The presidential race: six months astonishing months

Yesterday, My-Formosa 美麗島電子報 released its August poll. I’ve been waiting to see this one. The pollster, Tai Li-an 戴立安, is the best public pollster that Taiwan has right now. He’s been doing polls for nearly two decades now, first with ERA, then Global Views, Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, and now he does a monthly poll for My-Formosa. It isn’t so much that I think his point estimates are more accurate than anyone else’s, it’s that he uses a standard methodology, asks the same questions again and again, and publishes detailed results. You can learn much, much more from his work than from anyone else’s. With other polls, you get a snapshot of a single moment in time; with Tai’s, you can see trends over time and some of the reasons for those trends.

My-Formosa started publishing polls in February, so we have a fairly good record of the past six months (including a starting and ending point). This is fortuitous, because these six months have been quite remarkable. At the end of February, Tsai Ing-wen was a failed president. She had just led the party into a disastrous election, her popularity was at dismal levels, and DPP supporters were mentally preparing themselves to lose power. In early March, Lai Ching-te launched his primary challenge, effectively repudiating her entire presidency. Six months later, Tsai is moving confidently toward re-election. She is leading in almost all the polls, her party is (mostly) unified around her, satisfaction with her performance in office has increased by leaps and bounds, and her primary competitor is in utter disarray. If you had shown me the August poll back in February, I wouldn’t have believed it.

August was a particularly good month for Tsai and a horrible month for Han Kuo-yu. On just about every indicator, Tsai has surged while Han has plummeted. This echoes all the other polling, but it’s nice to confirm a trend with time-series data from a single pollster.

Let’s get to the data. In this post, I will only use data from My-Formosa polls. There are seven polls: February, March, April, May, June, July, and August. They also did mid-April and mid-July polls, but I’ll ignore those for the sake of parsimony. My impression of Tai Li-an’s polling is that his methodology tends to be slightly favorable to the green camp, compared to other polls. The other major pollster that I take seriously, TVBS, has a similar tilt toward the blue camp. The two typically differ by about 10%. I don’t know which one is more accurate; perhaps it is somewhere in between. However, I care much more about consistency than pinpoint accuracy. That is, these polls should have the same bias in every period, so differences from one period to the next should be a result of shifts in public opinion rather than polling methodology.

Since I know you care most about the state of the race, here are the top-line results for the various matchups as of the end of August:

Tsai 52.1%, Han 33.4%.

Tsai 39.8%, Han 26.9%, Ko 21.9%.

Tsai 39.6%, Han 26.0%, Gou 23.4%.

Tsai 36.9%, Han 26.1%, Gou (supported by Ko) 26.1%.

Tsai 34.9%, Han 23.8%, Gou 14.9%, Ko 12.3%.

Tsai 41.2%, Gou 34.1%.

 

The result I care most about is the Tsai-Han head-to-head matchup, even though it looks like we will actually get a Tsai-Han-Gou matchup. There are a couple of reasons for my this. First, the presidential race drives voting in the legislative races, and most of the legislative races will be head-to-head matchups between the DPP and KMT. KMT legislators might have a slightly different set of supporters than Han, but there should be a high degree of overlap. The head-to-head presidential matchup is a better starting point for thinking about the legislative race than anything else, including (especially?) questions that ask respondents how they will vote in the district races. Second, I think the head-to-head matchup is probably the best predictor for the presidential race, regardless of whether Gou or Ko run. For various reasons, I am not confident that either one of them can avoid slipping into a clear third place. If that happens, large-scale strategic voting is inevitable. In other words, I assume that many, perhaps most, of the current Ko/Gou supporters will end up voting for either Tsai or Han.

As you can see, Tsai and Han have nearly reversed positions since February. Back then, he was winning in a landslide. Now she is leading by 18.7%. Moreover, this is one of those really nice trends in which every period (except July) shows a step in the same direction.

Tsai’s good results have reverberated in a different partisan balance. This chart looks at party identification, with the answers combined into the blue and green camps. In February, the blue camp had a 6.8% edge in party identification. Today the green camp holds a 10.2% edge. This is extremely important. Party ID is consistently the single most important factor in voting decisions. Getting a person to say that they support your party is the difficult part; once you do that, getting them to vote for your candidates is relatively easy. This shift in party ID also indicates that the changes in the presidential race are not simply a personal matter due to and confined to the unique personal qualities of Han Kuo-yu. He might be influencing some of these shifts, but they are affecting the entire system.

