The Covid outbreak and public opinion

It looks to me like this outbreak of Covid in Taiwan is almost finished, so we now have a full cycle of events under our belt. First, there was the news of the outbreak, then we watched in horror as cases spiked and the government scrambled to figure out how to react, then the cases started to fall, and now we are back to having almost no domestic transmissions. So how did all of this affect public opinion?

Let’s do a quick recap of the virus outbreak. I’m going to use several charts from the Our World in Data website run by Oxford which uses data collected by Johns Hopkins.

Up through April, the well-established narrative was that Taiwan had almost miraculously managed to stay Covid free while the rest of the world struggled with the virus. Of course, it wasn’t a miracle. It was a combination of circumstances, luck, public enthusiasm for masks, and, most of all, good public policy. Put simply, Taiwan’s performance was the best in the world. That all exploded in early May. We didn’t know it at the time, but Mother’s Day was probably a disaster. There was already enough virus floating around, and families – young and old – got together in big groups. During the second half of May, case numbers skyrocketed. Every day the news seemed to be worse, and we all watched, shellshocked. The same government that had seemed so confidently in control for over a year suddenly looked like it was no longer on top of things. For a year, lockdowns, shopping restrictions, and remote school and work were things they had to do in the rest of the world. Suddenly, the pandemic had come to Taiwan. We didn’t have a hard lockdown, but people were strongly encouraged not to go out and to work remotely if possible. Schools went virtual for the last two months of the school year. Restaurants were not allowed to have indoor dining. We had blackouts because suddenly people were running their home air conditioners during the hot summer days. And all at once, the entire population seemed to realize that almost no one had been vaccinated. It hadn’t seemed urgent in April, but by late May everyone wanted to get vaccinated NOW.

The chart shows that cases peaked right around June 1 and fell sharply all throughout June. Let’s just say that no one thought things were all rosy in June. Maybe things weren’t getting worse every day, but we were still solidly in the middle of the pandemic. By early July, the curve shows that Taiwan was under 100 cases a day, and it was roughly 20 cases a day in the second half of July. We finally started moving from a Level 3 emergency to a Level 2 emergency in late July, which I think is when most people started to feel that we were going to be ok. August has solidified that feeling. Hospitals are relaxing a bit and are more crowded. Restaurants are cautiously resuming indoor dining. Schools are started the new year with in-class instruction. There are still cases, but most days in August domestic transmissions were only in the single digits. In fact, there are more cases arriving at the airport (and identified during quarantine) than there are domestic transmissions. Things are still not exactly normal. Masks are ubiquitous. Baseball games are not crowded. People are hesitant to eat out or congregate. But it is much more normal now than it was two months ago. There is still a person at the door of most supermarkets making sure you register, but they are a lot more relaxed now.

The other thing that has changed is the rest of the world. In May and June, most of the world was feeling good. Cases had spiked in the winter but had fallen tremendously during the spring, so lots of countries were going “back to normal” right as Taiwan was entering the pandemic. Now, it is almost exactly the opposite. The delta variant has caused spikes around the world, and suddenly Taiwan is once again one of the safest places to be.

If you look at the standout performers, back in June Taiwan was much worse than New Zealand, Australia, or Singapore. You could often hear blue pundits screaming that Taiwan’s government was terrible and needed to be more like Singapore’s. At the end of August, it doesn’t look like that any longer. Those countries – even New Zealand – are all dealing with outbreaks, while Taiwan seems to have things under control. The TV pundits aren’t screaming that we need to follow the Singapore model these days.

If you look at our regional neighbors, Taiwan looks even better. South Korea and Vietnam were better than Taiwan back in May and June, and Japan was pretty close. South Korea has edged upward, while the other countries have gotten much worse. When you look at the data using this scale, Taiwan’s peak doesn’t even look very bad.

Of course, the country that Taiwanese most often use as a reference point is the USA, so let’s look at it and a few other rich democracies. The USA and UK are currently in the midst of terrible outbreaks. Germany and Canada would fit comfortably on the previous chart with Japan, but for the USA and UK we need to make the Y-axis three times higher. On this chart, you can barely even see Taiwan’s “surge.” It is true that all these countries have been, at one time or another, in the ballpark of Taiwan’s peak. However, right now they are all much, much worse.

