Reactions to the 2022 elections

Well, that election outcome was a bit more extreme than I expected. It’s a good thing I was too busy and didn’t feel confident enough to make any predictions this year.

What the hell just happened? It’s always a mistake for me to try to give hot takes; they usually look stupid pretty quickly. So here goes nothing.

I think there were two dominant trends this year. First, the DPP failed to get enough votes. Second, incumbents did very well. These two trends seemed fairly independent of each other.

First, the year was more clearly about the DPP doing badly than the KMT doing well. The DPP underperformed its historical benchmarks nearly everywhere, usually by around 5-10%. Even the DPP victories in Pingtung (49%), Tainan (49%), and Penghu (36%) were lower than normal. Arguably, the DPP only performed adequately in Kaohsiung (58%) and Chiayi County (63%), and even those weren’t exactly spectacular. People talked a lot about strategic voting this year, but strategic voting didn’t cause the DPP to lose. When you can only get 32% in Taipei or 36% in Hsinchu City, your big problem isn’t that the other side coordinated well. Your problem is starting at you in the mirror.

The KMT did very well this year, but its overperformance was not as consistent as the DPP’s underperformance. The KMT nominated a couple of turkeys in Hsinchu City and Miaoli, things went sideways in Penghu, and I’ll talk more below about how unimpressed I am with Chiang Wan-an’s victory in Taipei. The point here is that this didn’t seem to be a uniform national trend in favor of the KMT. Voters seemed to be quite happy to turn to non-KMT candidates when that was convenient.

Second, this was a good year for incumbents. Because of the 2018 Han wave, the KMT had lots of incumbents, especially in traditionally neutral or green-leaning areas in central and southern Taiwan. With the exceptions of the KMT in Penghu and the DPP in Tainan, all the incumbents cruised to easy wins. As I’ve written in previous posts, local government isn’t necessarily a partisan activity. There is no obvious KMT or DPP way to pave the roads or collect the garbage; as long as you get things done and spread the money around, you can be a popular local mayor. As far as I can tell, all of the incumbents campaigned almost entirely on their record in office rather than on party ideals or national issues.

This was not a good year to ask for a third term on unfriendly turf. It’s always difficult for a term-limited politician to transfer power to a designated successor, even when that term-limited politician is quite popular. Just as Nixon, Humphrey, Gore, and Hillary Clinton about that. This year several candidates centered their campaigns around asking for a third term. All of those running in challenging partisan environments (Huang in Taipei and the DPP in Taoyuan, Keelung, and Hsinchu City) lost handily. If you were not actually the incumbent, you didn’t get the incumbent bump. If I’m not mistaken, the only open seat held by someone from the same party was the KMT in Nantou. A 56-43% KMT win in Nantou is not surprising news.

Many people are saying that this year was even worse for the DPP than 2018. If you look at the number of seats, that’s true. However, one of the things that made 2018 so devastating to the DPP was the number of incumbents who lost what had traditionally been winnable seats. DPP incumbents lost in Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu. This year, the DPP lost open seats in bluer areas, which in my mind is a little less shocking.

Why did the DPP do so badly? Every pundit seems to have an explanation. It was too much negative campaigning, poor pandemic policies, Tsai monopolized nomination decisions and botched them, the referendum was a lousy flagship policy for progressive politics, they didn’t run against China strongly enough, the dull economy, Chinese pressure, and several others that I’m forgetting. No one has any hard evidence for their pet theory since we don’t have any exit polling data. That doesn’t stop them from being absolutely sure about the root problem.

A lot of people are pointing to the low turnout and arguing that (for a variety of different reasons) the DPP simply failed to turn out its voters. Turnout in the six metro areas was a hair under 60%, and it was only a little higher in the rest of Taiwan (64%). That’s considerably lower than four years ago (66% and 69%, respectively) and a far cry from the 75% turnout in the 2020 presidential election. It’s easy to surmise that the difference is simply several hundred thousand DPP voters who stayed at home. However, I don’t buy it (just as I didn’t buy it when the people made the same argument about blue voters in 2016). Turnout is a complex phenomenon, and it seems implausible to me that the decision to vote or stay home was divided neatly along party lines. It’s more likely that this was a low turnout election in which voters of all persuasions decided to sit it out. Sure, there may have been more DPP sympathizers who stayed home, but it is far more likely that the next million people to vote would have been split 55-45 than 95-5. We should probably spend more time thinking about the people who did vote than the people who didn’t.