If we look at support for Tsai by age groups, there is an interesting pattern. Look at the red line, representing the 20-29 age group. Back in February, these young voters were thoroughly disenchanted with Tsai. She barely had 20% support among young voters. However, her support among this group surged in May and June, reaching roughly 65%. Tsai’s primary victory (in mid-June) was almost certainly powered by support from these young voters, who only a few months earlier had rejected her. What happened? The obvious answer is marriage equality. Looking at the overall population, marriage equality is clearly unpopular. However, there are dramatic age differences. Young people overwhelmingly support it, and it is possible that they care more about this issue than older people. The DPP pushed through the marriage bill in a very difficult vote in mid-May, and younger voters may have taken notice. Another possibility is Hong Kong. The Hong Kong protests heated up in May and June, and these probably focused attention away from issues like air quality and labor unions and toward national identity, sovereignty, and democracy. We know that young people are much more likely to express a Taiwanese identity than people in older age cohorts, so events in Hong Kong may have framed the choice in a way much more favorable to Tsai for them.

After June, the 20-29 cohort hasn’t changed much. The August surge is due to shifts in all the other age groups. These groups have steadily been increasing support for Tsai over the entire six-month period. Young voters changed their minds all at once; older voters have been changing gradually.

We’d like to know something about how support for Tsai and Han has shifted among people with different partisan outlooks, and Tai Li-an has thoughtfully provided us with a useful tool. He has divided the sample into nine different groups according to how they feel about the two main parties. Three groups express preference for the KMT and three groups prefer the DPP. He does not explain exactly how he defines these six groups, but they reflect intensity of support for the two major parties. I have labeled them as strong KMT, moderate KMT, and lean KMT, and likewise for the three pro-DPP groups. The three groups in the middle do not have a preference for either party. Group 4 gives both parties the same evaluation, and this evaluation is positive. This group likes both parties equally. Group 6 gives both parties the same evaluation, but this evaluation is negative. This group dislikes both parties equally. Group 5 isn’t very informed; this group doesn’t provide any evaluation for either party.

Group 6, the group that dislikes both parties, is critical. This group of disaffected voters was probably the most critical demographic in the 2018 election. They don’t like either party, but I think they voted en masse against the incumbent DPP. Han Kuo-yu, as an anti-party symbol, seemed to be quite attractive to them. They are also Ko Wen-je’s core supporters. However, as anti-establishment voters, they are inherently unstable. They are not tied down by strong ideological attachments, so anything that makes a populist politician look like he or she is actually just another establishment sellout (such as a corruption scandal) is potentially devastating.

Keep in mind that the three neutral groups look bigger than they will actually be in the election. These are the least likely to actually turn out to vote. Still, most of them will vote and their votes are more volatile, so politicians can’t afford to ignore them.

You can see from this chart that the size of the nine groups has changed a bit over the past year. The three pro-DPP groups have gotten bigger (as one might expect from the increase in green camp party ID), and the three pro-KMT groups have gotten a little smaller. The pink group of angry, disaffected voters has been consistently about twice as large as the orange group of happy voters who like both parties. The purple group of uninformed, unopinionated voters has shrunk over time, which is what we might expect in an election year.

Let’s look at how Tsai’s support has evolved among these nine groups. At the bottom of the chart, she has consistently gotten a sliver of support from the three pro-KMT groups. It isn’t much, but anything she gets from these voters is gravy. One of the things that campaigns tend to do is drive voters back to the fundamental preferences, so one might expect Tsai’s support among the three blue groups to trend toward zero. This hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because the KMT is still distracted by its internal squabbling. Where has Tsai increased her vote? She has, to a large degree, consolidated her support among pro-DPP voters. In February, large numbers of pro-DPP voters weren’t on board. Now, she has nearly 100% support among the strong and moderate DPP groups. She still only has about 80% among the lean DPP group, but there aren’t many “easy” votes left for her to consolidate. Among the three neutral groups, Tsai has made enormous gains among the amiable voters who like both parties and the clueless voters who can’t evaluate either party. Somehow, her message has broken through to these voters. She has been less successful with the surly voters who dislike both parties. Her support has climbed, but by a far smaller amount. Most of these voters remain skeptical of her.

