Public opinion and Pelosi’s (unimportant) visit

About a month ago, I started writing a post about the August My Formosa poll. It was not a good poll for President Tsai and the DPP. Given that Nancy Pelosi’s visit occurred in early August, I thought it was important to address this. To make a long story short, I don’t think Pelosi’s visit or cross-straits politics were driving the dip in President Tsai’s popularity. The My Formosa poll didn’t ask anything about that, but two other polls did. Both showed that the public generally approved of Pelosi’s visit. Instead, the dip seemed to be driven by purely domestic events. The most obvious thing was the plagiarism scandal that forced the DPP’s candidate for Taoyuan mayor to withdraw from the race, but there have been a few other things as well.

Unfortunately, I got distracted by other things, and I never got around to finishing that post. One of my conclusions was going to be that we should probably wait for more data to come out to see if August was a lasting change or just a blip in the long-term trends. Well, now the September survey is out. Tsai and the DPP have bounced back a little, though not all the way.

For the purposes of getting this post out as quickly as possible, I’m going to copy my draft from a month ago (denoted in blue), and I will add a few comments to update things for this month.

August was an important month in Taiwan. Speaker Pelosi visited, China reacted by holding unprecedented military drills that redefined the status quo, Senator Markey visited and China continued its drills, and Senator Blackburn visited and China apparently got tired of complaining. The KMT reacted to this by sending a delegation to China, a move that was criticized by KMT politicians as well as everyone else. So what effects did these BIG EVENTS have on Taiwanese public opinion?

The August My Formosa poll is out, and President Tsai and the DPP did not do well. The talking heads are not being subtle. I heard the words “collapse” and “crisis” screamed several times.

Before you jump to any conclusions, you should keep in mind two things. First, it wasn’t a good poll for Tsai and the DPP, but “collapse” and “crisis” are overstating things juuust a bit. President Tsai has had several months this bad during her second term, including one earlier this year. And “bad” puts her at a level that Presidents Chen and Ma would have salivated at during their second terms.  Second, the primary driver in the DPP’s decrease in popularity in August may not have been Pelosi and China. It was probably due to LITTLE EVENTS little events in domestic politics, specifically a plagiarism scandal resulting in a DPP mayoral candidate withdrawing from the race.

 So what did this poll find? Let’s start with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. In July, 56.2% were satisfied with her overall performance in office, while 41.0% were dissatisfied, yielding a net satisfaction of 15.2%. In August, satisfaction plunged to 50.4%, dissatisfaction skyrocketed to 46.5%, so net satisfaction plummeted to 3.9%!! What a disaster!! (Sorry, I got carried away there.) But seriously, this wasn’t a good result for the DPP. A 5% shift against you is pretty significant.

However, if we look at the August results against the last several years instead of just July, a somewhat more nuanced picture emerges. Over the past two years, Tsai has often had somewhere around a 55/40 satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating. However, there have now been three 5% shifts that produced a 50/45 balance, one after the May 2021 Covid outbreak, a second in the May 2022 Covid outbreak, and now this one. The softest supporters are the first to jump ship, and perhaps they just did it again. We will have to wait and see if they drift back in the next few months, as they did after the first two drops. At any rate, Tsai’s current satisfaction rating is at the bottom end of her previous range, but it is still within that established range. This isn’t a fundamentally new pattern. We certainly aren’t in the world of late 2018.

[update: Tsai’s approval rating bounced back a little in September, but it is a lot closer to August than July. Her net satisfaction is now at +5.9%. I didn’t expect it to bounce all the way back in one month, but I thought it might bounce back a little more than this.]

It’s the same basic story for party ID. The DPP didn’t do well in August (26.3%, down 2.3% from July). If you look at the past few years, the DPP has generally been somewhere between 25% and 33%, so this puts them at the lower end of that range. It’s not good news for them, but it also isn’t breaking any new ground.

Meanwhile, the KMT had a pretty good poll result. Between the summer of 2020 and the end of last year, the KMT usually got around 15%. However, they had several months of dismal results in the spring and summer getting 11-12%. In August, the KMT rebounded to 14.4%. That’s better than they had been doing recently, but well within the range of the previous two years. They’ll be very happy to have stopped their recent slide, but that’s about the extent of it. This is a good, not great, result for them.