Let’s be honest about how much this means. Even in relatively outward-looking Taiwan, most people judge the government by how things are going here, not by how things are going in other places. Still, it does seep into how people talk about local politics. Back in June, a friend asked me if I was going to go to the USA to get a Pfizer vaccine shot. In her mind, the USA was safe, and everyone was getting the good vaccines. She was flabbergasted when I responded that cases were twice as high in the USA as in Taiwan and that Taiwan would soon be more vaccinated than the USA. People here still routinely overestimate how well the USA is responding to the pandemic, but it isn’t a constant talking point as much right now. All in all, we are not back to the time when people proudly talked about how Taiwan was doing better than everyone else, and the rest of the world should learn from Taiwan. However, we are also not hearing that things here are a total disaster, and we should try to be more like other countries.

What has this meant for public opinion? I think it is safe to say that the pandemic has been far and away the biggest news story over the past four months. If there are changes in public opinion, it is fair to assume that they are driven by the pandemic.

I did not write about public opinion back in May and June for a couple of reasons. First, I was busy with other stuff. Second, I wasn’t sure about the polling. You don’t need to know about my personal life, but let me comment briefly on polling.

Good polls in Taiwan are still done by telephone. In many places, such as the UK and USA, internet polling is nearly as good or perhaps even better than telephone polling. This is both because their internet polls are better than Taiwan’s, and, more importantly, because their telephone polls are much, much worse. In the USA, if you call 100 numbers, you will successfully interview fewer than five people – maybe fewer than one. In Taiwan, we can usually complete over 20 interviews from those 100 calls. You can get a representative sample in Taiwan; it’s a struggle in the USA.

How do you complete 1000 interviews in two or three evenings? Taiwanese pollsters do not allow their interviewer to work from home. You have one big room with about 50 computers hooked up to phones. The random number is automatically put into the system, and the survey software is all right there. Having everything all in one place also aids quality control. You can listen in on interviews to make interviewers are asking questions correctly, and you can step in immediately if there are any problems. This all works well; it is a reliable and well-tested system.

In the age of Covid, there are problems. Putting 50 interviewers and 10 staff in a room is efficient but not particularly safe. You can spread people out, but that means only using one half or one third of your available lines. Instead of finishing in two or three days, a survey might take a week or ten days. Also, interviewers aren’t eager to show up for work. This is not a highly paid job, and it is usually paid by the hour. If it seems unsafe, it might be best to just opt out for a few weeks or months. And the official Covid regulations seemed to prohibit putting large numbers of people in a single room. At the Election Study Center, we simply stopped doing telephone polls in May and June.

The private pollsters, however, did not stop, and I wondered how they managed to produce their polls. As far as I have been able to understand, they simply did not observe the government guidelines as strictly as we did. As a public institution, we had to follow the rules very carefully. (Also, if the entire university had to close down because of a case involving an ESC interviewer, there would have been hell to pay.) Private pollsters had a bit more leeway. Apparently the restrictions on public gatherings had a loophole (something to the effect of “…unless it would cause significant financial damage”), and they just decided to go ahead until a government agency told them to stop.

There is also a question about the respondents. In the USA, many people suspect that the presidential polls were skewed by the lockdowns. People who stayed home were more likely Democrats, so there were too many Democrats answering the phones. We don’t know if anything like that happened here.

Anyway, back in May and June when the first post-pandemic polls came out, I was skeptical enough about their quality that I didn’t want to pay too much attention to them. Looking back at them now with a bit more knowledge of how they were produced and with a bit more data to compare them to, I guess I think they are … fine. They’ll do. There don’t seem to be any glaring red flags. There probably aren’t any pollsters who think these are the best polls they’ve ever produced, but they are probably good enough to give a general impression of what happened over the summer.

My favorite public polls are from Tai Li-an produces a monthly poll in which he asks the same questions every time, giving us a very nice time series and plenty of context.

I think everyone expects to see the pandemic causing a substantial drop in popularity for the government in May and a rebound in August. The main question is how much?

