Not much change?

It has been six months since I last posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my inactivity. It has been a difficult period in my personal life, and I just didn’t have the energy to work on this blog.

Lots of things have happened since January, so there has been plenty to write about. Covid has swept through Taiwan, Taiwan and the USA have started trade talks, Russia invaded Ukraine and the world has become more aware of Taiwan’s security challenges, KMT chair Eric Chu took a trip to the USA, there is no water crisis this year but now we are starting to worry about electricity, and on and on. The news never stops. However, if you step back and look at the wider picture, I’m not sure anything has fundamentally changed. President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings haven’t changed much, and neither has the relative popularity of the two major parties. The PRC’s ambitions for Taiwan probably haven’t changed that much, and neither has Taiwan’s willingness or ability to defend itself. The two parties have almost finished putting together their nominations for this year’s local elections, and none of the candidates are big surprises (with one glaring exception: the KMT in Taoyuan). The KMT is still in relatively good shape for this year’s elections, and they are still clueless about how to fight the 2024 national elections. VP William Lai still has the clearest path to the presidency. There are lots of new leaves and even a few new trees, but it’s still basically the same forest.

As always, I like to use the My Formosa polls as a standard reference. They ask the same questions over and over using the same methodology at regular intervals. They aren’t picking and choosing dramatic moments when someone will look better or worse, and they aren’t designing new questions each month to highlight someone’s successes or failures. This is a pretty good snapshot of how public opinion is evolving. There hasn’t been a lot of dramatic movement thus far during 2022.

President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings remain quite good. She’s had about 55% satisfied and 40% satisfied all year. There was a dip in May when the Covid outbreak seemed scariest, but her ratings rebounded in June. The Covid effect has turned out to be pretty small. About 20% of the population has been confirmed with Covid since January, but society has mostly shrugged it off. People haven’t been anywhere near as panicked as they were in the outbreak last summer. While last year’s outbreak was much smaller, it was scarier. The population was almost entirely unvaccinated, and about 1 of every 20 people who contracted the virus died. This year, nearly 90% of the population has gotten at least one shot, and only about 1 of every 500 cases has been fatal. Of those fatalities, nearly half have come from the small portion of the population that is still completely unvaccinated and a disproportionate number of the rest are from people who only got one shot. About 2/3 of the population has gotten three shots, and fatalities are quite low among that group. The public is no longer ecstatic about the government’s pandemic response, but it also isn’t particularly angry about it. Covid is still in the news, but it is usually the fifth or eighth most important news story of the day. There was a small but temporary effect in the May survey, but it doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect. Covid is not going to be the dominant issue for the 2022 local elections unless there is a big change. In the meantime, President Tsai is still enjoying positive, stable job approval ratings.

If you want to look for some change in the data, perhaps there is something happening in party ID. It is possible that the KMT is losing popularity. The June poll was downright horrifying for the KMT. Only 9.5% expressed support for the KMT, barely more than the 8.9% for the TPP. We’ve seen plenty of lousy, sensationalist polls find that the TPP and KMT are even, but this is the first time I’ve seen them so close in a poll that I trust. This chart shows party ID aggregated into camps, and My Formosa always finds a few more people who said they support parties in a particular camp without naming which one, so the blue camp is noticeably higher than the TPP. Still, that is a dismal result for the KMT. Now, this is one poll, and the KMT’s party ID is quite different from previous months. It is possible that large numbers of previous KMT supporters were alienated by Chu’s trip to the USA or by nomination conflicts, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. I’ll watch this number over the next few months, but I expect it to bounce back from the June data point. However, even ignoring the June number, if you squint your eyes a bit, you can see a slight downward trend in the blue camp’s popularity over the first half of 2022. It’s a small change (prior to June), but if I were a KMT strategist I’d feel a bit queasy looking at this overall trend.

Meanwhile, support for the DPP and green camp seems to be pretty stable. You might think that two years after the national election and six years into Tsai’s presidency, people would be getting tired of the status quo and itching for change. This is normally the time period in which the governing party is running out of steam and the energetic opposition party is gearing up to challenge for power. However, we don’t see much evidence of that this year. The DPP seems to be steadily maintaining its popularity, and the KMT isn’t showing many signs of rejuvenation.

