Pro-KMT gender gap? Think again!

Recently a foreign scholar asked me about the importance of gender in Taiwanese elections, and I gave the standard answer. Women are more likely to vote for the KMT than the DPP. This always surprises people unfamiliar with Taiwan. Do you mean that when a woman was one of the two main presidential candidates, more female voters supported the man?? Wait, I thought the DPP was a bit more progressive than the KMT. Are you saying that female voters preferred the more conservative party?? Well, yes.

However, I wondered whether that might be changing. More specifically, I wondered whether younger voters followed the same patterns as older voters. So I spent far too much time rummaging around in old survey data, and I came up with some interesting answers. The gender gap in 2020 was not like the previous three elections. And younger voters are, in fact, different.

In voting, the gender gap can be defined as the difference between support for two parties among men minus the difference among women [(Am-Bm)-(Af-Bf)]. This gives you a magnitude and a direction, so that we can say something like “women support Democrats 14 points more than Republicans, compared to men.”

I looked at the Taiwan Elections and Democratization Study (TEDS) post-election face-to-face surveys for each of the past five presidential elections. As you can see, there was a mild gap in 2004 in favor of the DPP. However, in 2008 and 2012 there were very big gaps in favor of the KMT. 2012 is the one that everyone paid attention to since Tsai Ing-wen was the first female presidential candidate representing a major party. However, this did not attract much support from women in the general electorate. The gender gap was much smaller in 2016, though it was still mildly in the KMT’s favor. In 2020, however, the gap had shifted in the other direction. In her third run, Tsai finally achieved a gender gap in her favor. It isn’t a huge gender gap, but it is markedly different from the previous three elections.

That’s the headline, but there is always more to dig up. After reflection, I decided to ignore 2004 in the rest of this post. There wasn’t much of a gender gap in 2004, and the jumbled data seemed to cause more confusion than clarity. At any rate, the patterns we have been talking about for the past decade emerge clearly with Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.

My suspicion is that younger voters are different from older voters. How should I define younger and older? Normally, we just break samples into ages 20-29, 30-29, and so on. That’s fine for a single survey. However, I’m looking at four-year intervals over a couple of decades. Nearly half of each group graduates to the next age group in each subsequent survey. Instead, I need to look age political generations, so that I’m looking at the same group of voters in each survey. There is a fairly large literature on political generations, and each scholar cuts the population slightly differently. Ideally, you would like each generation to go through the same critical formative experiences. I don’t want to get into those battles since I don’t have strong feelings about exactly where the lines between generations should be drawn. I’m simply going to borrow a definition from scholars who have thought extensively about this question. Lin Pei-ting, Cheng Su-feng, and T.Y. Wang recently published a paper on political generations and national identity, and since they are all knowledgeable and trustworthy scholars, I’ll just steal their definition.

cohortBirthAges 2008Size 2008Ages 2020Size 2020
51985-23&under7.235&under26.7
41969-8424-3935.536-5131.1
31954-6840-5431.152-6625.7
21942-5355-6614.764-7812.0
1-194167&up11.479&up4.5

Cohort1, the oldest cohort, has been slowly aging out of the electorate. In 2008, there were still many C1 members who were active and energetic. Now, however, they are almost all octogenarians or older, and their share of the electorate[1] has declined to less than 5%.  At the other end of the spectrum, C5 were all still too young to vote in 2004, so they have slowly been aging into the electorate, making up a larger share in each election cycle. The middle three cohorts are largely the same people in each election. We probably won’t be able to say that much longer, since the oldest people in C2 are now nearing their 80th birthdays. C3 and C4 represent Taiwan’s era of rapid population growth, and these are the largest two cohorts for most of the era we are looking at. In 2008, they accounted for roughly 2/3 of the electorate, and in 2020, they still made up 57%.

