Archive for March, 2019

Lai’s example: LBJ???

March 29, 2019

One of the objections to William Lai’s challenge to President Tsai is that if he defeats her, she will be a lame duck for the remaining thirteen months of her presidency. Some worry that the resulting power vacuum would create a constitutional crisis. Yesterday on his Facebook page, Lai tried to refute this argument by pointing to the example of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). In 1968, LBJ decided not to run for re-election, and Lai argued that this did not create any constitutional crisis.

This is a bad, bad argument. Only someone who knows nothing about 1968 would point to Johnson’s case as an example of a smooth transition of power.

LBJ did plan to run for re-election. Initially, most people expected him to win, even though he was fighting the unpopular Vietnam War. He was challenged for the nomination by Senator Eugene McCarthy, an opponent of the war who was not considered a major challenger. LBJ beat McCarthy in the March 1968 New Hampshire primary, but only by a 49-41% margin. Seeing LBJ’s weakness, Robert Kennedy announced he would also contest the nomination. LBJ responded by announcing that he would not run for re-election. Instead, he would focus all his energy on the war, which he hoped to win before the election.

By announcing that he would not run for re-election, LBJ avoided being defeated. He did not lose power to a rival nominee. In fact, LBJ eventually arranged for the nomination to go to his chosen successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There was no power vacuum because LBJ did not lose control of the Democratic Party.

Lai argues that there was no problem in 1968. In fact, 1968 was one of the most turbulent and chaotic years in American history. There were anti-war protests all year. In April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated. In response, there were race riots in several major cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. These were violent events, with widespread burning and looting and numerous deaths. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. There were more riots outside the Democratic party convention in August, where Humphrey was nominated. Maybe there wasn’t a constitutional crisis, but there were plenty of political and social crises.

Finally, 1968 was a disaster for the Democratic Party. After fighting among themselves during the nomination battle, they continued fighting at the national convention. Everyone could clearly see that the Democrats were not united. The Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, used this chaos to his advantage. He ran promising to restore law and order to a country that seemed out of control. Even though far more voters claimed to be Democrats than Republicans, Nixon was able to win a narrow victory. Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to LBJ ended with President Nixon. Is this the model that Lai wants to follow?

In fact, there are no examples in American history of a candidate successfully challenging an incumbent from his own party and then going on to win the general election. In fact, in the last century, every time an incumbent has faced a primary challenge, the other party has won the election. Divided parties lose power.


The state of the presidential race

March 25, 2019

The presidential race is starting to develop. The Central Election Commission recently announced that the election would be on January 11. More importantly, there have been some important developments in the two major parties, and, now that the by-elections are finished, we are finally getting into the intense stage of the nomination process.

In the DPP, former premier William Lai surprised many people inside and outside the party by registering his candidacy. He kept this decision a secret until the last minute, and many of the DPP’s major figures were taken by surprise. Perhaps most surprisingly is that many heavyweights in Lai’s own New Tide faction didn’t know he was planning to run. Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, presidential office secretary-general Chen Chu, and legislator Tuan Yi-kang all seem to have been surprised. It was not, however, a last-minute decision. The day Lai made his announcement, the Taiwan Braintrust think tank released a poll intended to show high levels of public support for him. This poll was conducted in the previous week, and it probably took at least another week before that to get ready to do the poll. Taiwan Braintrust is run by the Independence Fundamentalist wing of the DPP, which has been leading the opposition to Tsai basically since she emerged as the DPP’s leader. Taiwan Braintrust chair Koo Kuan-min ran against her for party chair in 2008 and infamously asked if “people wearing skirts” were suitable for leadership. Anyway, this was a coordinated and premeditated rollout. There are people suggesting that the DPP will convince Lai to withdraw or take the VP slot, but he looks pretty serious to me.