As I have told several people this year, this might create an unusual context for local elections. In almost all of the recent election cycles, the government has been unpopular. This has meant that the opposition party has had a powerful appeal: send a message to the government and teach them a lesson! There was strong anti-government sentiment in 2018, 2014, 2005/6, and 1997. There was moderate anti-government sentiment in 2009/10 and 2001/2. I think the last time the government was actually popular might have been 1993/4. In 1993, I was a recent college graduate teaching English in a rural Nantou township and just starting to learn some of the basics of Taiwanese elections. That’s so long ago that the Central Election Commission website doesn’t even bother to report the 1993 results. Since many readers will not immediately think back to 1993/4, let me quickly recap. The DPP, which was still a fledgling party with no realistic hopes for taking power, made a big push in 1993 to exploit KMT factional rifts and win local power. It didn’t work. The KMT comfortably won most of the “contested” races. They even defeated the DPP incumbents in Changhua and Pingtung, the latter of whom was a charismatic bald guy who no one would ever hear of again. The next year, Taiwan held its first election for governor of Taiwan Province. The DPP had a fantastic nominee, the popular former Yilan County magistrate and widely respected Chen Ting-nan. The KMT could only put up a party hack with no electoral experience at all, a mainlander who didn’t speak any Taiwanese. All the energy was on the DPP side. Naturally, James Soong and the KMT won a decisive victory. At the same time, the KMT comfortably maintained its majority in the Provincial Assembly. The last time the government was popular in local elections, the opposition got swamped. I’m not predicting that the DPP will have a smashing victory in 2022. However, I do think it is worth remembering that the context might be different this time. We don’t really know what a popular government should expect from local elections in the current fully democratic regime.

At the beginning of this post, I said that the KMT seems to be in relatively good shape this year. It has a good roster of nominees. One of the effects of the 2018 KMT wave is that this year it has a lot of incumbents running for re-election. That is usually a big advantage. Hou Yu-ih in New Taipei and Lu Hsiu-yen in Taichung seem comfortably positioned to win their races. Those two are the traditional swing areas, so it’s a big deal if the KMT can safely put them in its column. The KMT should also be favored in Hsinchu County, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Taitung, and, of course, Kinmen and Lienchiang. Even if they don’t win anything else, that’s a pretty solid result for a party that is showing such meager popularity in the national polls. And of course, they could certainly win a few other races. Taipei City might be hotly contested, but I’d still put my money on Wayne Chiang and the KMT to emerge victorious. And their incumbents give them a shot in greener-leaning areas such as Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu. However, that latter group of races is where we might see the national partisan trends change some outcomes. Again, we don’t know how much it matters for local elections that people are mostly satisfied with the Tsai administration. But we can be fairly sure there won’t be a massive wave of voters angrily trying to send a message to the national government the way they did in 2018.

12 Responses to “Not much change?”

  1. Mark S. Says:

    Thanks for the update on the political situation, however relatively unchanged.
    I hope the difficulties are now receding.

  2. kezza Says:

    Nice to hear from you Nathan.

    A small typo: She’s had about 55% satisfied and 40% satisfied all year — presumably you mean 40% dissatisfied instead?

    A few thoughts:

    I agree the June party ID number for KMT is artificially depressed compared to what would probably be the average of the month. The unfortunate timing of the poll, 21st-23rd, is immediately after the leak audio recording of the EnEn case. We will probably know better when this (and next) month’s numbers are out whether it is just a blip or something more permanent, but what is more worrying is that KMT was busy self-destructing to take any advantage when Tsai&DPP approval rating dropped in May.

    DPP’s Taoyuan nominee is also surprising compared with what we thought in January. At the time I thought it would go to Cheng Yun-peng. I still think Lin is a gamble too far and would backfire in both Hsinchu and Taoyuan. (Simon Chang also has his own set of problems, e.g., I haven’t seen any campaign posters from him, not lest with longtime local KMT councilors seeking reelection, but those appear on the surface to be more easily fixable?)

    As for Taipei, at this moment I don’t see Wayne Chiang getting more than low 400k votes (Ko+Huang’s aggressive courting of deep blue votes would probably split about 150k votes from KMT base compared to 2018, and all polls point to Chiang not able to attract new votes). Given the past few local election turnouts of 140k+, that would not be enough to win.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      There are small surprises and then there are big surprises. I didn’t expect Chou would win the DPP nomination in Pingtung since she has never run a race there before. However, it wasn’t a shocking development — her victory wasn’t totally out of left field. Likewise, if you had told me six months ago that the KMT would nominate someone in Miaoli from the farmers association system who I’d never heard of before, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised. When they ran into trouble, I expected them to go to their deep well of local politicians, and I even speculated to myself that there must be someone viable in the farmer or irrigation associations. My first guess for the DPP in New Taipei wouldn’t have been Lin Chia-lung, but it’s not a bizarre choice. In Taoyuan, I thought we’d end up with Cheng Yun-peng and Lu Ming-che, though Lin Chih-chien was always a possibility for the DPP. Simon Chang, however, come out of nowhere. Apparently no one outside of Chu’s inner circle had thought about him. Even the KMT politicians in Taoyuan were blindsided.