A more likely picture is that there were a lot of people who voted for Tsai in 2020 and for a blue mayoral candidate this year. We don’t have any exit polls and the post-election TEDS polls won’t be released for several months, but that is what I eventually expect to see. We can already see some evidence of cross-party appeal and split-ticket voting in this year’s results.

Here’s a comparison of the mayoral and city council results in New Taipei this year. The top line shows that Hou won the mayoral race by 25%, but the KMT CC candidates only outpolled the DPP CC candidates by about 7%. That’s a big difference. In fact, this is a bit misleading since many of the independent candidates were closely identified with either the blue or green camps. So while Hou ran nearly 17% ahead of the official KMT candidates, he probably only ran about 10% ahead of the broader blue camp. Likewise, Lin ran slightly behind the DPP nominees, but if you add in a few independents associated with the green side, he probably ran closer to 5% behind. [Those are guesses; I didn’t actually take the time to figure out how to classify each independent candidate.] The point here is that Hou was soaking up all the blue votes, almost all of the neutral votes, and a few of the green votes. You can see this most clearly in District 4 (Sanchong and Luzhou). This is the greenest area in New Taipei, but Hou won it by 12%, around 30,000 votes. However, in the city council races, if you add 24,000 votes won by a blue-affiliated independent candidate to the KMT total, the DPP CC candidates beat the blue CC candidates by about 30,000 votes. There was clearly some split-ticket voting going on here.

CCmayormayorMayorCCCCrun aheadRun ahead

From one perspective, Hou’s ability to reach across party lines to garner votes is a tremendous strength. You would always prefer more votes to fewer votes. Good candidates have broad appeal. However, from another perspective, this makes Hou’s smashing 25% margin of victory somewhat hollower than it might first appear. One of the duties of a mayoral candidate is to be a good “mother hen” and bring all the little chicks home safely. 6 of 38 KMT nominees lost, which isn’t all that much better than the DPP, which saw 7 of 35 candidates lose. Given Hou’s landslide victory, I would have expected a much more dramatic difference, but Hou simply didn’t have very powerful coattails. All those extra people who voted for Hou didn’t necessarily also vote for KMT CC candidates. This is to say, this first glance at the data seems to indicate Hou won his tremendous victory more as an individual than as a KMT champion.

I have not yet had time to look at other places to see if there are similar patterns elsewhere. My guess is that several of them are similar, though probably not to the same extent as in New Taipei.

The presence of so much cross-party voting over time has forced me to start rethinking the post-Sunflower party system. We have now had five general elections since Sunflower, three green waves and two blue waves. For the last several years, I have dismissed the 2018 election as a one-time aberration grounded in several unique factors including Tsai’s dismal approval ratings, Han’s populist rhetoric and ability to talk about China as a market in a slightly new and different way, and a strange short-term downturn in Taiwanese identity. None of those factors were present in 2022, yet the electoral results were similar. It is no longer tenable to simply brush away 2018 as an outlier. Any explanation of party politics has to be able to account for both the green waves and the blue waves.

Sunflower shook up the system and caused many voters to rethink their previous voting habits. However, their new voting habits were perhaps not quite as solidly fixed as I previously believed. Many of the voters who seemed to switch from blue to green perhaps only did so conditionally. My initial thought is something to the effect of: when sovereignty is on the ballot and the status quo seems threatened, they will vote for the DPP. When it is not, perhaps their old distaste for the DPP is still there, and they are quite willing to vote for the KMT. National identity usually drives voting, but not always. The challenge for the KMT is to figure out how to remove China from national elections, or at least to become the status quo party again.

I’m still working on these ideas. If it doesn’t seem clear to you, that’s because it isn’t entirely clear to me. The election result is less than two days old, after all.

Let’s shift gears and talk about Taipei. Wayne won by 12%, getting 43% of the vote. I’m not that impressed. 43% for a KMT candidate in Taipei is hardly remarkable. Ma got 51% and 64% in his two races, and Hau got 54% and 56% in his two. In the last two elections, Lien and Ting both got 41%, and they were widely considered to have been failures. 43%? Meh.

Is it unfair to expect the KMT to get as many votes in 2022 as they managed ten or twenty years ago? A week ago I might have thought so, but the blue side just produced results in Taoyuan, Keelung, Hsinchu, and Taichung that would have been very familiar in 2001 and 2002. Chen Shih-chung’s 31% wasn’t the problem here.

