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Reactions to the 2022 elections

November 28, 2022

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
districtvotesHouLinKMTDPPHouLin
all184653162.437.645.938.316.6-0.7
111835065.134.941.735.223.4-0.4
212614961.738.361.835.2-0.13.2
318683758.841.238.029.620.911.6
427027656.044.030.250.525.8-6.6
525963359.840.243.935.615.94.6
619793267.232.854.831.412.41.4
710115469.530.559.538.610.0-8.2
827658361.338.742.340.919.0-2.2
916583769.630.455.834.713.8-4.3
103074963.836.236.863.227.0-27.0
1111303164.735.356.339.48.4-4.1

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.

Scenes from election eve

November 26, 2022

Last night was election eve. For the first time in all the years I have been in Taiwan, I did not go to any of the election eve rallies. Instead, I watched several of them on YouTube. If you know me at all, you will appreciate that I would rather have been there in person. Alas, we do what we can.

Election rallies are a terrible predictor of election outcomes. There might be a hint or two of something informative, but the candidate with the biggest or most raucous crowd isn’t necessarily the one who will win. Prediction isn’t the point. At any rate, the actual results will be out in a few hours, so my predictions would be superfluous. However, rallies can tell you something about how parties and candidates see the race and themselves.

The most surprising thing about all the election eve rallies was Ma Ying-jeou. He was missing. As far as I can tell, Ma went to Keelung in the morning, Miaoli in the afternoon, and then back to Keelung in the evening. Nothing against Keelung and Miaoli, but these are not exactly marquee races. Ma was doing second- and third-tier events, and he even went back to the same place twice on the last day. Didn’t he have any other cities or counties to go to? More shockingly, the events in Keelung were not speaking events. He was merely accompanying the KMT candidate to on visits to traditional markets and waving at commuters in traffic. (I don’t know what type of events they held in Miaoli.) No KMT candidates wanted to give him five minutes on stage to endorse them and criticize the DPP? This is the former president! He’s still the most important figure in the KMT deciding whether the party will or will not alter its ideological path! No one wanted him to stand next to him while he said (as he has repeatedly over the past few weeks) that a vote for the DPP is a vote for war and a vote for the KMT is a vote for peace?

The rallies were generally smaller and more subdued than in past years. There was nothing remotely like the Kaohsiung Han or Chen rallies four years ago. Partly this was because it was rainy all over northern Taiwan. But the organizers also planned for smaller events before they knew the weather would be lousy. In Taipei, the DPP reserved two locations. One was Ketagalan Blvd, in front of the presidential office. That’s where they traditionally do their election eve event. However, Ketagalan was silent last night. Instead, they held their event on Beiping E Rd, in front of Chen’s campaign headquarters. This is a much smaller space, and, while it was “full”, I’ve probably seen twice as many people jammed into that space in past events. The DPP wasn’t really even trying this year to mobilize enormous crowds. To a lesser extent, neither was the KMT.

The DPP rallies seemed pretty standard to me. Their four big guns (President Tsai, Premier Su, VP Lai, and former VP Chen) all appeared at four or five rallies, gave their standard stump speeches, and were relatively charismatic and persuasive. The most memorable part to me was watching them campaign in the rain. Tsai’s glasses were completely fogged up, and (bald) Su cracked up the crowd with a joke about his hair not getting wet.

Chen Shih-chung’s speech was better than normal, but that’s not a high bar. Whenever a candidate starts waxing poetic about “love,” I have to suppress my gag reflex. Over the years, I have come to understand “love” as code for “please ignore my ineffective policies, blatant corruption, and loathsome ideology.” Chen did briefly make an argument that I think he should have hammered more throughout the campaign. Chiang Wan-an, he said, looks new, shiny, and different, but the people behind him are the same old KMT party hacks who have disappointed you again and again.

When I switched over to Chiang’s rally, he was enthusiastically making Chen’s point. The lineup of speakers included former mayor Hau Lung-pin, former deputy mayor Ou Chin-teh, former New Taipei and Kaohsiung deputy mayor Lee Si-chuan, former Taipei Education Bureau chief (and current legislator) Lin I-hua, the head of the KMT legislative caucus Tseng Ming-tsung, Chiang himself, Chiang’s wife, and KMT party chair Eric Chu. That’s a whole slew of old KMT warhorses who don’t exactly exude new ideas. However, I don’t think many people watched the DPP rally and then the KMT rally, so probably not too many people were impressed by this juxtaposition the way I was. Overall, Chiang’s event was … fine. Not spectacular, not terrible, not too memorable. It was serviceable.