Over in the KMT, calls for the party to forgo its regular nomination process and directly draft Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu are gaining steam. The hopes of party chair Wu Den-yi and former president Ma Ying-jeou seem to faded, so the realistic candidates are former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, former speaker Wang Jin-pyng, and Han. The former two want the regular process to determine the nomination. Han, as a newcomer who was just elected mayor a couple months ago, does not want to openly contest the presidential nomination. His best scenario is for the party to offer him the nomination so that he does not appear to betray his Kaohsiung voters by abandoning them for a better job almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je seems more and more likely to run as an independent. He is doing quite well in the polls, so the opportunity and pressure is overwhelming. He is also making some of the necessary preparations. He has been in the USA this week. While this is officially just a routine tour, the real purpose is to talk with people in the USA foreign policy establishment to reassure them that he will have a reasonable policy toward China. Even better, he might hope for one of them to say publicly that he will have a reasonable policy and will be a perfectly fine partner for the USA. During that tour Ko tried to clear away another hurdle by announcing his position on marriage equality. He is both for and against it. He claimed to have voted against it in last year’s referendums, but he pointed out that Taiwan is a tolerant society. We’ll see if this waffle satisfies anyone.


What do the polls say about the race right now? I have seen four polls in the last month, and they do not necessary give the same answer. TVBS is a long-established pollster with a reasonably good reputation but a strong blue bias. Taiwan Braintrust and Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation are both green camp think tanks with an anti-Tsai Ing-wen bias. Fount Media is a new media organization. The main figure is Clara Chou Yu-kou, who is a respected and senior media figure who leans green. Their poll was conducted by Focus Survey, an established pollster. However, the general rule is that the organization commissioning the poll is more important than the organization conducting the poll; the buyer decides which numbers to release to the public and the seller rarely (never?) contradicts those numbers. I don’t have a high degree of trust any of these polls. The two think tank polls have a clear political agenda, and TVBS polls have tended to produce favorable results to the KMT. However, taken together they probably give us a picture of the outer bounds of public opinion.

Organization Organization date sample
TVBS TVBS 2/14-20 1582
Taiwan Brain Trust 新台灣國策智庫 3/12-13 1085
Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation 台灣民意基金會 2/27 1089
Fount Media 放言 (山水) 3/4-5 1077

The four surveys have published results for the 2020 presidential race with various groupings of candidates. I have put these together in the following unwieldy table. Depending on which survey you look at, Tsai is either competitive or hopelessly behind, Han is either an unbeatable juggernaut or somewhat vulnerable, and the 2020 race either promises to be a blowout or a very close race. Not very helpful…

Tsai Lai Chu Wang Wu Han Ko
TVBS 27 46
Brain 38 51
TPOF 38 47
Fount 35 50
TVBS 33 41
Brain 47 44
TVBS 25 54
Brain 42 50
Fount 32 55
TVBS 32 49
Brain 49 45
TVBS 32 27
Brain 54 30
Fount 34 43
TVBS 41 22
Brain 65 23
TVBS 26 39
Brain 37 49
TVBS 33 31
Brain 50 37
TVBS 16 29 41
Brain 29 34 31
Fount 22 34 34
TVBS 19 27 39
Brain 35 32 28
TVBS 16 37 35
Brain 31 35 28
TPOF 28 34 30
Fount 20 42 28
TVBS 19 36 33
Brain 35 35 24
TPOF 30 34 28
TVBS 20 16 44
Brain 34 16 41
TVBS 26 15 39
Brain 42 14 36
TVBS 17 23 41
Brain 28 27 36
Fount 21 25 40
TVBS 23 21 38
Brain 34 25 33


However, we can see a few clear patterns. Within each party, there is a clear hierarchy. In the DPP, Lai consistently beats Tsai. In one-on-one races with a KMT opponent, Lai is usually 5-10 points stronger than Tsai. In three-way races, Lai’s advantage over Tsai is roughly to 2-5 points. In the KMT, Han is the strongest, Chu is second, Wang is third, and Wu trails far behind in fourth place. There are clear gaps between all four. Ko beats most of the KMT and DPP candidates, but he is consistently behind Han.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank-order all the candidates based on these poll results, I’d say that, from strongest to weakest, they are Han, Ko, Lai, Chu, Wang, Tsai, Wu. However, I’d also point out that these February and March polls don’t necessarily indicate what public opinion will look like next January. In fact, I suspect the numbers will shift quite a bit over the next ten months. Why? Let’s dive more deeply into the numbers!