Han’s chart is not quite a mirror image of Tsai’s. Tsai hasn’t quite consolidated all of the pro-DPP vote, but Han isn’t getting any of it. He is near zero for all three of those groups. Turning to the pro-KMT groups, you can see Han’s struggles quite clearly. He is failing to get large numbers of voters from within all three groups, and it isn’t getting better. If anything, it seems to be getting worse. Han has a lot of work to do consolidating the blue vote before he can turn his attention to the neutral voters. He had better hurry up, because those neutral voters need some attention. He is holding most of his support among the uniformed voters, but he started from a very low baseline. This is not good. The other two neutral groups are worse. The happy voters who like both parties and the angry voters who curse both parties have both decided they don’t like Han. The orange and purple groups have tilted decisively toward Tsai. The pink group doesn’t like either one. Faced with a choice of Tsai or Han, 37.8% of them refuse to choose either one!

 

Ok, enough of the two-way race. It’s time to bring in Ko. Yes, I know that Ko probably isn’t running and Gou probably is. However, we don’t have six months of data on Gou as an independent candidate allied with Ko. Anyway, Gou’s overlaps heavily with Ko’s support.

In the three-way race, Tsai still increases dramatically, and Han still drops dangerously. Ko’s support falls, but only by a modest amount, going from the high 20s to the low 20s. Nevertheless, this mild drop puts him in the deadly third place in a three-way race. It was only a modest drop, but he could not afford any dip in support.

Where does Ko’s support come from? As we all know, young people love Ko, and old people do not. The age chart shows this neatly. The youngest group, in red, is the strongest. The 30-39 group, in pink, is next, and so on. Ko gets very little support from anyone who has turned 50. What this chart also shows is that Ko’s support has been very stable for everyone over 40. However, his support has eroded a bit among voters 39 and under. In fact, Tsai now beats him in every age group.

Turning to the nine groups, I have produced charts for all three candidates. Tsai’s and Han’s charts look similar to their head-to-head charts. However, both of them lose a lot of votes within their own party. In the head to head matchup, Tsai had pretty much consolidated the entire pro-DPP vote; here she still has a lot of work to do. Han had not yet consolidated the pro-KMT vote; adding Ko to the mix just exacerbates his difficulties.

Ko’s chart is a jumble of colors. He is locked out of the strong KMT and strong DPP votes, but he gets significant support in every other group. In particular, his strongest group is the pink group of surly, disillusioned voters who hate both major parties. They have consistently given him around 50%, and this has remained stable. However, it is a different story for the sunny, happy voters who like both major parties. A large chunk of this group has deserted him and turned to Tsai. Tsai has also eroded Ko’s support among pro-DPP votes, though she still has a lot of work to do in that regard. Among the uninformed purple group, Ko’s support has actually increased. What this chart shows is just how diverse Ko’s coalition is. He attracts some young people of every stripe, but he doesn’t dominate any one group. Frankly, I’m impressed at his ability to hold together such an unwieldy coalition.

 

Finally, let’s bring in Terry Gou. What does his support look like? If he runs with Ko’s support, his age profile is similar to Ko’s. Starting with the youngest cohort, his support levels for the six age groups are 41.4%, 33.0%, 32.2%, 22.1%, 11.8%, and 8.2%. (If he runs without Ko’s support, his support in the youngest cohort falls to 32.6%, and the other cohorts are roughly the same.)

If we look at the nine partisan groups, the two again have very similar profiles. Gou does a bit better among both strong KMT and strong DPP supporters, but he does a bit worse among voters who lean DPP. When the two cooperate, they do a bit better with the three neutral groups. Presumably, those groups hate partisan bickering and are happy when everyone tries to get along. (Well, unless they are getting along by dividing the spoils of office. Then, maybe not so much, especially for the pink group.) For the most part, however, the two are drawing on the same profile of voters, even if they aren’t exactly the same voters.

How would Gou’s entrance into the race affect the Tsai v Han matchup (assuming Gou is supported by Ko)? Conveniently, our favorite pollster has provided the crosstabs.

