Public opinion in May 2020

I haven’t written much about the state of public opinion in Taiwan since the January election. It is hard to believe that only a year and a half ago, people were writing President Tsai Ing-wen off as a failed president. They weren’t just making things up; her polls were terrible and the DPP suffered a massive defeat in the November 2018 elections. However, over the course of 2019 she pulled off a stunning reversal of fortune. Last year in September, I wrote a post about six astonishing months. However, September 2019 was not her peak. The poll numbers for both her and her party actually got better in November and December, and she led her party to a decisive victory in January.

Let’s flash back to January 2012 for a moment. After four years of low polling numbers and weak – though hardly disastrous – midterm elections, Ma pulled everything back together and won another term. In retrospect, he had a fantastic campaign. His polling numbers peaked almost precisely in January 2012, when the KMT party ID briefly spiked up into the forties and his satisfaction briefly topped his dissatisfaction. However, almost immediately after election day, Ma’s numbers started plunging. I don’t have the exact figures at hand, but if I recall correctly, by his second inauguration in May his satisfaction ratings were already down in the twenties and they never got much higher for the rest of his presidency. It was certainly plausible that Tsai would have a similar experience. However, that is not how things have unfolded thus far.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated world news for the past four months, and Taiwan’s response has been far and away the best in the world. Of the wealthy countries that have the state capacity to document the extent of the virus, Taiwan has had the fewest cases. Only Taiwan and a few other countries have managed to avoid an economically devasting social lockdown. Of those, South Korea and Japan have had far more cases and deaths. Even New Zealand, which might have the second-best response in the world, has had to lock down for a while. People might argue that Taiwan has the advantage of being an island with only a few ports of entry. That certainly does make containment easier. However, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and a few other places (arguably Singapore) are also islands or effectively islands, and none of them have managed things quite as well as Taiwan. Taiwan’s economy has stayed open, the schools were only delayed for a couple weeks after the winter break, and life has continued more or less normally here. We all have TVs and can see that this is not how the rest of the world has experienced the pandemic. Taiwan has done better, and it should not be surprising that public evaluations of the DPP government are extremely positive. People like good governance.

 

I am going to look at a few polls from the MyFormosa website. As I have written before, these polls are supervised by Tai Li-an 戴立安, one of the most senior and well-respected public pollsters in the country. The MyFormosa polls historically tend to produce slightly better results for the DPP than some other polls, but it isn’t a very large partisan bias. More importantly, they publish a poll every month with the same questions and the same sampling and interviewing methodology so that we can track changes over time. They did not publish a poll at the end of January; I guess they were worn out from the election and needed a break. Conveniently, this gap helps us visually mark the pre-election and post-election periods.

 

Let’s start with evaluations of President Tsai. MyFormosa asks both whether respondents trust her and whether they are satisfied with her overall performance as president. For the moment, let’s focus on satisfaction. The story of most of Tsai’s first term was her dismal satisfaction ratings. In December 2018, she was nearly 50 points underwater. This led to the KMT election landslide, predictions of her political burial, and a primary challenge for the presidential nomination. However, November and December 2018 were the low point, and her numbers slowly improved. By November and December 2019, the last two polls before the presidential election, she was roughly 10 points above water. As dramatic as that reversal was, there was still more to come. In the last three months, her approval rating has been a nearly unfathomable 70%, 40-45 points higher than her dissatisfaction numbers. The Taiwanese population has historically been pretty stingy with approval ratings for presidents; I don’t think we have ever seen these sorts of numbers for this length of time. Of course, this can’t possibly be sustainable; her satisfaction ratings have to come down. Taiwan has highly developed partisan politics, and eventually those long-term ingrained political preferences will reassert themselves.