The Taiwan Brain Trust poll was a piece of political advertising dressed up as a poll. The press release was designed to draw your attention to three bits of data: Lai beats Tsai 50-29%, in a two-way race Chu, Wang, and Han all beat Tsai but Lai beats all four KMT candidates, and in a three-way race, Tsai never wins but Lai wins against all four possible candidates. (See pages 19, 20, 42, 43, 62, and 63 of the TBT powerpoint slides).


There you have it: Lai beats Tsai head to head, and while Tsai loses most matchups in the general election, Lai wins them all. Lai is clearly the superior candidate, so the DPP should nominate Lai.

Of course, this conclusion conveniently overlooks the facts that many of these “victories” are not statistically significant differences and that the other polling organizations didn’t find such strong support for Lai. Still, even if Lai’s advantage over Tsai isn’t as overwhelming as TBT would like you to believe, he does clearly have an edge.

But wait, there’s more. One of the main reasons I don’t simply dismiss the TBT poll as propaganda is that they have followed one of professional polling’s best practices: they have published their full results, including both frequency distributions and crosstabs. (No other public pollster in Taiwan routinely does this, but it is becoming the international standard for credible polling.) If you dig way down into the TBT results, the picture looks a bit more complicated.

Lai crushes Tsai in the overall head-to-head sample, and there aren’t many clear differences among different age groups, education levels, or regions. However, there is a big difference among people with different political attitudes. Looking at party identification, people who identify as DPP supporters are split fairly evenly. Lai has a small 5 point advantage, but nowhere near his 21 point overall margin. That enormous gap is a result of preferences among KMT identifiers, who Lai wins by 36 points. That is, people who aren’t going to vote for either Tsai or Lai are inflating the gap between them and making Lai look much stronger. You can see this even more clearly in another question, whether the respondent plans to support the DPP’s 2020 candidate. People who planned to support the DPP actually preferred Tsai by a robust 9%. Lai makes up this gap by winning undecided voters by 19%. However, the illusion of an enormous gap is created by the people who say they will not vote for a DPP candidate. This group prefers Lai over Tsai by 43 points.

Tsai Lai Don’t know N
All 29.2 50.9 19.9 1085
DPP 43.1 48.1 8.7 267
KMT 21.6 57.2 21.2 360
New 13
PFP 19
NPP 37.7 55.5 6.8 169
None 18.2 44.0 37.7 172
Other party 6
No answer 26.3 38.6 35.2 79


Question: Do you plan to support the DPP’s 2020 presidential candidate?

Tsai Lai Don’t know N
All 29.2 50.9 19.9 1085
Yes 49.9 40.8 9.3 325
No 17.9 60.6 21.6 515
other 25.5 44.1 30.4 245

(I’m omitting data for categories with almost no respondents since those numbers are basically meaningless.)

Why are blue voters overwhelmingly for Lai? My guess is that they are really expressing opposition to Tsai by supporting any intraparty challenge to her. However, it is not obvious to me that they will continue to prefer Lai now that he is actually in the race. First, supporters of one party often decline to participate in the other side’s business. When the call comes in the DPP polling primary, the interviewer starts by identifying themselves as a DPP poll. Many blue identifiers will simply hang up. Second, if blue voters want to pick the weakest DPP candidate (the way that four years ago some green voters probably supported Hung Hsiu-chu’s KMT nomination), it isn’t obvious who they should choose. They might think that Tsai is the incumbent and a moderate, but she has a lot of baggage and is trailing Lai in the polls. It isn’t obvious that Lai is their best strategic choice. Third, Lai’s first (and so far only) appeal was to pardon Chen Shui-bian. This will be hard for many blue voters to swallow. Fourth, the DPP polling question relies heavily on interparty matchups rather than intraparty matchups. That is, most of these blue voters will filter themselves out by expressing support for the KMT candidate, so they won’t affect the results that much. In sum, Lai is leading, but it is a lot closer than it looks.