The best place to start is with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. During the first half of 2020, she had sky-high satisfaction ratings – in the high 60s. She had just won re-election, and Taiwan’s ability to keep the virus out won plaudits from all sides. This could not last, and it didn’t. In the second half of 2020, normal politics reemerged. Instead of talking about the pandemic all day every day, the focus turned to more mundane issues such as American pork imports, Chinese military threats, air quality, the train crash, water supply, and so on. As regular partisan attitudes pushed out the extraordinary pandemic response attitudes, Tsai’s approval ratings slipped a bit. From late 2020 into spring 2021, she was generally somewhere in the high 50s. This was still high, but no longer stratospheric. In March, she was at 59.3%, and in May she was at 56.0%. So let’s think of high 50s – maybe 57-58% – as the pre-pandemic baseline. May, June, and July are clearly different. For those three months, she as just below 50%, ranging from 47.6% to 49.6%. That’s about a 10% drop. To look at it another way, before the pandemic her approval ratings were about 20% above water. After it, approval and disapproval were roughly even.

I was surprised by the 10% drop. I expected it to be bigger. I had assumed that her previous high approval ratings were based heavily on the successful pandemic response, so this would take a heavy toll. 10% is not small, but after what the public seemed to think was a major governance failure, I expected more. I seemed surprising to me that, in the midst of this crisis, just as many people were satisfied with her performance as were dissatisfied. I can think of a few reasons I was wrong. First, it could be that people responded to the crisis by rallying behind the current government. We have seen this happen in several countries over the past two years. Second, another possibility is that people did not see the outbreak as quite as much of a governing failure as the media led us to believe. Third, perhaps people were impressed by the government’s crisis response. Fourth, it might be that Tsai’s satisfaction ratings were not as dependent on pandemic response as I had thought. At any rate, Tsai’s popularity took a noticeable hit, but it was not a catastrophic blow. Presidents around the world can and have governed effectively with net negative satisfaction ratings. A net zero rating is politically quite tenable.

However, Tsai does not have to navigate around her net zero satisfaction rating. In August, Tsai’s popularity has recovered most of those losses. It is now 55.0%, which is only a bit lower than her pre-outbreak numbers. Her dissatisfaction is a bit higher than it was in the spring, so instead of being almost 20% above water, she is only 12% above water. Still, this is a clear rebound from three months of relatively bad results.

We can see the same pattern in feelings toward the DPP. For most of the past year, good feelings toward the DPP have outweighed bad feelings. However, the was not the case in May, June, and July, when more people expressed negative feelings toward the DPP. In August, the DPP recovered most, though not all, of those losses.

Well, we’ve seen a pretty clear pattern. May, June, and July were terrible for the DPP, and then it recovered. Since there are two big parties, we’ll see the exact opposite for the KMT, right? No!! The outbreak hurt the DPP, but it did not help the KMT.

Looking at feelings toward the KMT, in the several months before the outbreak, about 34% expressed positive feelings toward the KMT. This fell to the high 20s in June and July. The KMT was LESS popular during the outbreak. It’s almost as if the public didn’t appreciate their willingness to jump on any opportunity to score cheap political points.

You can see the KMT’s failure to capitalize on this opportunity in the party ID figures. We see support for the DPP taking the expected dip in May, June, and July. But during those months, the KMT’s support was also going down. When you aggregate all the parties into their respective camps, you can see that the blue camp had generally been doing better in late 2020 and early 2021 than in early 2020. That is, when Tsai’s satisfaction fell as regular politics reemerged, the KMT also regained some of its support. That is the normal pattern of things. However, that didn’t happen during this outbreak. Even in August when the blue camp’s overall support recovered a bit, it wasn’t the KMT that was benefitting. Rather, there was a big increase in “other blue.” If I understand the answer categories correctly, this is not a reference to a specific blue camp party such as the New Party or the MKT. Rather, respondents are given the option of saying simply that they support the blue camp without specifically choosing a blue camp party. To put it another way, these respondents haven’t fundamentally changed sides, but they also aren’t crazy about the KMT these days. They are looking for alternatives.

One of those alternatives might be the TPP. Before the outbreak, the TPP was at 4-5%. After the outbreak, it has been around 7%. Most people think of the TPP as a not-green, not-blue party, but it might be shifting more and more into the blue orbit. Mayor Ko enjoys much more popularity with blue voters than with green voters these days (though he is still strongest among neutral voters). (The my-formosa polls have interesting data on the presidential contenders, but that is a rabbit hole for another time.)