What about trust in Tsai? The responses to satisfaction and trust are very similar, and in the past I’ve just used one or the other. However, there is a little difference. Back when Tsai’s numbers were dismal, she always did a bit better in trust than satisfaction. For example in February 2019 she was 38 points underwater in satisfaction but only 28 points underwater in trust. That is, there was a group of people who weren’t satisfied with her performance but still trusted her to do the right thing. This was probably the easiest group of voters to win back during the 2019 campaign. At any rate, now that she is doing well, the gap between satisfaction and trust has almost disappeared. The people who aren’t on board now are really not on board. That last 25% is probably never going to express any sort of positive opinion toward her.

MyFormosa also asks about satisfaction for the premier, but it’s pretty much the same story so I won’t tell it again. Premier Su is pretty popular these days.

A more interesting question is how people feel about the economy. MyFormosa asks whether they have a positive or a negative evaluation toward the overall domestic economy. This month, 68.2% gave a negative evaluation and only 28.5% gave a positive evaluation. That sounds pretty pessimistic. However, you have to remember two things. One, the world economy is objectively terrible right now, and Taiwan is highly integrated into the world economy. Two, as I keep saying, the Taiwanese public is historically pretty stingy in giving out good evaluations. A look back at the previous year show that the current evaluation is the worst since about last August. Think about that. The United States is talking about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression 90 years ago. In Taiwan, it’s not even the worst people have felt in the last calendar year. In fact, if you look at the February and March 2020 results, when the pandemic was still mostly confined to China, people here were relatively optimistic. Taiwan has been active in trying to find economic opportunities, such as filling orders that shuttered Chinese factories could not and encouraging the movement of supply chains out of China. The numbers got quite a bit more pessimistic in April, when the American and European economies came under attack. Still, because the economy is open, we get a fair share of good domestic economic news to go along with the horrible international economic news. In this global environment, I’d have to say that the public’s economic evaluations are actually quite sunny.

 

This is a blog about elections, so I ultimately care about how public opinion refracts back on politics. We are over two years from the next general election, so at this stage I care about the deeper, long-term orientations. What I really want to know right now is whether these four months have affected national identity. After all, Taiwan has spent much of the last few months insisting that it is not China while having the rest of the world clumsily step on that painful nerve. I would not be surprised if the percentage of people saying they are Taiwanese and NOT Chinese has risen. However, MyFormosa does not ask the Taiwanese/Chinese question, and I haven’t seen results on this anywhere else. I guess we’ll have to wait until late June for the March TEDS results or, better yet, until late September for the June survey. I always tell people that if you can only have one number about Taiwanese politics, you should ask for the percentage of people who self-identify as exclusively Taiwanese. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that number right now.

What the MyFormosa data can tell us something about is how the parties are doing in the period since the election. The short answer is that the DPP is doing a little better and the KMT is doing quite a bit worse.

Here is the chart for party ID. In the post-election period, the line for the DPP is up slightly from the pre-election period. (In my mind, I’m comparing the four post-election data points with the last four or five pre-election data points.) The line for “other green” is also slightly higher. [note: MyFormosa always includes categories called “other blue camp” and “other green camp.” I’m not quite sure how they ask this, but those two responses always get quite a few respondents.] The most dramatic difference, however, is for the opposition. The KMT line is markedly lower after the election. More surprisingly, the “other blue” category is also lower. One might have thought that dissatisfied KMT supporters would stay somewhere in the blue camp, but that isn’t what has happened.

I don’t have much to say about the three smaller parties. There doesn’t seem to be any clear change for them.

You can see the patterns for the big parties more clearly by just looking at the aggregation of party support into camps. When the green camp hit the low 40s just before the election, I thought that it had to be an anomaly. They’ve never had that kind of support, and, anyway, it couldn’t possibly last. Six months later, that number is still in the low 40s. Color me surprised. However, the bigger change is in the blue camp, which these data say is in an absolute crisis. Under Han Kuo-yu’s leadership, the KMT hemorrhaged support all through 2019. Who knew that it could get quite a bit worse? In the last poll before the election, the green camp lead over the blue camp was 17.4%. Tsai beat Han by 18.5% and the blue camp (Han plus Soong) by 14.3%. In the May poll, the green camp lead is 26.0%. How much would she win by today? How big would the DPP’s legislative majority be today?