How will the race develop? The DPP has now delayed its primary by a week, but that still only leaves less than four weeks for the race to unfold. It seems like what the rest of the party does NOT want is an extended debate over ideas. They seem to want to get this over quickly and painlessly. Apparently, the civil war of 2007 still haunts them. I’m not sure they can avoid a fight. After all, this is the presidency – the stakes cannot be higher. After Lai announced, 34 DPP legislators (of 68 total) responded by signing a statement in support of Tsai. Two other legislators later also expressed support for her. So far, only one legislator has openly supported Lai. A factional breakdown of the DPP legislative caucus shows that the 36 Tsai supporters include most of the party list legislators (who she had a hand in picking) and most of the legislators in her own faction, the Hsieh faction, and the Yu faction. The legislators who did not sign are mostly from either the Su faction, the CSB faction, or the New Tide faction. I think the Su faction mostly supports Tsai, but they wanted to stay publicly neutral since Su is on the five-person committee in charge of making decisions about the primary. The New Tide faction is the largest and most important faction, and I think it is genuinely torn. Lai is a New Tide member, but he has grown apart from the rest of the faction since he became Tainan mayor. Tsai has maintained good relations with New Tide, and many of them seemed shocked by Lai’s decision. I don’t know if the New Tide will try to act collectively. If they do try, they might end up ripping the faction apart. Among the party elites, Lai’s strongest support comes from the independence fundamentalists and Chen Shui-bian faction. If it were just a question of party elites, Tsai would probably win handily. Of course, Lai has a trump card in the form of public opinion.

I do see one path for Tsai to reverse that public opinion deficit. Right now, Lai is beating her quite a bit among New Power Party identifiers. In the head to head polls, Lai beats her by 18 points. In the two most likely races, the three-way races with Ko and either Chu or Han, Lai is about 6-9 points stronger than Tsai with this group. Tsai should be doing better among this group. She may not be economically or socially progressive enough to make them happy, but Lai is an economic and social conservative. He will not be better for them. I think that Lai’s initial support among this group is more a reflection of their disappointment with Tsai than any conviction that he will be better. Now that they have to make a choice, this group looks to me like one of Tsai’s best targets.


Tsai Lai Han Ko
All 30.6 35.4 27.9
DPP 71.3 6.4 21.4
KMT 5.6 74.7 16.7
NPP 34.8 10.0 50.4
None 26.8 28.0 29.5
No answer 15.8 14.4 48.1
All 35.3 34.7 24.1
DPP 76.7 5.5 17.1
KMT 5.3 76.4 15.5
NPP 42.4 8.4 45.4
None 37.6 24.4 20.6
No answer 23.8 15.8 41.6

I expect the DPP primary to be very close, and I will not pick a winner at this point. Actually, I take that back. There is already a clear winner: the KMT. The KMT’s initial reaction to Lai’s announcement was that Lai was declaring Tsai’s presidency a failure. What’s more, he was also declaring that his own term as premier was a failure. They are right. Whether or not Lai intends that message, that is exactly what many people heard. Moreover, since Lai’s first policy proposal was to pardon Chen Shui-bian, the KMT now has a legitimate reason to talk endlessly about CSB. There is nothing they love more than opining about the horrors of the CSB years. If Tsai wins the nomination, she will have to deal with the shadow of Lai’s negative judgment on or her presidency for the rest of the campaign. If Lai wins the nomination (or even the presidency), he will never escape the original sin of disloyalty. No one will dare give him too much trust or loyalty, since he himself has been guilty of this disloyalty. What a fiasco. On the one hand, Lai has made a terrible choice. On the other hand, he only made that choice because Tsai has been such an unpopular president.


Over on the KMT side, things are also messy. There are three declared candidates, Chu, Wang, and Wu. However, the chorus to sidestep the entire process and simply draft Han is growing every day. Part of this is that Wu is hopelessly behind Chu and Wang. Since he has no chance of winning, he has very little reason to insist on maintaining the formal process.