[update: It’s actually not quite the same story for party ID. The DPP bounced back quite a lot in September. Their September support was actually a bit higher than in July. It’s interesting to see the difference in recoveries between Tsai and the DPP. The KMT fell a little, but their drop was fairly mild. The biggest story in party ID is over on the TPP side. The TPP got 10.4% in this poll. They had never even gotten 9% in a My Formosa poll before. The TPP has had a pretty good 18 months in party ID, so they might have high expectations for the upcoming elections.]

I could go through a few other standard questions from the My Formosa survey, but they are all basically the same story. The DPP had a bad month, falling near the bottom of its “normal” range. The KMT had a good month, recovering to the middle of its “normal” range.

So why do I think that this isn’t a reaction to Pelosi’s visit and Chinese military aggression? My normal inclination is to ignore the day-to-day minutia and pay attention to the big events. My basic assumption about Taiwanese politics is that an enormous proportion of things – maybe 80 or 90% – can be understood through the lens of national identity, attitudes toward China, party ID, sovereignty, and other questions that fit into the single dominant political cleavage. Everything else is fiddling around the edges. The last few things to really shake up the political system – the Sunflower movement and the Hong Kong protests/China’s suppression of political freedoms – were directly related to the dominant political cleavage. China making an aggressively threatening gesture like this could have mattered.

But it doesn’t look like that is driving these changes in the polls. My Formosa certainly doesn’t think it is the big thing that we all need to focus on. They didn’t even bother to ask any questions about Pelosi or the military drills.

There are two reasonably good quality surveys that focused on these questions. One was done by the Chinese Association of Public Opinion Research (CAPOR), an organization formed by blue-leaning academics who are primarily interested in China and international relations rather than public opinion. The CAPOR survey was done by Apollo Research, a pollster originally associated with the Want Want Group. (To be fair to Apollo, their polls are pretty professional, and I know several respected academics who trust them to produce data for their research.) The other poll was by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), which is run by deep green (though not necessarily pro-Tsai) figures. I think it’s fair to say that, if these polls are biased, they should be skewed in opposite directions. In fact, they paint similar pictures.

TPOF asked if respondents welcomed Pelosi’s visit. 52.9% said they welcomed it, against 24.0% who said they did not welcome it. They then asked, “If we knew then that China would react by holding such a large-scale military exercise, should we have refused Pelosi’s visit?” Respondents rejected this suggestion by a 52.9% to 33.6% margin.

CAPOR asked if Pelosi’s visit had substantively helped Taiwan-USA relations. 53.7% said it had helped, while 27.4 said it had not helped. CAPOR then asked a few questions that looked to me like they were designed to attack the DPP. If so, they didn’t get the responses they were looking for. First, “Some people think, ‘Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan only benefitted the DPP; ordinary people didn’t feel anything at all.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 35.7% agreed, but 47.7% disagreed. Second, “Some people think, ‘If Taiwan still maintained the 1992 Consensus, Pelosi’s visit would not have caused such an extremely tense situation in the Taiwan Strait.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 36.1% agreed, and 41.3% disagreed.

The takeaway from both these polls is that there was no public backlash to Pelosi’s visit. On the contrary, it was popular, even though respondents could see China’s reaction. President Tsai and the DPP suffered in the polls following Pelosi’s visit, but it wasn’t because of Pelosi’s visit. Big events can have big consequences for public opinion, but that isn’t what happened this time.

Overall, Taiwan public opinion is still roughly the same as it was before the December referendums and perhaps even the January 2020 elections. Of course, these are local elections, and the individual candidates matter quite a lot. However, they are building their campaigns on fairly stable partisan turf. If the KMT candidates win easily in New Taipei and Taichung (as all signs indicate), it will be in spite of their party, not because of it.

One Response to “Public opinion and Pelosi’s (unimportant) visit”

  1. Mark S. Says:

    “If the KMT candidates win easily in New Taipei and Taichung (as all signs indicate), it will be in spite of their party, not because of it.”

    This election season, campaign posters in the Taipei metropolitan area are notable in how they do or do not show party affiliation. DPP candidates are fairly consistent in having the DPP logo on their material. Signage for KMT candidates, however, is often lacking any direct mention of the party (or even use of the colors blue and red); instead, most of the time either there is no indication of party at all or the candidate will be pictured with Taipei mayoral candidate Wayne Chiang (蔣萬安) or Xinbei mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜).

    I have yet to understand Hou’s popularity; for example, everyone seems to have forgotten how badly Xinbei botched the COVID situation relative to most other places. But I strongly suspect that much of it has to do with him staying largely out of situations that would tie him more to his party in the public consciousness.

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