Eric Chu had a full schedule yesterday, but one place was noticeably absent from his itinerary. He did not speak in New Taipei City. Remember, Chu was New Taipei mayor from 2010 to 2018, and current mayor Hou Yu-ih was his deputy. You might expect that Chu would be an obvious person to show up and say lots of nice things about Hou. On the other hand, Chu and Hou are the two leading candidates for the KMT’s 2024 presidential nomination. Perhaps Hou did not want to share a stage with Chu, especially since this would make Chu appear as the senior partner in this relationship. Hou brushed off not inviting Chu by explaining that he wasn’t inviting any famous speakers. Instead, he would invite a lot of ordinary people to speak. I didn’t watch this event, but I imagine amateur hour wasn’t very slick. Maybe that’s what Hou wanted.

There was a story in the international media a few days ago about how Tsai was trying to recast this election as a referendum on her leadership and policies. The unstated assumption was that, if the KMT does well as many people expect, it would be because the people had voted no-confidence in her. I’m expecting to see multiple versions of that story tomorrow. There are two problems. First, neither the DPP nor the KMT are really pushing the referendum angle very hard. Of course the DPP is claiming that Tsai is doing a great job and the KMT is arguing that she has done a terrible job! They would hardly be competent political parties if they weren’t saying those things! But those aren’t their main arguments. Both sides generally talk about local politics ten minutes or more for every one they talk about national politics. Second and more importantly, think about the strategy here. Most people think the DPP is facing a challenge because the KMT is running a cohort of popular local incumbents. Meanwhile, a wealth of survey evidence shows that Taiwanese identity is much more prevalent than Chinese identity, the DPP is much more popular than the KMT, Tsai’s satisfaction ratings are pretty decent, and people generally agree with her approach to handling China. Changing the election frame from a local question to a national question would be an obvious advantage for Tsai and the DPP. However, that doesn’t mean the voters will accept this new frame. They might ignore the national appeals and continue to vote on local issues. That would be better understood as a rejection of the proposed frame, not a no-confidence vote in Tsai and her policies. [Ex: In the USA, if Republicans want to talk about crime and Democrats want to talk about health care, a Republican win probably means that voters focused more on crime rather than that they are now winning on health care.] I acknowledge that this seems like a tortured conclusion: if voters don’t support Tsai after she asked them to vote for her, it doesn’t actually mean they don’t support her. Nevertheless, I don’t think the referendum angle would be the right one.

The polls are about to close, so I’ll post this now. It will all be irrelevant in a few hours.

They’re using dirty tricks!

November 23, 2022

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.]

One reason I don’t have all the answers

November 22, 2022

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.

Campaign Trail: Crazy Huang rally in Taipei

November 21, 2022

We just went through the “Golden Weekend,” the last weekend before the election on Saturday. This was the last weekend for all the candidates and parties to make their case. I can no longer go out to the events in person, but I was able to watch several of them on TV or YouTube. My overall impression is that they were all pretty standard; there wasn’t much surprising. “Standard” is not an insult. Election culture has evolved over the years into what politicians collectively think is their most effective form. If it seems “normal” this year, that is because these practices have been judged effective in the past. Incumbents talked about their fantastic records, challengers bemoaned those miserable records and promised they would do much better, and popular term-limited asked voters for a third term by voting for their hand-picked successor. If you were listening to one of them, you were probably already a little sympathetic to that candidate, and these events probably made you a bit more certain about your vote. It was all very standard.

Well, not all of it. There were a few moments that were … um … unexpected?

The weirdest happened at Huang Shan-shan’s rally in Taipei City. This isn’t a particularly important story. It’s just a fun story and something I have never seen before.