MyFormosa groups respondents into nine categories depending on how they feel about the two big parties. There are three pro-DPP categories, three pro-KMT categories, and three neutral categories. You can see the same partisan trends here, with the green groups at the top dominating about the same proportion of the population since last November, and the three blue categories at the bottom compromising a pathetically small portion of the chart.

One of the interesting things about this table concerns two of the neutral categories. Group 4 includes respondents who like both parties, which Group 6 includes people who dislike both parties. A year ago, angry Group 6 was much larger than amiable Group 4. Now, they are about the same size. If you read my blog last year, you might remember that Ko Wen-je dominated Group 6. Han Kuo-yu did pretty well among Group 6 in the early 2019 polls, but they increasingly rejected him as the year went on. I suspect Group 6 is one of the primary engines fueling the 2018 populist wave, and I’m happy to see it shrinking a bit. I hope this is a result of witnessing good governance.

 

I saved what might be the scariest chart for the KMT until last. So far, the picture has been that people think the DPP government has done a good job, but that really hasn’t paid off in clearly higher partisan support. The DPP’s relative position has improved because the KMT has suffered a loss in support.

MyFormosa asks respondents how they feel about the two big parties, whether they have good feelings 好感 or bad feelings 反感 about them. Since the election, the KMT’s chart has gotten a bit worse. More respondents have bad feelings than good feelings, and the gap grew from about 30 points before the election to 38 points in March (though it has narrowed again in May).

The chart for the DPP is more dramatic. Before the election, good feelings toward the DPP outweighed bad feelings by about 6 points. In February, that gap exploded to 29 points. Even after narrowing in May, it is still 22 points. The good feelings have increased, but the bad feelings have decreased by even more. In other words, four months of good governance seem to have taken some of the vitriol toward the DPP out of the system. Think about the people who don’t support the DPP and will probably never vote for it. Fewer and fewer of those people are expressing outright bad feelings about the party. The DPP’s support rate might not have noticeably increased over the past few months, but this sort of emotional shift – the lack of poison in people’s guts – could slowly yield dividends over the long term.

 

 

6 Responses to “Public opinion in May 2020”

  1. Shelley Rigger Says:

    Another great, thought-provoking post. I wish I were still in Taiwan so I could talk about it over a beer…

  2. Mii Says:

    Such a pity the election weren’t held today. Tsai would utterly clobber Han and his Blues. The KMT would be lucky to get even 20 seats in the LY.

  3. Humble Pie: Is Han Kuo-yu's Eye on Another Prize Beyond the Recall Vote? - Ketagalan Media Says:

    […] Party support has fallen to historic lows, according to My Formosa polls published in late May and broken down in detail on Taiwan elections blog Frozen Garlic. In May, 56.4% of respondents said that they have ‘bad feelings’ 反感 about the KMT, up from […]

  4. Carlos Says:

    Thanks for the coverage, as always. I wonder if these numbers will embolden President Tsai to try things she might not have. It doesn’t seem like her style.

  5. In Taiwanese politics, the DPP is taking over the KMT’s stable narrative niche – Sense Hofstede Says:

    […] its committed but minority Deep Blue core voters, dragged down in part thanks to Han. Moreover, he argues that a MyFormosa poll of public opinion in May demonstrates that one long-term drag on DPP […]

  6. davidemanuelanderssoncv Says:

    I just wanted to thank you for this informative post, as well as numerous others. This is my favorite source of information about what’s going on in Taiwanese politics.
    By the way, I expect the percentage of people who self-identify as ‘only Taiwanese’ to continue to increase beyond the high percentage reported by the Pew Center. My guess: 75-80% among all adults, approaching 90% among the under-30s.
    DEA, Kaohsiung

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