They’re using dirty tricks!

Let’s talk about dirty tricks, smears, and underhanded campaign tactics. Toward the end of every campaign, each side almost always starts accusing the other side of using dirty tricks. “Don’t let your guard down. They will use dirty tricks. Don’t fall for them!”

This year is no different. Accusations of unfair attacks are flying left and right. Some of them are reasonable, some are a bit questionable, and some are totally ungrounded. I’m not going to try to describe all the smears flying around this year or try to determine which ones are awful and illegitimate. Instead, I want to talk about the strategy of complaining about dirty tricks.

One reason I don’t want to try to adjudicate what is a dirty trick and what is not is that dirty tricks are quite subjective. What seems underhanded to one person often seems quite reasonable to another. For example, this year we have seen two high-profile accusations of plagiarism of MA theses, one against the Lin Chih-chien, who was then the DPP nominee for Taoyuan mayor and one against TPP Hsinchu mayoral candidate Ann Kao Hung-an. Some people thought that the attack was a dirty trick. It was unfounded, unfair, a distraction from the real issues of city government, an attempt to smear someone higher up associated with the candidate, and the opponents just took it all too far. Other people thought that, if the candidate really used their special status to cheat the system, it is powerful evidence of a character flaw that will probably lead to bad decisions in office and the voters should probably know about it. This wasn’t a dirty trick at all; it was a legitimate campaign issue. Which interpretation you prefer often depends on how you feel about the candidate being attacked. Lots of voters felt one way about one of the attacks and the opposite way about the other.

[And now they will accuse me of unjustified moral equivalence because, dammit, these two cases were fundamentally different! Look at the details! One was a dirty trick, and the other was justified! I’ll humbly ask you whether it just so happens that the party you don’t like was the one using the dirty tricks. Maybe you are right, or maybe you are engaging in a bit of self-justifying rationalization. Again, I’m not going to adjudicate these accusations.]

What happens when one candidate accuses the other of a dirty trick? It’s getting a bit clumsy to write this with neutral language, so let’s rephrase that. This year, the KMT is putting accusations of dirty tricks at the center of their rhetoric, so, without loss of generality [which is one of my favorite bits of academic jargon], I’ll make them the running example. What happens when the KMT accuses the DPP of a dirty trick?

For DPP sympathizers, it probably backfires. These voters are likely to think the attack is not a dirty trick at all; rather it is a reasonable and even necessary campaign issue. When the KMT talks about the specific issue, it just reminds them why they don’t like the KMT in the first place. Hey yeah, the DPP is painting the KMT red because the KMT has some worrying tendencies to cozy up to China; the DPP is calling the KMT corrupt because the KMT has a long history of being in bed with organized crime, money politics, and local factions; they are calling the KMT undemocratic because the KMT has always been the party dragging its feet on democratic reform. Alternatively, the KMT might not talk about anything specific. One of their common lines is that the DPP always uses dirty tricks because that’s all the DPP can do; if they didn’t use dirty tricks, they wouldn’t know how to run an election campaign. For DPP sympathizers, this reeks of desperation and intellectual feebleness. The KMT doesn’t have any substantive arguments, so all they can do is attack. Moreover, they can’t even point to a specific flaw, so all they can do is make some vague complaint that the DPP is unfair.

For KMT sympathizers, accusations of DPP dirty tricks probably work. These voters are likely to think that the DPP was, in fact, behaving unfairly. The KMT isn’t red; don’t be ridiculous. Nowadays, it’s the DPP that is in bed with all the local corruption. The DPP pretends to be high and mighty about championing democracy, but they bend the rules whenever they see an advantage. It’s true, they always employ dirty tricks in their campaigns. They’re disgusting! These accusations remind KMT supporters why they didn’t like the DPP in the first place. In addition, they warn KMT sympathizers that the DPP will try to manipulate them, so they should ignore all DPP accusations, regardless of how reasonable or damning they might appear on the surface.

In short, the KMT accusation of DPP dirty tricks drives both KMT and DPP sympathizers back to their respective corners. That isn’t unusual. Most campaign activity reminds partisan voters of why they chose to support this side or that side in the first place.

What about the voters who don’t lean toward either the KMT or DPP? Some might react with disgust at the thought that the big parties are trying to manipulate them. This is just more of the standard big party behavior and dirty politics. Why can’t we just focus on the real issues? Others might attempt to figure out whether the attack was reasonable or unreasonable. Without any strong partisan sympathies to guide them, they have to get information about the specifics of the case in question. This probably isn’t great news for the KMT since (in this example) the DPP has chosen the turf on which to launch its attack. Assuming the DPP didn’t foolishly choose a completely non-credible issue to accuse the KMT of, the independent voter will probably find something at least a bit interesting. And assuming the voter isn’t prone to simply dismissing the new information just because it casts the KMT in a bad light, the KMT’s complaint about the DPP’s dirty smear might only serve to put that issue in the spotlight. That is exactly what the KMT shouldn’t want. For the KMT complaint to be successful, they have to make a convincing argument that the DPP attack actually was totally unfounded and blatantly underhanded. Unfortunately, what seems like a convincing argument to KMT true believers, activists, and campaign workers may not always seem so convincing to everyone else. It’s really hard to neutralize a negative attack, especially when you are hampered by your partisan lizard brain.