Let’s look first at the race between Chu and Wang. In the head to head race, Chu wins 44-34. Again, the party identification breakdown is the key place to look. Among KMT identifiers, Chu wins by 52 points. Among DPP identifiers, Wang wins by 25. As above, most of that support from the other party won’t translate into support in the polling primary. In a polling primary, Chu’s lead would actually be bigger.

Wu Chu Wang Han
All 6.1 43.8 33.8
DPP 6.5 26.4 51.1
KMT 7.8 67.0 14.5
NPP 3.3 42.4 43.7
None 5.1 29.1 37.2
No answer 3.3 33.9 30.9
All 4.3 26.3 31.2 28.7
DPP 6.8 20.8 53.3 8.9
KMT 2.9 33.0 9.7 50.7
NPP 3.1 30.2 44.2 17.6
None 4.8 21.1 32.7 21.6
No answer 2.2 20.7 22.5 29.2



What about Han? TBT thoughtfully asked the same question both with and without Han in the race. When they add Han, something interesting happens: Wang wins, beating Han by 2 and Chu by 5. Ok, as we just noted, Wang probably wouldn’t win since a major chunk of his support is from DPP identifiers. However, what is really interesting is what happens to the KMT identifiers. Without Han, Chu won 67.0% of this group. With Han, Han takes 50.7% and Chu is left with only 33.0%. Because Han won the race in Kaohsiung, we have a notion that Han has a strong cross-party appeal. What this data suggests is that Han’s core appeal is within the KMT. Han is an orthodox KMT politician. He comes from the military party branch, he got training in China, and he subscribes to all the orthodox party ideology.

If we look at three-way races with the DPP and Ko, you can also see this pattern. In the TBT data, the cross-party appeal is somewhat secondary. Han is stronger than Chu because Han does a better job of consolidating the blue vote. Look at the race with Lai and Ko. Chu gets 68.9% of KMT identifiers, and Ko manages to steal 21.2% of this group. Against Han, Ko can only win 15.5% of KMT identifiers, while Han rakes in 76.4%. Among the voters who don’t express any party preference or refuse to answer the question, Chu and Han are roughly even. Han is stronger because he is stronger among blue voters, not among neutral voters.

Lai Chu Han Ko
All 35.1 31.8 27.9
DPP 77.3 4.0 18.2
KMT 8.7 68.9 21.2
NPP 39.4 8.4 48.9
None 32.7 22.0 27.8
No answer 17.3 21.4 42.1
All 35.3 34.7 24.1
DPP 76.7 5.5 17.1
KMT 5.3 76.4 15.5
NPP 42.4 8.4 45.4
None 37.6 24.4 20.6
No answer 23.8 15.8 41.6

In fact, my conclusion that Han is generally stronger than Chu is based predominantly on TVBS polls. In TVBS polls, Han tends to be stronger than Chu by a considerable margin. In other polls, the difference between Han and Chu is much more modest. It is probably not a coincidence that TVBS has a blue tint. I suspect their sample contains more respondents with KMT sympathies and its sample of KMT identifiers contains more respondents who we would classify as deep blue.


[time passes]


It seems I will never finish this post. Things keep happening, and so I need to write more. While I wasn’t paying attention, TVBS published a new poll. Compared to the TVBS poll a month ago, the numbers are about the same for the KMT, slightly up for up for the DPP, and down quite a bit for Ko. Lai seems to be up a bit more than Tsai.

This poll does have crosstabs for party ID and presidential choice. Like the TBT polls this TVBS poll shows that Han’s core strength is within the blue camp. However, unlike the TBT poll, this one shows that Han also does quite a bit better than Chu among undecided voters. So stick that bit of data in your pocket and chew on it.