Rather than putting up one chaotic chart with too many jumbled lines to see a clear pattern, I’ll tell this story cohort by cohort. I start with the chart of all voters. Blue lines represent support for KMT and PFP presidential candidates, while green lines represent the DPP. Darker blue and green represent men and lighter blue and green represent women. You can see the national gender gaps quite clearly in this picture. In 2008, there is a huge gap between the light blue and light green lines, reflecting a 25% difference in support for Ma and Hsieh. The gap is about half that size among men. Hence, we get a double-digit gender gap in favor of the KMT in 2008. In 2012 and 2016, the two green lines are very close; there wasn’t much difference in support for the DPP among women and men. However, there is still a sizeable gap between the two blue lines; women gave significantly more support to the KMT than men did.[2] That gap disappeared in 2020, and a gap emerged between the two green lines.[3]  

C1, the oldest cohort, doesn’t show much of a gender gap in 2008 and 2012. The lines go in all crazy directions in 2016 and 2020, but we probably should ignore that. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t pay attention to subgroups with fewer than 200 cases. In 2016 and 2020, C1 had shrunk so much that it was under 100 cases in the TEDS surveys. This isn’t the group creating the gender gap.

C2 does show a consistent pattern. For the blue side, there isn’t much difference between men and women. However, on the green side, women consistently give less support to the DPP than men.

C3 also shows a consistent pattern, though it is different from the C2 pattern. From one angle, it is the mirror image. In the first three elections, there wasn’t much difference on the green side, but women were consistently more supportive of the KMT than men. However, while C2 showed the same pattern all the way through 2020, C3 did not. In 2020, C3 suddenly reversed its previous pattern, with women swinging dramatically toward the DPP and away from the KMT.

C4 is very similar to C3. In the first three elections, there is a strong pro-KMT gender gap. However, in 2020 this suddenly reverses. Recall that C3 and C4 make up most of the electorate. When these two groups show the same pattern, it’s a good bet that the national pattern will also look like that.

C5, the youngest cohort, is very different. If we ignore 2008 because the cohort was still small, C5 has had a consistent pro-DPP gender gap. Even while the older cohorts were producing pro-KMT gender gaps in 2012 and 2016, C5 was showing the opposite pattern. C5 is also the only cohort that reported a big increase in support for the DPP in 2020 over 2016. Men increased their support for Tsai by 18%. One might expect that it would be nearly impossible for women, who were starting from a higher base, to match this, but women also increased their support for Tsai by 15%. I have written about the phenomenal levels of youth turnout in 2020, and you can see it here. Typically, about a quarter of the sample does not report a vote, and this number is typically higher among young voters. Non-response rates among young men commonly reach 40%. However, in 2020 it was only 22% among men in C5, and only 14% among women. In 2020, C5 turned out at extremely high rates, they overwhelmingly supported Tsai, and, as is their established pattern, women exceeded men’s already sky-high support.

A pro-DPP gender gap is a new experience for C3 and C4, and we don’t know if it will last. I am much more confident about the pro-DPP gender gap in C5. At any rate, I will no longer confidently tell foreign scholars about the pro-KMT gender gap. 2020 put an end to that.


[1] OK, actually this is their share of the TEDS sample. However, TEDS is weighted by age groups, so it might not be that far off the general electorate.  

[2] The numbers don’t add up to 100% because some respondents didn’t vote or did not tell us who they voted for.

[3] Post-election surveys often find too much support for winners, and these are no exception. The KMT lines are too high in 2008 and 2012, and the DPP lines are too high in 2016 and 2020. Likewise, the estimates for the losers are too low. This seems to be especially true for 2012 and 2020, which were both years in which an incumbent won re-election. However, I am not aware of any research suggesting this phenomenon is related to age or gender.

2 Responses to “Pro-KMT gender gap? Think again!”

  1. kezza Says:

    Thank you Nathan for your interesting analysis. It would be nice if TEDS conduct longitudinal studies to help clarify trends. A side-question: Cohort 5 shows the male lines falling almost consistently below the female lines (only 2008 green and 2020 blue have tiny differences) — are those differences significant (statistically, or politically), maybe there is some more interesting pattern emerging from that (I don’t believe young men are more honest than young women in post-election surveys, so the obvious explanation is out *grin*)?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I didn’t run any statistical tests, so I don’t know if the differences are statistically significant. As for male lines falling below female lines, young men are historically more likely to report not voting than young women.

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