Quick background: Huang Shan-shan served in the Taipei city council from 1998 to 2019, first representing the New Party and then the People First Party. In 2019, she accepted a position as Taipei City deputy mayor under Ko Wen-je. She is now running for the top job as his successor, though as an independent rather than as a TPP nominee. Her surprisingly strong candidacy has turned this into a three-way race. Most people (including me) believe she takes more votes from the KMT than the DPP, so one of the themes of this race has been KMT voices trying to convince blue sympathizers to come home to Chiang Wan-an or at least to vote strategically for him in order to stop the detested DPP from taking advantage of a divided blue camp vote. Huang has been telling people that she is much more qualified than Chiang and that they have the democratic freedom to vote as they wish rather than just mindlessly being manipulated by the big parties.

This was a solid event with a big, enthusiastic crowd, and she convinced me that her support is not going to evaporate. Some of it might drift over to Chiang, but it looks to me like most of her supporters will stay with her. I don’t expect her to fall below 20% when the votes are counted, and it wouldn’t shock me too much if she were in the upper 20s. A victory is a longshot, though not absolutely unthinkable. If she gets 22% or so, that could spell big trouble for Chiang. Six months ago, I would have told you that Chiang was cruising to an easy coronation and there was no way blue voters would do anything to derail the ascent of their new political great hope, but here we are. I guess back in those days I was young and foolish.

Anyway, that serious stuff isn’t the topic of this post. This post is about the end of the rally. After several other speakers, Huang finally came up to the stage in a heroic entrance and gave a pretty effective speech. The emcees had been pretty aggressive all night about breaking into people’s speeches to start a cheer whenever they paused to take a breath or for dramatic effect. Huang seemed to be in the middle of a point when they broke in to do a Frozen Garlic cheer. And then they announced that there was special mystery guest who came on stage and started speaking. I’m not entirely sure Huang had planned to end her speech then and there. She didn’t do a standard ending (“Thank you everyone!!”), and there wasn’t a long period for the audience to applaud Huang. When they announced the mystery guest, Huang was still holding her microphone up and seemed ready to go on with the next section of her speech. It really felt like they cut her off, which is … uh … not how you normally treat a person who wants to be the boss of the capital city. I mean, you might do that if the candidate is running for city council and the mystery guest is the president or premier who is on a tight schedule, but here??

So who was this very important mystery guest? It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think about it, but the media reports pointed out that obvious person was James Soong. Huang was a PFP mainstay for two decades, and Soong has been conspicuously absent from this campaign. If he came out to endorse her on the final weekend, that would certainly galvanize her blue sympathizers! But it wasn’t Soong. It was Yu Mei-jen 于美人. Yu is a political talk show host. She isn’t what I think of when you ask me about a game changing mystery guest. At some point, she was Soong’s spokesperson, but she never mentioned Soong and I don’t think most people think of her as Soong’s surrogate. Honestly, I think Huang Shan-shan is more famous and influential than Yu, so it was strange to just see Huang’s campaign push her aside and give the stage over to Yu. I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before. Weird.

But wait, there’s more. Yu gave a fairly standard speech, making most of the same points that everyone else had already made. Again, it was reasonably effective.

[Aside: Yu made one little addition point that people usually skip over just to stimulate my nerdy political science neurons. When encouraging Huang’s voters not to abandon her, she told them that this wouldn’t be the last time they voted. If they always compromised and voted for their less favored option, politics would never get better. In the strategic voting formal models, one of the conditions is that voters must be short-term rational. That’s a fancy way of saying that you will only vote strategically if your priority is the outcome of the election immediately at hand. If you have some more important longer-term goal, such as party building or changing the political culture, you probably will not vote strategically. Yu was essentially encouraging voters not to be short-term rational. Defeating Chen Shih-chung isn’t the most important thing!]

When Yu got to the end of her speech, she said that, as a Taipei resident, she would cast her mayoral vote for Huang Shan-shan. Everyone cheered. Oh, then she had one more final thing. For city council, she would vote to save Wang Shi-chien 王世堅. And as we all gasped, she calmly turned and walked off the stage.