Ok, none of those people faced a third-party challenger like Huang Shan-shan, right? Actually, two of them did. In 1998, New Party co-founder and saintly figure to Chinese nationalist voters Wang Chien-hsuan ran. Ma squeezed him down to 3%. In 2006, James Soong, the almost-president and Huang’s political patron, could only manage 4%. Huang is not obviously a better candidate than either of those two. Similarly, it isn’t clear that today’s TPP is a better political base to build a Taipei mayoral campaign on than the New Party in 1998 or the PFP in 2006. Why couldn’t Chiang similarly marginalize her?

Eight or ten months ago, I expected Chiang would do exactly that and cruise to an easy victory. It was supposed to be the ceremonial coronation of the crown prince. It was unthinkable to me that blue voters would damage their great hope for the future. Instead, it was a grueling slog. Huang kept not going away.

I wonder if Chiang has failed to persuade some blue voters that has is a substantive politician. He has been in the legislature for six years, but he hasn’t really carved out a distinctive space for himself. Every now and then, he will say something a bit controversial (such as questioning the 92 Consensus or suggesting the CKS Memorial be revamped), and then, in the face of criticism from stern voices within the KMT, he will either quickly “clarify” his position or simply back away from it. He is a reliable and dependable KMT legislator. He’s a good boy. What he is not – at least to this point – is a willful leader who can propose a new vision and inspire soldiers, change people’s minds, or cajole doubters into following his lead.

Chiang won the election, and he’s going to have the opportunity to do some things. However, it is extremely premature to suggest that his mundane 43% victory in Taipei signals a revitalization of the KMT. He hasn’t done anything remarkable yet.

Finally, I have a few thoughts about President Tsai. The DPP lost this election. There is no way to sugarcoat that. For Tsai to survive as party chair, the DPP needed to have something go right somewhere. There was almost nothing. The DPP has always been an electorally driven party, so in the face of such a debacle, she had no choice but to resign as party chair.

Today, people are talking about Tsai being a lame duck president and the DPP moving into the post-Tsai era. Yes and no. Tsai will not be pulling the strings in the party machinery any longer. She will not have much say over legislative nominations, and she will probably have to stay out of the presidential nomination entirely. She won’t have as many carrots to pass around to smooth out fights in the legislature or cabinet. DPP members will probably start looking to VP Lai to take over the party and make some of these decisions. Tsai will not dominate politics the way she has for the past six years.

However, Tsai still has 18 months remaining in her second presidential term. A politically hobbled president is still president and still matters. She will continue to be an important influence on the budget, the bureaucracy, the economy, national security, foreign affairs, and China policy. She won’t be able to demand the legislature pass some controversial bill or the cabinet pursue some unpopular initiative, but her party, not the opposition, still controls a majority in the legislature and full control of the cabinet. As long as she is doing things the DPP collectively wants to do, she can still do things.

And that is really the critical point. There are two dimensions to a lame duck party leader: organizational and ideological. Organizationally, she will be stripped of many of the levers of power. However, her vision for Taiwan’s future does not seem to be being challenged. People today are complaining about how she has handled this detail or that detail (She should have talked to the media more! She should have listened more to the legislative caucus! She should have talked more about the China threat!), but no one is questioning her big picture. So far, no one is challenging the ROC, Taiwan discourse, the commitment to the ROC constitutional order, maintaining the status quo rather than pursuing formal independence, positioning Taiwan as a core member of the world’s democratic community, pursuing moderately progressive economic policies, and so on. Tsai herself might be transitioning into a less powerful stage, but, until someone comes up with a comprehensive new vision for Taiwan, her ideas continue to drive the DPP and the country.

10 Responses to “Reactions to the 2022 elections”

  1. Shelley Rigger Says:

    Another informative, sensible, nuanced analysis from the Garlic. Thanks!

  2. Joseph Says:

    I suspect the DPP’s problem is a large portion of people who are closer to them on policy also hate the idea of being partisan. All the KMT needs is a non-controversial candidate and light greens in Taichung and New Taipei will be happy to vote for them based on vague appeal, rather like Charlie Baker or Phil Scott or Glen Youngkin in the US. Meanwhile the KMT still appears to have a stronger grip on old-style patronage politics.

  3. rustie Says:

    Another data point to consider I think is the total amount of city councillors elected: according to Wikipedia the KMT actually suffered a decline of 34 seats, going from 394 to 360 seats, whereas the DPP made a recovery of 39 steps, going from 238 to 277. To me, it seems to indicate the DPP base votes actually recovered somewhat relative to the 2018 trashing they received, but they really failed to put up quality mayoral candidates to go against the KMT’s set of popular incumbents.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Some day when I have time again to indulge my love of SNTV elections, I’m going to look more carefully at the city councilor vote in these two election cycles. My first guess is that the DPP nominated too aggressively in 2018 and more conservatively this year.

