with a plethora of wild claims (we can double the population in 10 years!). Every time he says something, he seems to reveal how unfamiliar he is with Kaohsiung, and yet this utter lack of familiarity or preparation for the job seems not to matter very much. Trump never apologies or admits mistakes. Likewise, Han’s brand of populism seems to involve voters who don’t care very much about facts.

(Let’s take a minute to note one important difference with Trump-style populism: the race/immigration angle is completely missing from Han’s discourse. Other than that, Han seems to be borrowing pretty liberally from the Trump playbook.)

There are widespread rumors that Han is benefitting from a Chinese-sponsored blitz of fake news. Like most people, I have seen hints and bits of this campaign. However, because it is based primarily in closed social media groups in Line and Facebook, most of only see the tip of the overall campaign. It is hard to understand the scope of the attack, much less the impact. It seems pretty clear that China is using Kaohsiung (and to a lesser extent, Taichung and Taipei) as a test run for a fake news campaign prior to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections. If it goes well for them, expect to see a lot more of this in 2020, perhaps in the USA as well as in Taiwan. I am deeply concerned but perhaps a bit less terrified of this campaign than most people.

Anyway, when the DPP freaked out about Kaohsiung a few weeks ago, they reacted by mobilizing the whole party to counter-attack. We have seen high profile person after person going to Kaohsiung to campaign for Chen. I think this is largely working. When you are losing this sort of a race, there are a few things you can do. The classic strategy is to transform the contest from a local one to a national one. You can also go negative in order to redefine the candidate as less likeable than voters might have thought at first blush. Finally, you can counter some of the rhetoric by challenging it. The DPP has done all of these. They have reminded voters at every opportunity that Han came up through the Huang Fu-hsing military branch of the KMT, that he has close ties to China, that he has questionable financial dealings, and that he is very unfamiliar with Kaohsiung. At the same time, they have been trumpeting all the things the DPP has done in Kaohsiung over the past 20 years.

I think the DPP’s counter-attack has probably been effective. The DPP politicians are certainly acting much less terrified than they were a few weeks ago. They seem to be pretty confident that they have turned the tide and that Chen is heading for a victory. On the other hand, Han shows no signs of weakening. His crowds are still big and boisterous.* He is still fiery and engaged on the stump. And he is going all over Taiwan working for other candidates. All the KMT candidates want a bit of the Han magic. (The other way to read this is than it is a little strange for someone engaged in a neck and neck race to spend so much time in other cities and counties. It could be interpreted as him knowing he will lose this race but seeking to build up as much political capital as possible while he can.)

*As longtime readers of Frozen Garlic are surely aware, I love outdoor politics. However, I learned long ago that crowd size or passion is almost entirely uncorrelated with election results. To give an example, in the 2010 New Taipei mayoral race between Tsai Ing-wen and Eric Chu, Tsai clearly had bigger and hotter crowds but Chu won the election. On the other hand, in the 2016 rematch between Tsai and Chu, Tsai again better crowds and she won the presidency handily. Crowds are fun, but they are a terrible indicator. 15,000 passionate supporters who would walk through fire for you is insignificant against 500,000 halfhearted voters willing to do nothing more than stamp your name on the ballot. The media has been completely caught up in the crowds, and they seem to have forgotten this lesson.

Overall, Kaohsiung is a highly uncertain race. I wouldn’t be surprised by anything from a 7% win for Han to a 15% win for Chen. I think Chen is probably a slight favorite at this point, but I wouldn’t bet the house on him winning.

 

Taichung City

The polls in Taichung City have been all over the place. If you want to find a poll with Lu leading by a lot, you can. If you want evidence that Lin is significantly ahead, you have a significant number of polls to choose from. If you think the race is razor-tight, there are lots of polls to back you up. This race, as much as any other, has made me throw my hands in the air in disgust and despair at the state of polling in Taiwan this year. Polling is worse now than at any point since the early 1990s. We have media polls that are becoming ever more friendly to candidates from their side of the partisan divide, we have supposedly non-partisan foundations that are trying to influence the public narrative by publishing eye-catching polling results, TISR has stopped doing its monthly polls of partisanship due to lack of funding, and the academic polls (TEDS), which were never released immediately to the public anyway, have had their funding slashed. It’s hard to figure out what is happening right now, and there won’t be much academic survey data available until next spring or summer to help us understand what in the world just happened. Good luck.