Wang Shi-chien is not exactly on this team. He is a long-time DPP Taipei city councilor who, how shall I say this, comes from the caricature wing of the party. He’s the kind of person who will say any and all incendiary and unsophisticated things that come to his mind. He’s an old-school type from back when the KMT labeled the DPP rank-and-file as a bunch of street rabble. During the party infighting during Chen Shui-bian presidency, he pugilistically labeled Bi-khim Hsiao (蕭美琴; Mandarin name: Hsiao Mei-chin) as “China Chin” 中國琴. And he was one of the first DPP people to turn against Ko Wen-je, calling him a monster well before the 2018 election. So Yu Mei-jen announcing she was going to vote for Wang Shih-chien was a bit like Barack Obama telling voters in Texas to vote for Ted Cruz and then doing a mic drop. What just happened? The TPP city council candidate in that district, Lin Chen-yu 林珍羽, was stunned. She was standing right behind Yu and Huang, and as Yu walked off Huang turned around to her – still holding a live microphone – and the shocked Lin asked her “What should I do??” 我怎麼辦?

Ok, I’ve really never seen anything like that.

After the event, everyone in the Huang campaign and TPP quickly explained that Yu was joking. Of course, everyone supports the TPP candidate, Lin Chen-yu. Ha ha ha, wasn’t that hilarious! [Yu didn’t make any statement.] On the internet, some people wondered whether Wang had some kind of under-the-table with Huang or the TPP, and Wang responded by screaming about the radical faction of the DPP and their internet army.

I don’t know what Yu was thinking, but I can speculate on the logic behind it. This looks to me like an old-fashioned campaign tactic that we used to see all the time in the 1990s: use someone controversial from the other side to put the spotlight on your candidate. As with all new candidates in a large SNTV district, Lin was a bit anonymous and probably struggling to break through in public consciousness. The first battle is always just to break out of the tangle of competitors into the public eye. With her shocking announcement, Yu turned the focus onto Lin, and now Huang supporters will more closely associate her with Huang and the TPP. More importantly, she now seems like an important person to consider when sympathizers decide which of the three or four acceptable city council candidates to vote for. I think the odds of Lin winning a seat just skyrocketed. But is there a cost to endorsing Wang? On the one hand, I don’t think Yu actually persuaded any of her followers to vote for him. On the other hand, more DPP voters might vote for him now that the focus is squarely on him. Since he has a solid base and was almost certainly going to win anyway, concentrating more DPP votes on Wang only hurts the third and fourth DPP nominees. On the third hand, Wang’s reaction played right into all the stereotypes the blue side loves to repeat about the DPP. See, even DPP politicians think they have an extremist internet army! Really, was a win, win, win, win for Yu, Huang, Lin, and the TPP.

Aren’t Taiwanese elections fun!

Update: I was discussing this post with the Mrs. Garlic last night, and she plucked a notion from the nether regions of her formidable brain that she had seen something about Wang saying he was planning to vote for Huang. We did some internet searching, and, sure enough, last week he did say that. Wang and Huang were both in the Taipei city council together, and they have known each other for twenty years. Wang said he owed Huang a debt of gratitude 欠黃人情. In 2015, Wang proposed a motion in the Taipei city council opposing the controversial Taipei Dome project, and Huang was an early an consistent supporter of this bill even while several of Wang’s DPP colleagues shied away under pressure from the developer. So even though he would publicly support Chen Shih-chung and have his organization work for Chen’s campaign, Wang said he would reserve his own personal vote for Huang.

This additional twist to the story makes Yu’s “endorsement” even better. In Wang’s account, Huang is depicted as an incorrupt public servant who sticks to her principals and is willing to work across party lines. All the other benefits probably still apply, except Wang might suffer a bit for failing to understand that it isn’t ok for a politician to ask other people to do something he isn’t willing to do himself. But Wang’s fate isn’t exactly Yu’s top priority.

Lesson One: When something doesn’t make sense, it’s probably because you aren’t seeing the whole story.

Lesson Two: Marry a brilliant spouse and bask in the reflected glow of her awesomeness.

campaign trail: KMT in Taichung

November 15, 2022

This is my favorite anecdote from the campaign so far. As a bonus, it’s also a pretty good encapsulation of the most important trend in this election cycle.