Tsai Han Gou (Ko) No vote DK n
Tsai 70.1 0.0 24.9 0.4 4.5 567
Han 1.0 76.6 16.9 1.5 4.1 364
No vote 2.2 62.9 32.1 2.9 121
DK 6.7 13.3 3.4 76.6 37

These are row percentages. Of the 567 people who would vote for Tsai in a two-way race, 70.1% will still vote for her. However, 24.9% switch to Gou. 16.9% of Han’s original 364 supporters also switch to Gou. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that Gou is harming Tsai more than Han. Think about that. Gou ran in the KMT primary, proudly wears ROC symbols, and basically supports the 92 Consensus. Yet he draws disproportionately from voters who prefer Tsai to Han. The KMT might want to do some introspection and wonder how those voters got into the Tsai ledger in the first place.

A different way to look at Gou’s effect is to use the four-way race as a base. That is, what if we start with all four, but then Ko drops out and supports Gou? I like this approach because it allows us to differentiate between voters who really like Ko and voters who primarily support Gou rather then crudely lumping them together.

Tsai Han Gou (Ko) No vote DK n
Han 1.1 96.0 2.3 0.2 0.4 259
Tsai 90.5 7.0 0.4 2.0 381
Ko 21.6 10.6 57.5 6.3 4.0 134
Gou 5.6 4.1 90.0 0.3 162
No vote 2.8 4.9 20.1 69.2 3.0 49
DK 14.0 11.2 17.8 3.3 53.7 104

The three candidates remaining in the race all retain at least 90% of their original vote. You might be surprised that it is not 100%. However, it makes sense that a few might change. Consider the 7% of Tsai supporters who shift to Gou. These people probably like Gou better. However, if the vote is split four ways, Gou’s support is diluted, and he doesn’t have much chance of winning. As such, they strategically vote for Tsai to block Han. In a three-way race, however, they might think that Gou could win, so they vote sincerely for Gou.

Ko does not transfer all of his support to Gou. Only 57% of Ko’s votes end up with Gou, even though the question explicitly says that Ko gives his full support to Gou. (Perhaps surprisingly, when Gou runs by himself, the result is not much different. 51.8% of Ko’s supporters turn to Gou.) Ko, it seems, does not have the ability to tell his supporters what to do. They will make up their own minds.

Overall, it’s clear that there is a large degree of overlap between Ko and Gou. One might assume that Ko, with his past ties to the green camp, would siphon away more green votes while Gou, with his past ties to the blue camp, would siphon away more blue votes. In fact, they both siphon away more green votes. Gou’s entrance into the race is not necessarily a bad thing for the KMT.

 

There has been a lot of speculation that the KMT will dump Han and replace him with Gou or that Han might drop out and support Gou. The August survey includes a Tsai v Gou head-to-head matchup to deal with these sorts of scenarios. Tsai wins by 7.1%, but I don’t think that is very predictive. Gou is a brand-new politician, and he hasn’t been subjected to any serious scrutiny yet. If he does run, the person that voters face on Jan 11 will be a very different person than they understand today. That disclaimer notwithstanding, there is something quite interesting about that matchup. Let’s look at preferences of voters from the different camps:

Tsai Gou No vote DK n
Blue 8.4 55.5 35.1 1.0 307
Green 77.0 14.7 2.8 5.5 411
KPP* 29.2 66.8 1.9 2.2 40
Neutral 28.8 34.6 25.2 11.5 299
No response 26.1 32.3 27.4 14.2 32

Among blue camp supporters, 35.1% say they would either stay home or cast an invalid vote. Even more telling, looking at the nine partisan groups, 51.9% of the strong-KMT group say they wouldn’t cast a valid vote. In other words, when you tell KMT supporters that they have to choose between Tsai and Gou, lots of them get angry and refuse to accept the question. They do not like this choice one bit. There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, you might think that if they actually are faced with that choice, they will swallow their pride and vote for Gou. After all, anyone is better than Tsai. On the other hand, you might think that this is a pretty good indicator that dumping Han would cause a massive revolt among the KMT’s staunchest supporters. Han might be struggling to consolidate KMT votes, but his difficulties would pale in comparison to the challenge Gou would face in uniting a furious base. KMT loyalists chose Han, and they are sticking by him.