What I can say is that both sides seem fairly confident about Taichung. Mayor Lin seemed a bit more worried a few months ago, but he seems to think that he has a stable and increasing lead. The KMT has lots of polls to show that they are in the race (because there are lots of polls to show anything and everything), and they think that the overall national tide is in their favor. They also seem to expect to win in Taichung, though they perhaps don’t seem as sure as the DPP. Or at least that’s how I’m reading them. What do I know.

Taichung should be close. Central Taiwan is the traditional battleground. If the DPP is losing some support because of tepid feelings about its performance in power, Taichung should revert back closer to the mean. Mayor Lin is also a much less appealing candidate that he was four years ago. Remember the narrative from back then? Lin was the golden child who had been humbled. He was a Yale PhD who had gone into the cabinet and was a rising superstar until he was soundly defeated in the Taichung mayoral election in 2001. Rather than going back into national politics, the chastened Lin stayed in Taichung and patiently worked to rebuild his career by going back to the grassroots and doing the hard and unglamorous work of connecting with ordinary people. After four years in office, that humble and more likeable Lin is gone. The haughty Lin we see today firmly believes that he is a future president. People might respect him for his generally good record in office, but I don’t get the feeling that he is inspiring much love and devotion.

As for the KMT candidate, let’s use a baseball analogy. Nowadays it is common nowadays to evaluate baseball players using a metric called Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The idea is that zero WAR players are everywhere. A team should be able to find a zero WAR player for a nominal price any time it needs one. Better players, who might increase the number of games a team wins over the course of a full season, are harder to find. Lu strikes me as being uncomfortably close to a replacement level candidate. She isn’t a disaster, which is valuable. And she is a better quality candidate than the KMT has managed to scrounge up in Keelung or Chiayi County. However, a longtime legislator (with a media background) should be more interesting and inspiring than she is. She seems to more of an empty vessel to absorb KMT support and backlash against Lin rather than a candidate inspiring voters to specifically support her. This election is all about Lin and national trends. Lu is just … on the ballot.

 

New Taipei City

This race has been flying under the radar all election season. On paper, this should be a hotly contested race. New Taipei is always close to the national partisan balance, and it is an open seat. However, it hasn’t unfolded that way. Deputy mayor Hou You-yi has led the polls by a considerable margin from the very start. The various DPP legislators who wanted to challenge him were never able to get close enough to mount a credible challenge, so the DPP eventually turned to an old warhorse, former Taipei County magistrate and premier, Su Tseng-chang. These candidates who return years later to run for a position they already held never do quite as well as expected. Their best day in the polls is often the day they announce their candidacy, and then they gradually slide further and further away from victory. Early on, the old dudes have an advantage in name recognition, and people can remember their accomplishments in office fondly. However, as the campaign progresses, the name recognition advantage fades, and the focus turns to the future rather than the past. Is the best way to move forward by going back two decades? The answer is usually no.

Hou is probably winning this race, though I suspect it will be closer than the blowout the polls seem to indicate. In recent weeks, Su has been pressing Hou hard on ethical matters, such as taking advantage of his office to rent rooms at high rates to students and dodging taxes. Hou has complained quite a bit about this mudslinging, which might be an indication that it is working.

 

Narrative

These are the three races that will, more or less, decide the narrative of the election for the DPP, regardless of what happens everywhere else. If it wins all three, it will claim a great victory. If it wins two out of three, it will claim a small win. If it only wins one, it will consider it a defeat, and no wins would be a catastrophic loss. Why is this important? In the latter two scenarios, there will be calls for Tsai Ing-wen to step down as party chair. If the losses are bad enough, those calls will be very hard to resist. The DPP has a long tradition of party leaders stepping down to take responsibility for poor election outcomes. However, if Tsai steps down as party leader, that will complicate her path to re-election substantially. She will have to essentially make two contradictory statements more or less simultaneously. On the one hand, she will have to say that the party suffered a rebuke from the voters due to her poor leadership. On the other hand, she will ask the party and voters to give her four more years to continue her successful governing program. This doesn’t make much sense to me; I pretty much assumed she could either resign or run for re-election. However, other people I have talked with don’t see these two things as necessarily contradictory. Still, imagine if the DPP had to hold a party chair election early next year at the same time all the aspirants to legislative nominations were jockeying for position. It might turn into a bloody knife-fight between the various factions. Moreover, if someone challenged Tsai for the presidential nomination and there were a contested primary, it would almost certainly turn bitter. Whoever emerged would lead a demoralized and divided party into the general election. This could throw the presidential race wide open and lead to who knows what. These are “only” local elections, but the stakes are not as low as they might seem.