Lu Hsiu-yen is running for re-election as Taichung mayor. Four years ago, she was swept in as part of the Han wave, winning a shockingly high 57% of the vote. The partisan balance in Taichung is roughly the same as Taiwan overall, so it was stunning to see her get that many votes. Given her background, I didn’t expect much of her in office. Lu is a mainlander who rose to prominence as a TV news reporter. She won a seat in the provincial assembly in 1994 and moved to the legislature in 1998, relying heavily on support from the KMT’s Huang Fu-hsing (military veterans) party branch. Back in the old days, that kind of resume was a pretty good indicator of ideological extremism. She never jumped to the New Party or the People First Party, but she was always mentioned as a potential ally, and her popular support base overlapped pretty heavily with theirs. I expected she would govern as an ideologue and become unpopular pretty quickly. I probably should have paid more attention to the fact that she married into the Lai faction, one of the old Taichung city local patronage factions. In office, she has been sensitive to all sorts of constituencies, not just mainlander military veterans. Her polls weren’t very good at first, but since about the second year of her term she has had very high approval ratings.

This is an event from October 28 at Shalu District in the coastal area of the old Taichung County. There were no national KMT leaders speaking at this event. No Ma, no Chu, no Han. Johnny Chiang Chi-chen, the former KMT chair, spoke, but, in this context, he is a local figure. (In fact, Lu Hsiu-yen is the mayor today because she narrowly and unexpectedly beat Chiang in the primary four years ago.) Other speakers included a local legislator, a city council member, and both of Yen Ching-piao’s children (former legislator Yen Kuan-heng and current city council deputy speaker Yen Li-min). It was a very local cast.

Lu Hsiu-yen spoke almost entirely in Taiwanese. I think this might be the first time I have ever watched one of her rallies, and I didn’t know she was so eloquent in Taiwanese. She is framing herself as a competent, compassionate, and nurturing “Mama mayor,” who just wants her citizens to live happy and healthy lives. She emphasized her competence in office by talking extensively about building roads and making commute times easier for people. Near the end of her speech, she turned to air quality.

Air quality was one of the biggest issues in Taichung four years ago. There is an enormous coal-fired power plant on the coast, right near this event, and local residents are very sensitive about the notion that they have to suffer bad air so that people elsewhere in Taiwan (read: Taipei) can have abundant electricity. Lu has had a couple of high-profile disputes with the central government about how much coal this plant should be allowed to burn, and now she was going to take full credit for improvements. Taichung had never met the national standard for PMI 2.5, and neither had any other city in central or southern Taiwan, she said. However, under her leadership, this year Taichung met that standard for the first time! What an achievement!

And then she did something that elevated this from merely a good talking point to something much more powerful. It was not enough to just talk about the statistical data, she said. “People should be able to feel the difference. Look up at the sky,” she told the crowd. “Can you see the stars?” This was October, the worst time for air pollution, and you could never see stars in the past. “But now, can you see stars?” When they turned the cameras around, people were staring up at the sky, gazing at stars. It was one of those fantastic moments of political theater, where good government is suddenly demonstrated in a dramatic and concrete way. People might not remember exactly what she said, but they will probably remember staring up at the sky and thinking about how clean the air was (thanks to Mayor Lu). It was simply a brilliant rhetorical moment.

[A couple of skeptical points. Some might object that maybe the central government had something to do with promoting green energy and reducing air pollution. To that, I say good politicians always take credit for popular things. They certainly don’t habitually try to share the credit with people from the other party. More immediately, we don’t know if seeing stars was, in fact, rare in the past or whether they could actually see stars on this occasion. If they couldn’t, Lu had a ready answer. She told them that they had to look over there, since the bright stage lights would make it impossible to see stars if they looked in the wrong place. So, if they couldn’t see anything, it was probably user error. She projected absolute assurance that she had fixed the air! Fantastic!]

If we step back to look at the big picture, I think this anecdote is a pretty good illustration of what is happening this election cycle. The dominant trend this year is the power of incumbency. KMT mayors were swept into office all over Taiwan four years ago in the enormous KMT wave. That wave has long since subsided, and it turns out that Han Kuo-yu had not unlocked a powerful new formula for how to talk about the challenges Taiwanese voters face. Nevertheless, a big cohort of KMT mayors was left in office with an opportunity to govern. The dominant political cleavage has to do with attitudes toward China, which doesn’t necessarily have much to do with local politics. In the USA, there are clear differences in how Republicans and Democrats approach local politics since the two sides have ideological biases toward things like taxation, bureaucracy, and social welfare. However, there are not abstract KMT ways or DPP ways to pave the roads or build social housing. In purely local affairs, there is no reason that the KMT can’t perform just as well as the DPP. And apparently, the cohort of KMT mayors running for re-election this year has done a pretty good job. Most of them are pretty popular, and most seem on track to be re-elected.