 

Let me wrap up this (long, long) post with a few general thoughts. Tsai is leading now, but that doesn’t mean she will win. Lots of things will happen between now and the election. For one thing, Hong Kong will probably not dominate the news in December and focus voters’ attention on identity and sovereignty. It is also possible that another corruption scandal could emerge. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that things will be different.

I also doubt that Tsai is quite so far ahead of Han. A few years ago, I had a discussion with Doug Rivers, a methodologist at Stanford, about convention bounces. In American elections, presidential candidates generally see a noticeable increase in their support in the week after a nominating convention. Doug believes that this bounce is an illusion, and we should probably pretend it doesn’t exist. During convention week, the news is dominated by people from one side making persuasive arguments and showing unity. There isn’t much to cheer up supporters of the other side, so they tune out of politics for a while. And when pollsters call up right after the convention, those people decide that they have better things to do than answer a poll. After a few weeks with a more neutral news context, those people seep back into the sample. In other words, the convention bounce is entirely due to a temporary selection bias, and it is not a result of people being (temporarily) persuaded. I suspect something similar might be happening right now in Taiwanese politics. The news in August has been pretty dismal for KMT supporters. Han has had personal problems, and Hong Kong makes it difficult to crow about seeking win-win cooperation with China. Some KMT supporters may choose to tune out of politics for a while and tell pollsters that they are too busy right now to answer a bunch of intrusive and discomforting questions. However, when the news shifts, those people will seep back into polling samples, and Han’s support will rebound.

I don’t mean to imply that Tsai isn’t leading. She has had an astoundingly good six months. There is no way to explain away her shocking renaissance as a methodological blip. However, I’m skeptical that August was quite as fantastic for her as the raw data imply. It was probably great, but I’m not sure it was stupendous.

Finally, the talk shows keep saying things about what will happen “if current trends continue,” meaning “if Han continues to slide.” Those are not the same. If current trends continue, the polls will stay exactly the same. Vote shares are not like basketball scores. Imagine one basketball team scores three points for every two points the other team scores. You can look up at the scoreboard at halftime and think, “We’re winning 60 to 40. If current trends continue, we will win 120 to 80. Right now, the lead is 20; if current trends continue, it will be 40.” Vote shares are percentages, and they do not work that way. In July, Tsai led Han by 9.2%, and now she leads by 18.7%. What happened? We can tell a story about how Han’s personal problems (drinking, sleeping late, farmhouse), the Hong Kong protests, or some other factors influenced some people to shift their support from Han to Tsai. However, the remaining Han supporters were unconvinced by these factors and continue to support Han. If all those factors continue as before – the news stays about this bad for Han – those remaining supporters will presumably continue to support Han. In order for his slide in the polls to continue, something new and different has to happen to convince people who have heretofore stayed staunchly in his column to change their minds. Presumably, the stream of bad news would have to get even more intense. However, I don’t think that pundits are assuming even worse news for Han when they talk about “if current trends continue.” They seem to think that support levels have some sort of magical momentum, so that they keep moving in the same direction. That is not what usually happens. There is actually very little reason to think that Han’s support will inevitably slide all the way down to 20%, as the pundits keep insisting. If current trends continue, he will stay right where he is now.

 

One last thought: A big thank you to My Formosa 美麗島電子報, Tai Li-an 戴立安, and Beacon Marketing & Research Co 畢肯市場研究股份有限公司 for funding, producing, and publishing all this wonderful data. You are documenting Taiwan’s democracy and writing the first draft of its history.

 

 

3 Responses to “The presidential race: six months astonishing months”

  1. Joseph Tao-yi Wang Says:

    “There are a couple of reasons for my this.“ should be “There are a couple of reasons for this.”

  2. Thomas Says:

    Dear Nathan,

    Thank you for writing these very insightful blog posts. I moved to TW a few years ago and find myself fascinated with the politics here. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the background knowledge to stay on top of what’s going on. Frozen Garlic has been a tremendous resource to understand the presidental race better, and I’m looking forward to your coverage over the months to come.
    Cheers!

  3. Vol. 4, Issue 19 – Global Taiwan Institute Says:

    […] was consistently behind in polls matching her against Han Kuo-yu: Han’s biggest lead in the My-Formosa poll, in February, was about 25 percentage points. In August, Tsai had a lead of nearly 19 points in the […]

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