      • jaichind Says:

        I have been mapping out ROC city/county assembly elections since the 2005/2006 cycle. What took place this time around is
        a) DPP got more disciplined when compared to 2018 and gained them a bunch of seats. But a lot of their gains are from other Pan-Green candidates
        b) TPP running cut into the Pan-Blue vote. Most TPP candidates have Pan-Blue backgrounds and TPP is now a de facto Pan-Blue party.
        c) From a vote share point of view the 2018 and 2022 Pan-Blue vs Pan-Green vote shares did not move at all (as long as we count TPP as Pan-Blue).
        d) Pan-Green seat gains (which is less than DPP gains since a lot of DPP gains are from other Pan-Green candidates) are mostly about TPP splitting the Pan-Blue vote in a bunch of districts.

  4. Frédéric Lim Says:

    It’s probably that the Taiwanese electorate is maturing towards to a true multiparty system. However, such transition is prevented from the electoral system, which force political movements to coalesce into one of the two big parties (green or blue). As long as the semipresidential system is kept both at the national and local levels, without an executive chosen by a proportionally-elected council/legislature, new ideas will have difficulty in emerging electorally.

  5. Mr. Wang Says:

    My parents-in-law are retired civil servants and loyal KMT voters. They shocked me when they voted for Tsai in 2020. The situation in Hong Kong heavily influenced their vote then. They voted KMT again in 2022. I believe they are an example of the cross-party voters you’re talking about. In theory, they buy the KMT line that Taiwan is part of “China.” In practice, they just want the status quo.

  6. kezza Says:

    I think we could explain perhaps two-thirds of what happened with the usual “central governing party tends to lose mid-term elections”. The DPP didn’t play any of the cards right (everything from candidate quality to the scandalous revelation of high-profile police heads co-mingling with gangsters) so it is not surprising they have so much difficulty this year.

    Anyway, it is perhaps unfair to compare Wayne Chiang to Taoyuan and Hsinchu (both really being dragged down by Lin Chih-chien from which DPP never quite fully recover from, e.g., my light-green friends in TY voted from Cheng Bo-ching as a protest vote). Also, while Huang is obviously not of Soong’s calibre, the fact that she was the deputy mayor (especially since Ko didn’t put in any real work of governance) has some incumbency advantage, and we all know 1994 was a one-off exception where incumbent=irrelevance. Chiang actually performed better than I expected in July (when I said in another comment that I expect low 400k). If we crank the numbers, the last three mayoral KMT votes/total votes in Taipei are 609k/1531k (2014), 577k/1427k (2018), 575k/1372k (2022) so provisionally we could say Chiang managed to hold on to 2018 KMT voters (including Han-wave effect) but didn’t meaningfully expand the support base. Part of that is what high-profile Taipei KMT CCs vying for Chiang’s own LY seat were doing, for example, remember the insane conspiracies spun by Hsu Chaio-hsin and Cathy Yu on TV for days about the medical malpractice lawsuit faced by Dr Ting after the photo/video of CSC embraced Dr Lee? None of my friends are impressed by that and clearly lost Chiang (viewed by many as tacitly supporting that line of nonsense) the vote of a lot of medical professionals that might have otherwise supported KMT in Taipei after alleged Medigen preferential treatment+insider trading(?) (afterall, they bore the full impact of malicious medical malpractice allegations/lawsuits with little recourse when the brown stuff hits the fan).

  7. Kharis Templeman Says:

    Nice write up. In addition to Hsu Shu-hua in Nantou, Chou Chun-mi in Pingtung held an open seat for the incumbent party. Barely.

    I guess I am more impressed with Chiang’s win in Taipei than you. I always thought that would be a close race. Chen Shih-Chung was not a spoiler like Yao Wen-Chih in 2018, but a serious DPP challenger, and with Huang Shan-shan (former PFP) threatening to split the pan-blues, Chiang started in a worse position than Lien or Ting Shou-Chung did. Yet in the end he appears to have held onto more of the blue camp than Chen did of the green.

  8. jaichind Says:

    2022 Taipei is not comparable to 1998 and 2006. In 1998 and 2006 the DPP candidate was “Presidental” level candidates of Chen and Hsieh. In both cases, the DPP “threat” was “real” to pro-KMT voters, especially in 1998.

    In 2022 the DPP candidate turned out to be weak, so a KMT victory was clear, making it easier for marginal pro-KMT voters to go to the third party. Thought experiment. Imagine if instead, Lai ran for DPP in 2022 in Taipei. Chiang will win but the result will look a lot like 1998.

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