However, it’s notable that Lu Hsiu-yen was not talking about national issues. I was very impressed with her performance at this rally, but she has not figured out a new way to talk about China. She was asking voters to give he another term because she has done a good job building roads and cleaning the air, not because they should punish President Tsai for refusing to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. If this election is a referendum on her, Lu will win. If it is a referendum on Tsai, maybe not. KMT incumbents all over central and southern Taiwan seem to be making the same calculation and striving to keep this a purely local election.

Campaign trail: DPP in Taitung

November 15, 2022

Liu Chao-hao is the DPP nominee for Taitung County magistrate. He is a two-term legislator, but, since indigenous voters do not vote in the regular legislative district, it is a lot easier for the DPP to win the Taitung legislative seat than the county magistrate. He has run for magistrate five times previously, and he lost every time. He was within 10,000 votes in 2009 and 2014 (against current KMT secretary general Justin Huang Chien-ting), but he got wiped out in 2018. This is a rematch of the 2018 race. The incumbent KMT magistrate, April Yao Ching-ling, is fairly popular, so there isn’t a lot a reason to be optimistic about Liu’s chances this time.

Both VP Lai and President Tsai spoke at the opening of Liu’s campaign headquarters on October 30. Lai may he let on how little confidence he has at the end of his talk by expressing reluctance to leave since he probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to come back for the rest of the campaign. Uh, if it’s a priority, he could make time.

The unique feature of this event is, shall I say, passion. Liu seemed to want to test the proposition that louder, faster, more energetic, and more forceful is always better. He set his internal settings to maximum right from the beginning, and he never backed off even a little. Most speakers pace their speeches so that there are peaks and valleys. Not Liu. He screamed at us for twenty minutes without relief. It was intense and relentless. Even the TV talk shows would have told him to chill out juuust a little.

I guess he convinced me that he loves Taitung, that he is energetic and passionate, and even that he understands the issues in detail. Since he is a five-time loser, he probably needs people to understand his relentless drive to win this office. But, honestly, I can’t remember anything he said. I can only remember a sense of overwhelming bombardment. It was exhausting. I kept hoping he would give me a bit of a break, but he never took his foot off the gas. President Tsai spoke after him, and I can’t really remember much of she said either. (She did say that Liu was one of her law school students.) I was mostly too dazed. Tsai’s relatively tranquil delivery was a palliative, but I was too traumatized to absorb much content.

In political communication, more is not always better.

campaign trail: KMT in Taipei City

November 14, 2022

This is an event from October 7. Kao Yang-kai, a KMT nominee for Taipei city council in District 6, was opening his campaign office. The featured speakers included Wayne Chiang, Eric Chu, and Ma Ying-jeou. One of the notable features of this campaign is how little the KMT candidates talk about China. They generally stay far, far away from that topic. Chu will say something about China every now and then, but Ma is easily the KMT figure most eager to talk about China. Unlike Chu and the candidates, Ma often seems uninterested in how his positions will sound to ordinary voters. Indeed, his primary goal seems to be defending the positions he took as president and his historical legacy.

This event was held near Ma’s home in Mucha, which is one of the deepest blue neighborhoods in Taiwan. Back in the day, the New Party got lots of votes in this area. Also, keep in mind that the audience includes lots of KMT party workers and true believers. If there was any place for Ma to make an ultra-Chinese nationalist statement, this was a pretty good choice.

About halfway through his litany of terrible things President Tsai and the DPP have done, Ma turned to Tsai’s 2021 National Day speech. Ma was shocked that Tsai had said that the two sides do no belong to each other 兩岸互不隸屬. The mainland, he said, was the ROC’s territory; our constitution says so, and so does the other side’s constitution!

I was a bit stunned by this. If I remember correctly, the ROC stopped actively asserting its claim to the mainland in about 1994. Moreover, the two sides not belonging to each other is pretty solidly entrenched in mainstream public opinion. And since when is it a good idea in a Taiwanese campaign event to cite the PRC constitution as an authoritative document?

