One reason I don’t have all the answers

I’m not sure what to expect from this weekend’s election. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the fundamental uncertainties for me is that I’m not sure what a “neutral” result should be. If there is a strong candidate, an unpopular president, a scandal, or something else, I might expect a party to do a bit better or worse than the baseline. The problem is that I don’t know what that baseline is.

Let’s got back to the days before the Sunflower movement. There was a pretty consistent pattern of partisan balance that repeated itself over and over during the Chen and Ma eras. Overall, Taiwan was slightly more blue than green. In a neutral race, the blue side would get about 45%, the green side would get about 40%, and the rest of the voters would swing with the political winds. The KMT usually won, but in the right conditions, the DPP could win. I could expect that Taipei County, Taichung County, and Changhua County would be pretty close to the national average. Taichung City was a bit bluer than that, and the blue side had a clear majority in places like Taipei City, Keelung, and Hsinchu City, with Taoyuan being the bluest major city or county. On the other side, the DPP had advantages of various sizes in southern Taiwan. In this Chen/Ma system of blue north/green south, the KMT usually did a bit better in urban areas, and the DPP was better in rural Hoklo (Min-nan) areas. It’s not that we always got exactly those results, but you could usually point to a clear reason for any deviation from those patterns.

It’s a bit of a mystery why the Chen/Ma system was so stable in the first place. Three decades of research have made it clear that Taiwan’s party system is grounded in attitudes about national identity. If you look at the Election Study Center’s long-term trends on party ID from about 2000 to about 2013, you will find that they are pretty stable. Yes, there were ups and downs, but, for the most part, the blue side (KMT + PFP) usually had about 35% while the DPP usually had about 25%. However, the long-term trends on national identity were not stable at all. Exclusive Taiwanese identity increased from about 40% to about 60% during this period. Somehow, Ma held the party system together even while the tectonic plates were shifting under his feet. I have argued elsewhere that this was the result of the 1992 Consensus. Essentially, Ma was able to convince enough voters to look past their changing identities and focus on the economic benefits coming from increased economic interaction with China that the old patterns largely held together.

Sunflower shook a lot of those voters loose from their previous moorings. The movement discredited the unspoken promise of the 1992 Consensus to Taiwanese voters that they could have all the economic benefits of integration without any political consequences. The sudden implosion of the 1992 Consensus left national identity alone as the dominant force shaping party support. In 2012, the KMT got a lot of support from people with a Taiwan identity but who also thought that economic interaction with China was beneficial; after 2014, fewer voters saw benefits to economic ties, and Taiwan identifiers went much more strongly to the DPP. If before Sunflower, the system was roughly 45-40 in favor of the blue side, afterward it has been more like 50-35 in favor of the green side.

Or has it? The problem is that we haven’t had a “normal” election since Sunflower. 2014 was a green wave that took place in the aftermath of Sunflower. The 2016 presidential election had a competent DPP campaign facing a KMT in absolute disarray after botching their presidential nomination and weighed down by the wreckage of Ma’s shattered presidency. 2018 was a blue wave powered by Tsai’s horrible satisfaction ratings and the emergence of a charismatic new champion who seemed to have figured out a new way to talk about politics in Taiwan. By 2020, the tables had dramatically turned, and a popular Tsai crushed a deeply flawed Han. Each of these four elections had such a strong national trend that I wouldn’t consider any of them to be remotely indicative of what a “neutral” election should look like in the same way that 2010 and 2012 arguably did. It might only be a 50-35 system if the green side has a steady leader with a clear vision and the blue side insists on repeatedly punching itself in the stomach. And in local elections where national identity is less important, the KMT might be a bit stronger.

What that means for this year is that I don’t quite know how to think about the races in places like Taoyuan and Taipei. I’m quite sure that these formerly reliably blue cities have shifted towards the green side since Sunflower, but I don’t really know how much. Is Taoyuan a toss-up? Is it still slightly blue? Does it actually have a slight green plurality? To win the mayoral election, does the KMT need to merely soak up their potential support, or do they need to overperform and reach across partisan boundaries?

There is probably a dominant national trend concerning how far to the green side Taiwan has shifted, but it isn’t the only force at work. Things are a bit different in different areas. During the Chen/Ma era, the DPP made noticeable inroads in the south and in rural Min-nan areas. During the Tsai era, the DPP support seems to have shifted slightly in the other direction. I suspect this has something to do with the personalities and priorities of the presidents and presidential candidates. For example, Tsai has spent a lot of time and energy in Taoyuan over the past few election cycles. Some areas are experiencing more population turnover, and voting patterns might be changing more in these places than in areas with more stable populations. Again, rapidly changing Taoyuan is the biggest question mark.

Finally, we are starting to see the emergence of a third block of voters who don’t want to support either the green or blue sides. There have always been politicians trying to organize a “third force,” but these figures never got much traction in the past. If you wanted to succeed, you had to either be on this side or that side. What is different now is that there seems to be a critical mass of voters who will support a “not blue, not green” candidate. The TPP and NPP have started orienting themselves to appeal to this block. However, this is hardly a coherent movement. The TPP and NPP don’t seem to know what they stand for other than not being one of the two big parties, and they don’t seem to know quite how much they want to cooperate with or compete with the two big parties. I don’t think this pool of voters has any clear or consistent ideas about themselves, either. Nonetheless, there seem to be a lot of these detached voters in some places (especially Hsinchu City), and that makes it harder for me to understand the balance between the two big parties.

Unfortunately, this year probably won’t provide too many answers for me. The big problem this year is the presence of so many popular KMT incumbents. If Hou Yu-ih and Lu Hsiu-yen romp to victory in New Taipei and Taichung as expected, I don’t think that tells me very much about the underlying partisan structure. Taipei and Hsinchu Cities both have open seats, but those two cities also have three-way races. In other places without close races, one of the main candidates is clearly not as good as the other, and the margin of victory will probably be artificially large. Taoyuan and Keelung might be the most informative, since they both have an open seat and one on one matchups between fairly high-quality candidates. Of course, I have repeatedly pointed to Taoyuan as the place with the most uncertainty, so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to sort out the relative importance of all the factors with just one election result. And it’s probably too much to expect small, small Keelung to represent all of Taiwan.

Maybe Ko won’t run in 2024, and the Hou vs Lai race will finally bring me some clarity. Or maybe I should just accept that I’m imagining a theoretical undergirding structure that rarely reveals itself and might not actually exist.

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