11 Responses to “Three critical races”

  1. Michael Stainton Says:

    Your wonderful election blogs are like long awaited Christmas presents arriving at last in the mail. I am finally able tocut through all the confusion of endless daily FB posts from my screaming green friends and others (inclduing , as you pointed out, posts from former Mayor Chen Ju and members of her staff) to get a rational analysis of the Kaohsiung election.Thanks.

  2. shiyali Says:

    I wouldn’t call Kaohsiung “deep green”, Tainan yes, but not necessarily Kaohsiung. The first time the DPP won the mayoral race was in 1998 when Frank Hsieh squeaked by with 4,000 votes. In 2006 Chen Chu’s margin was even smaller with a mere 1,000 votes with the help of a disputed last minute accusation of vote buying made the night before the election. In 2010 and 2014 the KMT didn’t have a strong candidate.

    • Mike Says:

      Nevertheless, the merging of the original municipality and county to form the current municipality in 2010 might have changed the picture a little, and made it more difficult for the KMT.

      • shiyali Says:

        That’s a good point, maybe that is why Han has spent a lot of time visiting communities that used to be part of Kaohsiung County.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Kaohsiung is historically roughly a mirror image of Taoyuan. In their great years, Tsai got 63.4% in Kaoshiung in 2016 while Ma got 64.6% in Taoyuan in 2008. In their terrible years, the other side actually broke 50% (51.0% for Tsai in Taoyuan in 2016, and 50.3% for Ma in greater Kaohsiung in 2008). I consider Taoyuan to be deep blue territory. That doesn’t mean the DPP can’t ever win it, but it’s a steep hill and conditions need to be nearly ideal. Likewise for the KMT in Kaohsiung.

      • shiyali Says:

        That sounds like a realistic assessment. Thank you for those interesting comparison figures. We’ll see what happens on the 24th.

  3. beidawei Says:

    So what about the gay referenda?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Utter disaster. Willfully bad judgment compounded by terrible strategy. Bad consequences for human rights, democratic processes, and Taiwan’s global image. But hey, ideological purity makes the self-defeating outcome worth it, right?

      • Joseph Says:

        Most people I know just assumed it wouldn’t be a problem- those fundamentalist Christians are barely 3% of the population, right? Taiwanese progressives still haven’t learned the lesson American progressives have finally taken to heart, that you need to be organized and you need to keep up the pressure if you want to win. You also need to be willing to back politicians that are undependable but willing to quietly help, because the consequences of not doing so are disastrous, and because even a passive Tsai Ing-wen will come out for you if conditions are right (as Obama did with his court appointments) while the KMT never will.

  4. jaichind Says:

    I would argue that the Taipei City race is pretty critical as well even as it is a Ko vs Ding fight. I think Ko winning narrowly, losing narrowing and how the DPP vote is structured in either case (total collapse or Yao holding the Deep Green core vote) would determine if Ko runs for the top job in 2020. And if Ko runs the CW seems to be that he will hurt Tsai more than the KMT candidate which now is most likely not going to be Wu.

    Its interesting, as Chen in Kaohsiung catches up with Han due to the Blue-Green polarization at the end of the campaign, it pushed down Ko’s chances and gives Ding a chance to win with a KMT consolidation and a split Green vote between Ko and Yao as the Pan-Green vote moves back to Yao.

    Also if Yao faces a total collapse then the DPP could experience a disastrous result in the Taipei City Council race. Such a outcome would hurt Tsai position in the DPP making it harder to avoid an internal challenge even if DPP fights the KMT to a draw in the mayor/county magistrate races.

  5. jaichind Says:

    I would argue that Tsai current approval ratings are a good deal worse than Ma in 2010. The latest Formasa News poll has Tsai Approval/Disapproval 25.5/67.3 and Trust/Distrust 26.7/58.5

    The same poll for Ma Oct 2010 had 30.4/58.9 Approval/Disapproval but 42.3/44.5 Trust/Distrust. I think when truest/distrust goes deep underwater is when the regime is clearly in trouble and Ma’s numbers on that in Oct 2010 is well above Tsai Oct 2018.. Ma in May 2014 hit 24.6/52.2 in terms of trust/distrust and we all know what took place in 2014 elections.

    Tsai should thank her lucky stars at in that in Taoyuan, Keelong and Hsinchu city that DPP incumbents are popular and have cross partisan appeal. If those 3 cities voted anywhere close to their lean in this clearly anti-DPP year then Tsai might be facing a smaller version of 2014.

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