      I keep talking to people who think the race in Taipei is much tighter than I think it is. Maybe I’m missing something. I just can’t believe that when it comes time to vote, all those deep blues will turn their backs on a Chiang family member (who has potential in national politics). But we’ll see how this develops.

  3. Dan Stevenson Says:

    Good to see the update, hope all is well. That bald guy sure did have some charisma.

    • Josh Martin Says:

      Amusingly enough, the guy who replaced him really was never heard from again after fleeing to China to avoid multiple prison sentences for corruption.

  4. Kharis Templeman Says:

    One wild card: the CCP 20th Party Congress is set for the same month as the Taiwan elections. I can’t recall another time when a major election and a party congress overlapped like this, so we don’t have a good precedent for how (if?) that might matter. But there’s the potential for Xi or others to say things that stir things up in Taiwan. That’s probably to the KMT’s disadvantage.

  5. Miu Miu Says:

    Welcome back! Since before the 2016 elections, I’ve greatly enjoyed your blog, so this is a big jiayou!

    When the “3+4” quarantine policy was announced, I felt optimistic that quarantine would be eliminated soon, but the CECC’s proclamation on Tuesday of “vaccinate half your babies or we won’t open the border” has left me in despair.

    Do you know of any polls on this topic, and what is your personal take?

    One thing your blog has taught me is that how you ask the question is very important. “How many days of quarantine should there be” might imply that there should be a quarantine, whereas “When should quarantine be ended” might imply that there should not.

    My impression is that the Taiwanese are so terrified of COVID-19 that they would prefer keeping the quarantine indefinitely. In other words, “status quo”.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Question wording is indeed vital for this question, which is one reason I wouldn’t take polls on this topic too seriously. Any topic that you can get a very different response by a minor change in wording is a topic that the population doesn’t have very strong views on.

      My impression is that there isn’t nearly as much terror about covid these days, and the public is mostly willing to trust the government to figure out the appropriate policies. I don’t have any polling to back that up, though.

  6. Joseph Says:

    Is it just me, or does the DPP seem to have a lot of trouble getting good candidates in the major municipalities? In a swing district like Xinbei in particular you would think they’d have had a better shot over the past 17 years than Yu Hsi-kun, and in Taichung I find it hard to fathom that Lu Shiow-yen is doing a much better job than Lin Chia-lung was. (Granted I don’t live in Taiwan right now and never lived in Taichung.) Even in 2018, the DPP’s candidates seemed to be as much of a problem as the national mood.

  7. joequant2013 Says:

    I think that what happened is that Eric Chu drew the wrong lessons from the referendum. So Chu looked at the referendum result and decided (correctly iMHO) that the KMT lost because of the national identity issue, and they proceeded to do what Johnny Chiang did and water down the 92 consensus and dump the unpopular pro-China bits of the party platform.

    The trouble with this strategy is that in order to get the extra 5 percent of the vote to win nationally, Chu alienated the 10-15 percent hardcore pro-unificationists, who are now going to the TPP. Whats more watering down the pro-China bits of the party platform is not going to get you more votes. I mean, if you are going to be a carbon copy of the DPP, then why not vote for the DPP?

    One way of thinking about this is that the TPP is now effectively a blue party, and Ko Wen-Je is going after the same group of voters that Soong Chu-Yu did in 2000 with the PFP.

  8. joequant2013 Says:

    As far as the Taipei mayoral race. If my hypothesis is correct and the TPP is becoming the new preferred party for the deep blues, then it may be that in deciding between Chiang and Huang, this becomes a proxy between Eric Chu and Ke Wen-je at which point the deep blues would prefer Ke-Huang over Chu-Chiang.

    So the impact of the low support for the KMT is reflected *NOT* in the races in central Taiwan but in the Taipei mayoral election.

  9. joequant2013 Says:

    The thing that makes this round unusual and different from 1993 is that the opposition are the incumbents in the local races. So even though the national government might be popular so might also the local magistrates.

    One thing that the DPP was able to do with the referendum (and Trump has been able to do in the US) has been to nationalize local races, but I havent seen any evidence that they have been able to do this with magistrate races.

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