There is a cottage industry of pundits who are constantly proclaiming that the dominant trend in party ID is dealignment. That is, what we really see are voters not identifying with any party. These people are wrong. In this data series, the percentage of unaligned voters is usually around 35%, though this there are fluctuations up and down. The only trends away from this tend to be fairly fleeting. So June and July were a bit higher, but August is back to normal. If you look at longer trends, it is the same. In the ESC’s chart of the last 30 years, independents have been at about 40% since before Chen Shui-bian was president. Yes, the numbers in 2018 and 2019 were a bit higher, but that turned out to be ephemeral. Dealignment is not the story today, and it hasn’t been the story in the past. It wasn’t even the story in the early 1990s when over half of respondents declined to express preference for a party. Martial law was still a recent experience, and people were simply hesitant to tell a stranger they supported the opposition. These are not the droids you’re looking for. (Yes, I know those were, in fact, the droids they were looking for. But really, this isn’t the big trend in Taiwanese politics.) This is still a system with strong, meaningful parties.

The last thing I’ll show you is on economic confidence. Respondents are asked whether they have generally positive or negative views on the overall domestic economy. In the August survey, 33.9% had positive views but 64.3% had negative views. As you might expect, opinions had gotten quite a bit more negative in May, June, and July, and August was a bit of a rebound. But from an absolute point of view, isn’t 30% net negative a pretty bad result? Doesn’t this show that Taiwanese think the current economic strategy isn’t working?

That’s one interpretation, but I think it might be wrong. Taiwanese are generally pretty skeptical about the economy. Enough people can remember (or have heard of) the booming 1980s and 1990s that everything seems lousy in comparison. They are also constantly reminded that the PRC is growing at fantastic rates, and Taiwan’s economy doesn’t measure up. So the default answer for this question is going to be negative. Things have to be noticeably good to change that.

In the latest report, Tai Li-an helpfully included a chart of responses this question going back to 2006 (using his old data from Global Views and TISR surveys). During that entire timespan, positive views never reached 30% before the last six months of Tsai’s first term. Even in the headiest days of Ma’s push to pass ECFA and tap into the Chinese market (“Will 85°C be the next Starbucks?!?”), positive views only got up to about 25%. For most of the time, positive views were only around 10%. In that perspective, the current 33% in the aftermath of a Covid outbreak looks outstanding.

And this, as much as anything else, might explain why the outbreak has had such a mild effect on public opinion. Things seem to be going fairly well. Maybe it’s best not to overreact.

3 Responses to “The Covid outbreak and public opinion”

  1. R Says:

    Thanks for the interesting polls analysis Frozen Garlic!

    Regarding the last segment discussing Taiwanese views on the economy, it surprises me how little information about Taiwan’s current economic boom filters through to public awareness.

    Taiwan GDP is growing at its highest rates in 10-20 years, and surpassed China GDP growth last year for the first time in 3 decades; the Taiwanese stock market (whether on its own strengths on the indirect strength of inflationary monetary policy around the globe) keeps hitting new historic highs; new industrial Capex in Taiwan’s science and industrial parks across the country, north to south, driven by supply chain shifts / US-China friction / etc. is leading a boom in Capex and tech sector employment; the hi tech and construction sectors anecdotally cannot find enough staff now, pushing wages up.

    But I have yet to hear a Taiwanese person – other than a tech executive or construction company boss – mention any awareness of Taiwan’s record high economic performance.

    Clearly there is a stark bifurcation in Taiwan’s economy now – far more than usual – with the domestic service sectors – tourism, hospitality, retail (bricks & mortar at least; online retail skyrocketed by 60-70% through June), restaurants – taking a huge hit from the 3-4 months long soft lockdown.

    The outbreak hit hard on a lot of people in the domestic economy, so talking to them about Taiwan’s record-setting GDP, tech sector out-performance, or the stock market is not convincing to them. They don’t feel it. The domestic service sectors employ a lot of people and there is a lot of urgent help needed.

    On the other hand, perhaps as Taiwan now comes out of the outbreak and lockdowns, with some much needed support via subsidies or coupons or whatever, the domestic sector and sentiment should rise a lot, and also finally have the chance to feel some benefits from the extraordinary strength right now in Taiwan’s export and manufacturing sectors.

    It will be interesting to see what the polls say in the next couple months.

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