TVBS Lai Chu Han Ko
All 26 26 30
DPP 74 4 16
KMT 3 66 21
NPP 31 8 55
None 17 11 39
No answer 14 20 26
All 25 37 24
DPP 72 7 17
KMT 3 80 12
NPP 29 13 51
None 16 29 32
No answer 14 24 21

I’m going to wrap up here. I have more to say, but I’m probably not going to have time to write it any time soon. So enjoy this prematurely ended and poorly edited post. Things are developing pretty rapidly in the DPP (with their primary), the KMT (with their primary and Han’s China trip), and with Ko (who is apparently now walking back his anti-gay marriage trial balloon. Things might look quite a bit different in a few weeks.


four by-elections

March 17, 2019

Four legislative by-elections were held yesterday, in New Taipei 3, Tainan 2, Changhua 1, and Kinmen. The former two seats were originally held by the DPP, while the latter two were originally held by the KMT. The by-elections didn’t really change that. The DPP held its two seats, and the KMT won the Changhua seat. An independent won the Kinmen seat against the official KMT candidate, but she is a former KMT member who immediately announced her intention to try to return to the KMT.

The biggest headline today is that the DPP avoided a disaster by holding its two seats. I think this is basically right. You wouldn’t call these results good news for the DPP, though you also wouldn’t call them terrible news. From the KMT’s point of view, this is a missed opportunity. Other headlines suggest that the Han Kuo-yu Wave™ is receding. I think this is probably wrong. More on that later.

Here are the results.

New Taipei 3  






Cheng KMT






Turnout: 42.1      
Tainan 2      



Hsieh KMT



Chen IND (from DPP)












Turnout: 44.5      
Changhua 1      



Huang DPP






Turnout: 36.6      



Chen TC IND (former DPP)






Tsai IND






Hung CH Kaoliang Party



Turnout: 21.2      


The first thing we can do to sort out these results is to ask about the partisan lean of each district. In my previous post, I rated each district by comparing Tsai Ing-wen’s presidential vote in each district to her national total. This gives two indicators: a ranked ordering of the 73 districts from the DPP’s strongest to weakest and a number showing how many points above or below the national average the DPP is in this district. The data for these four districts is:


2012 Tsai

2012 rank

2016 Tsai

2016 rank


New Taipei 3






Tainan 2






Changhua 1












Recall that overall Tsai received 45.6% in 2012 and 56.1% in 2016.

New Taipei 3 covers most of the Sanchong District. This is traditionally considered deep green territory, though it is not actually as green as most people think. I think population mobility has regressed it toward the mean. In recent elections it has been about 5% better for the DPP than the national average, which makes it one of those districts that the DPP needs to win. It has in fact won all four elections (counting this by-election) since 2008, though the KMT has been competitive in three of the four. This was a contest with two high quality candidates. The DPP ran Yu Tien, the New Taipei party chair and the former legislator who managed to win this seat in 2008 in the face of a national KMT landslide. Yu is actually less famous as a politician than as a singer. He isn’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but he is a proven campaigner. His KMT opponent is a newcomer, but he is the nephew of Lee Chien-lung, the KMT legislative candidate in 2012 and 2016 and a longtime stalwart in local Sanchong politics. Yu won this race by a 52-47 margin, which was a solid victory for the DPP.

Next, let’s skip over to Changhua. Changhua 1 is a classic bellwether district. Tsai was about 2% better than average in 2012 and about 1% better than average in 2016. This should be a median district, meaning that the KMT should have won it narrowly in 2012 and the DPP should have won it fairly easily in 2016. In fact, Changhua 1 has not followed national trends at all. Instead, it has been a horror show for the DPP. In 2012, the KMT vote was split two ways, but the DPP candidate (himself a defector from the pan-blue camp) couldn’t even manage a third of the vote. In 2016, the DPP nominated a documentary film director, and got totally wiped out. Hey, any time you can nominate an intellectual who wants to talk about class conflict to a rural district, you’ve got to do it! (Just to make sure he was incompetent, that same guy ran for mayor of Homei Township in 2018 and got destroyed again.) I think most observers were expecting more DPP incompetence in this race. Instead, it turned out to be fairly close, with the KMT winning 52-46.