So is it a smart political tactic to complain about the other side’s dirty tricks? Nearly every campaign claims that the other side’s attacks are wrong-headed and unjustified. It’s usually a good idea to show that you reject the other side’s attacks. But should you make that a tangential part of your message, or should you put it front and center?

Complaining about dirty tricks works best when you are winning. If you have a partisan advantage and the voters like you personally, your complaints will resonate. You want to drive people back to their previous positions and ensure that they don’t stray to the other side. This is a strategy to preserve an already existing advantage. This is not a good strategy to persuade undecided voters or change the nature of a race. If you don’t have enough partisans or sympathizers to win in the first place, you certainly don’t want to drive everyone back to their original bases. If you are in a close race and need undecided voters, you probably don’t want to talk too much about dirty tricks unless you have a rock-solid complaint against a dirty trick that everyone agrees was way outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.

What can I say about the individual mayoral races?

In New Taipei and Taichung, Hou Yu-ih and Lu Hsiu-yen aren’t really leaning into this strategy. Once in a while, they will say something, and, when someone else complains about the DPP proclivities for dirty tricks, they will smile and nod. But they have other things they want voters to focus on. This makes a certain amount of sense. Both are personally popular, but both rely on the support of lots of voters who usually prefer the DPP to the KMT. These two want to transcend party politics this year rather than driving voters back to their partisan bases.

In Taipei, DPP nominee Chen Shih-chung has complained repeatedly that KMT attacks are unreasonable and the KMT campaign is fueled by hatred. [Aside: Of course they are attacking his pandemic record! That’s his primary credential. Are they supposed to uncritically praise it or stop asking uncomfortable questions after he responds one time? That’s not how democratic elections work. Put on your goddamn big boy pants and stop whining.] [Sorry, had to let that out. I have the same reaction to Ann Kao Hung-an in Hsinchu when she whines about being “bullied.” Now back to our regularly scheduled topic.] As I lamented in my previous post, I’m not really sure about how blue or green Taipei is these days, though it’s probably still more blue than green, at least for local elections. If Chen wanted to win a majority, he probably shouldn’t be complaining about KMT dirty tricks. Of course, Chen doesn’t need to win a majority. This is a three-way race, and the winner will probably be in the low 40s. The DPP base vote might be just about that size, but a lot of commentary argued that Chen was having difficulties consolidating the DPP base. If complaining about KMT dirty tricks drives people back to their respective bases (and the blue base continues to be split), that might be enough for Chen to pull out a victory.

In Taoyuan and Keelung, the KMT is leaning more aggressively into this strategy. They don’t have incumbents who can talk about their fabulous track record, and, perhaps surprisingly especially in Taoyuan, Chang and Hsieh don’t seem to have very clear visions for future. Chang says “Google” and “Stanford” a lot, but I always leave his speeches wondering where he wants to take Taoyuan. At any rate, their emphasis on the DPP’s dirty tricks suggests that they see Taoyuan and Keelung as fundamentally blue cities. They think they are or should be winning, and it will be enough to keep all their natural supporters firmly in their corner. I’m not so sure that these assumptions about Taoyuan and Keelung are entirely warranted. The blue bases are probably slightly bigger than the green bases in both cities, but they might be close enough to be considered toss-ups. If I were those two campaigns, I’d probably worry a bit more about the uncommitted voters in the middle of the political spectrum. I have doubts about whether simply consolidating the KMT base is enough to win.

I’m getting particularly bad vibes from the KMT in Keelung. At a big rally last Saturday, the DPP’s dirty tricks were Hsieh’s main talking point, but he didn’t just accuse them of making false accusations or twisting facts. He went off the deep end, insinuating that the DPP was preparing to rig the election. Taipower had scheduled a blackout in parts of Keelung for 9:00pm on election night, and that obviously meant something fishy was amiss. [Note: Some moron at Taipower apparently had indeed scheduled this blackout. When it was pointed out that election night might not be the best time to do maintenance, Taipower rescheduled it.] Die-hard blue voters might be willing to believe that the DPP was planning something nefarious, but I can’t believe that most blue sympathizers bought that, so say nothing of neutral or DPP leaning voters. This was a clumsy and almost certainly ineffective attack by Hsieh. It was jarring to hear, even at a KMT rally speaking to mostly KMT supporters. And since he didn’t really talk about much else that night, he left me with the impression that he is a crazy election denier. But why would he try to discredit the election if he thought Keelung was reliably blue and he was comfortably in the lead? He should want to validate and celebrate the democratic process. I wonder if Hsieh is panicking. Most people, especially on the blue side, think he is going to win. Does he sense an impending loss? Is this wild conspiracy theory a preemptive attempt to explain away the humiliation?

[And yes, this entire post is my attempt to figure out what the hell Hsieh was thinking at that rally. I’m not sure I succeeded.]

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