The state of the presidential race

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.


2 Responses to “The state of the presidential race”

  1. Factionalism at Heart of Controversy in Both DPP and KMT Regarding Presidential Candidates | New Bloom Magazine Says:

    […] Indications are that Lai did coordinate with these pan-Green traditionalists in announcing his run, but not all members of the influential New Tide faction within the DPP. Lai belongs to the New Tide but is no longer as close with it as he once was, after having served as mayor of Tainan from 2010 to 2017. Some members of the New Tide faction back Tsai, such as party heavyweight Chen Chu, who most recently served as secretary-general of the Presidential Office. On the other hand, well-known DPP politicians affiliated with the New Tide such as Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan, legislator Tuan Yi-kang, and Tainan mayor Huang Wei-che, have at least publicly expressed surprise at Lai’s run. Others are likely to back Lai, even if organized support from DPP members for Tsai has been stronger to date with 34 DPP politicians, mostly legislators, announcing support for Tsai.  […]

  2. Politicking, polls, and Taiwan's presidential primary: Can Tsai Ing-wen survive in 2020? | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP Says:

    […] noted by political scientist Nathan Batto, the picture is more complicated, with Lai’s huge lead over […]

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