There was an interesting geographical split in this district. The legislative district covers six townships and two county council districts. Each county council district has one big town (Lugang and Homei) and two smaller towns. Huang, the DPP candidate, is the former mayor of Lugang and a former county councilor from county council district 2 (CC2). Ko, the KMT candidate, is presented in the media as being a technocrat – the bureaucrat with a legal background who rose to deputy county magistrate. Don’t be fooled. Technocrats with shiny degrees are a dime a dozen. His most important credential is that he is a from a political family. His uncle 柯明謀 was a longtime county councilor and faction leader who was eventually appointed to the Control Yuan and as senior presidential advisor. The Ko family is from Shengang, in CC3. As you might expect, Huang did quite a bit better in CC2, winning that half of the district by three thousand votes (51.8%-45.6%). However, Ko dominated the other half, winning CC3 by nine thousand votes (60.3%-37.9%). Let’s just say that there was quite a thick layer of local politics spread on top of the national political structure.

Given the partisan lean of this district, this result is quite similar to the result in New Taipei 3. Both imply that the DPP’s national vote is roughly 45-47%, or similar to the 2012 presidential election. This looks quite a bit better for the DPP than the 2018 local elections or the two January by-elections, though it is still a far cry from the 2016 results.


Next, let’s visit the charming island of Kinmen. From a partisan standpoint, Kinmen is a D-38 district. The DPP is basically irrelevant here. Everyone is some shade of pan-blue, so voters are free to choose their favorite candidate without worrying about national considerations. The official KMT usually does well, but not always. This was one of those other times. This turned out to be a true four-way race, with four candidates getting between 20-30%. Geographically, all four of the candidates had a home base in one of the five townships (ignoring the barely populated sixth town), and they all competed in Jincheng, the biggest town. The winner, Chen Yu-chen, won by winning Jincheng and her hometown, and by coming in second in two of the other towns. The official KMT nominee, Hung Li-ping, came in third. She had the misfortune to be based in the smaller Lieyu Township, and she didn’t do very well in the other townships.

Chen Yu-chen is a county councilor and the daughter of Chen Shui-tsai. Chen Shui-tsai is perhaps the most important elected official in Kinmen’s history. He was the first elected county magistrate. (Remember that, unlike Taiwan, Kinmen was not allowed to hold local elections until 1994.) During his term in office, Kinmen underwent a fundamental transformation. On the one hand, the military started withdrawing its enormous garrison, necessitating a wholesale transformation of the local economy and fundamentally transforming everyday life. On the other hand, Chen transformed the kaoliang distillery from a small military operation into what would eventually become the main source of funds for the county government. The decisions made under Chen’s administration reverberate in every corner of the county today. I don’t know if he still has political influence or to what extent those political ties contributed to his daughter’s victory, but I’m sure they at least helped to start her political career.

One thing that did surprise me about this election was the performance of Chen Tsang-chiang, who finished second. Above I said that the DPP is basically irrelevant in Kinmen. Chen is the caveat to that statement. Chen is a former county councilor and the only person ever elected to public office in Kinmen under the DPP label. However, because he was dissatisfied with the Tsai government’s performance, Chen withdrew from the DPP and did not run for re-election to the county council in 2018. Chen ran as an independent this time, but I did not expect that it would be so easy for him to shed the stench of the DPP label. I assumed that his former association with the DPP would have been toxic in Kinmen. That proved not to be the case, as he came shockingly close to winning.

The Kinmen election was probably a fascinating story. However, this is the kind of race that you need to have detailed local knowledge to fully understand. I’m sure there was all kinds of intrigue and interesting coalitions, but only the people on the ground involved in the campaigns will ever know the whole story. Without strong party lines to structure political conflict, the possibilities (and chaos) are limitless. From my perch at 30,000 feet, I can only sense that I am missing out on a fantastic soap opera.


Finally, there is Tainan 2. Tainan 2 is a D+16 district, and it is either the DPP’s best or second-best district in the entire country. (Neighboring Tainan 1 is the other; no other district is within four points of them.) This is a district that not only should the DPP never lose, it should never even come close to losing. The KMT just came very, very close to winning Tainan 2.