I rewatched the video a few times to see how everyone else reacted. The audience mostly seemed bored by Ma. The reactions to his entire speech were unenergetic. When he demanded the audience respond [“Am I right?”], they repeatedly gave very flat and perfunctory responses. While he was talking, the other people on the stage were looking elsewhere and even staring at their phones. Wayne Chiang was standing right next to Ma during the speech. When Ma was going through the standard list of complaints (vaccines, Green Terror, energy policy, and so on), Chiang was nodding in agreement. When Ma turned to the ROC territory, Chiang suddenly froze. Ma’s speech wasn’t exactly thrilling the choir. It was more like he was a cranky old uncle who you pretend not to hear when he starts saying embarrassing things about minorities.

If the KMT does well in these elections, there will be people arguing that it is evidence that Taiwan is becoming more open to unification. That will be wrong. Even this audience wasn’t very interested in Ma’s Chinese nationalist rhetoric.

Campaign Trail: KMT event in New Taipei

November 14, 2022

I haven’t written anything about campaign events this cycle. I keep thinking I’m going to do a full writeup of an event, and I keep not finishing them. So instead, I’m going to try to give one or two quick reactions, talking about the one or two things that I found most interesting, unique, or unexpected.

This weekend, there was a big KMT event. It was in New Taipei City hosted by the Hou campaign, but all six KMT candidates for the six big municipalities were featured.

I was stunned by how vacuous this event was. In general, the KMT seems to place quite a bit of importance on the ritual of slogans/cheers. Every featured speaker makes a point of doing the Frozen Garlic cheer for every candidate on the stage. Now, my blog is titled “Frozen Garlic” and I love the pep rally nature of political rallies, but even I have some limits. I assume rallies are supposed to be primarily about telling voters why they should vote for you, and the enthusiasm about winning is secondary. But that wasn’t how this rally went.

They made a big show of each person entering the arena, spending quite a lot of time playing the same music six times. It took more than ten minutes for this. Well ok, the heroic entrance can be a great show. This one was repetitive, but it was still a show. Then Eric Chu got to speak for about ten minutes, which he used to repeatedly say in very vague terms, “our nominee is really good.” [Eg: Hsih Lung-chieh is capable and loves Tainan very much. He’s the best choice for Tainan mayor. It’s important to choose the best ones. Don’t you all agree?]

Each of the six candidates only got about minutes, which wasn’t enough time to make many serious points. The organizers were pretty aggressive about enforcing the time limits. [They seemed to think there was plenty of time between speakers for them to do lots of Frozen Garlic cheers, though.] Chang Shan-cheng was starting to talk about public policy proposals for Taoyuan, and the emcees broke in with a cheer to try to cut him off. He let them do the cheer, and then continued talking. They finally said, “the mayor has lots of ideas, but we don’t have enough time for all of them.” It’s pretty unusual to cut a speaker short, and this was a mayoral candidate. He was supposed to be one of the focuses of the event. But they didn’t have time for him to explain why he should be mayor. Surely they wouldn’t treat Wayne Chiang that way, right? He’s a star, after all. Wrong. He was making a quite substantive speech, talking about urban renewal and traffic problems when the emcee suddenly jumped in with a cheer, cutting Chiang off in the middle of a thought. [We don’t got no time fer that high-falutin stuff.] Lu Hsiu-yen spent all her time talking about how great the other five candidates are, and they threatened to cut her off, too. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Hou Yu-ih was the host, so they didn’t cut him off even though he spoke for ten minutes. They should have, though. He managed to speak for ten minutes without saying anything remotely substantive. He didn’t discuss his achievements in office, proposals for the next term, national politics, and he certainly didn’t mention anything about China. It was utterly vapid.

I think they might have devoted more time to cheers in this event than they allotted to all six candidates put together. Is this what Hou thinks an effective political campaign looks like – no message at all? I’m all for balloons and fireworks, but there eventually has to be some substance underneath everything. He’ll win this year, but this just won’t work if he runs in 2024.

Public opinion and Pelosi’s (unimportant) visit

September 29, 2022

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.