For the KMT to come so close to winning here, it needs a perfect storm. I see at least three important ingredients. First, the DPP is undergoing nasty factional infighting in Tainan between the New Tide faction (led locally by former mayor and premier William Lai) and the Chen Shui-bian/Independence faction. In the recent mayoral election, Huang Wei-che (the former legislator from this district) and Chen Ting-fei were more or less the representatives of the two sides, though it was a little messier than that. At any rate, it is safe to say that the eventual nominee and winner (Huang) has not yet managed to unify the local party. In this by-election, the DPP candidate was from the New Tide faction. I think it is safe to speculate that probably not all of the CSB/independence faction was working 100% for Kuo. Second (and related), there was a splinter candidate. Chen Hsiao-yu lost the DPP nomination fight and then ran as an independent. She is from a local political family. Her mother 郭秀柱 is a longtime city council member who has sometimes been inside and sometimes outside the DPP but has always claimed to be a strong supporter of CSB. During the mayoral primary, one minor DPP aspirant accused Huang Wei-che of cooperating with organized crime, by which he meant Chen Hsiao-yu’s mother. (Note the illogical factional alliances. Local politics don’t always make sense.) In the last few days of the campaign, CSB made a video endorsing Kuo. This probably saved the election for the DPP.

Third, even if you ignore the split in the green camp, the KMT overperformed in this election. Hsieh got 44.3%. For reference, when Ma Ying-jeou won re-election in 2012 (with 51% of the national vote), he only got 34.8% in Tainan 2. To put it another way, Hsieh’s 59,194 votes this time were more than the KMT mayoral candidate in 2018 won (58201), even though the turnout was 20% lower this year than last. In 2016, the KMT collapsed in this district, losing the legislative race by a comical 76-19% margin. It seemed like the KMT might never be competitive here again. Yet, they lost yesterday by less than 3%.

After 2016 I said that the KMT had to figure out some way to appeal to voters in the south if they wanted to win a future presidential election. When Han Kuo-yu ran for party chair with a distinctly different discourse than everyone else, I suggested that they might want to test that message in a general election to see if it could be the solution. It certainly worked in the Kaohsiung mayoral election, and I think the KMT’s excellent performance in Tainan 2 has a lot of elements of that same general approach.

Hsieh Long-chieh is, like Han, an outsider who parachuted into a strange new district. Hsieh is from the southern urban part of Tainan, not the rural north. He has some experience talking to farmers in small towns (he was chair of the KMT city branch), but most of his experience is in talking with urbanites. Like Han, he made a few outlandish claims related to agriculture. Hsieh railed about the pomelo industry, exaggerating how badly it was doing and making wild promises about how wonderful he would make it if only he were elected. Finally, Hsieh is TV personality. He is nowhere near the cult hero that Han is. Han gets 24-hour blanket coverage on some stations and merely excessive coverage on the others. No one can match that. However, Hsieh is a regular talk show guest, and he gets more than his fair share of media coverage. I suspect that the combination of extensive media exposure and being an outsider is critical to the recipe. People with long local associations might be better known and have more established reputations. The outlandish promises might be more “credible” or easily swallowed if you don’t have direct evidence from years of experience that this fellow is not actually superman.

At any rate, I expect we will see a wave of Han Kuo-yu imitators in the upcoming legislative general election. Not all of them will be able to pull it off. Some won’t have the personality. Not everyone is comfortable with blowing smoke or promising outlandishly wonderful and immediate results. Very few will be able to match the media exposure. There is only so much exposure to go around, and not everyone can be a media superstar. If the KMT nominates Han at the top of the ticket, he might be able to drag a lot of local candidates along, but I don’t think they can follow his recipe individually. Finally, most of the KMT candidates will be locally established politicians. If being an outsider is important, most will fail that test. However, this might be Ko Wen-che’s opportunity. If he tries to run a slate of legislative candidates, he won’t get the A-List politicians on his team. He will be forced to choose from the D-List politicians (remember: two years ago everyone would have considered Han Kuo-yu a D-List politician), and that might work to his advantage in this climate.

To sum up, if we ignore Tainan, the DPP didn’t do too badly. However, you can’t ignore Tainan. Following the Kaohsiung mayoral race, the KMT has once again made dramatic inroads in the south. The Han Kuo-yu recipe seems to be working, and that should terrify the DPP. I don’t know if this recipe is scalable, but I suspect we will find out next January.