Written by Nathan Batto.

The KMT’s horrible polling numbers are familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Taiwanese politics over the past few years. Even those who only tuned in briefly during the Ma-Xi meeting were quickly informed of President Ma’s unpopularity and the DPP’s huge lead in the presidential race. Yet familiarity can cause one to skim over the information without really stopping to absorb its full impact. In this case, the numbers are unlike anything we have ever seen before in Taiwanese politics, and they deserve your full attention. These numbers suggest that 2016 might not merely bring a rotation of power; it might herald a much more fundamental shift in the party system.

Decades of studies of voting behavior tell us that the most powerful predictor of how a person will vote is his or her party identification. Pollsters ask a person, “Among the major parties in society, is there one that you support more than the others?” If the answer is yes, the respondent is asked which party that is. When a person is willing to provide an answer to this question, he or she is making a very strong statement. In fact, party ID is not just a short-term indicator. Once people identify with one party, they tend to hold onto that identification for years. This doesn’t mean that an identifier will always vote for that party or that all of a party’s votes come from identifiers. Still, the percentage of the electorate identifying with a party is perhaps our best indicator of the support that party has in society.

It doesn’t matter whose data you look at, they all tell the same story: KMT support has crashed over the past four years. This time series from Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, a private polling company, is updated every month. TISR produces two charts. The one on the left shows party ID for individual parties, while the one on the right combines the individual parties into the blue and green camps. Looking at the left chart, the blue line for the KMT was roughly 30-35% from 2006 to 2011. However, immediately after President Ma’s re-election in January 2012, the KMT’s party ID began plummeting. It fell for three full years, finally bottoming out at slightly under 20% in early 2015. The same trend is evident in data from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, covers more years but only has one data point every six months. In fact, the ESC data show that KMT party ID spiked right at the 2012 election. Ma’s 51-46% victory over Tsai in the general election was produced by an electorate in which the KMT enjoyed roughly a 40-25% advantage over the DPP in party ID.

From the late 1990s until 2012, party ID in Taiwan had been remarkably stable. The KMT (or the KMT plus the PFP) enjoyed support from about 35% of the electorate, while the DPP had a consistent 25% or so. If party ID is so powerful, this should have resulted in fairly stable electoral outcomes. In fact, it did. While a party’s electoral fortunes may have bumped up or down a bit from year to year based on individual candidates, corruption scandals, or various other short-term factors, the underlying structure was roughly a 50-45 split in favor of the KMT. Consider the magistrate and mayoral elections. Other than the presidency, these are the highest offices up for election. Indeed, mayors in major cities almost automatically become presidential contenders. However, there are enough different races that candidate factors mostly cancel out. There were four electoral cycles between 1997/1998 and 2009/2010. If we add up all the blue camp and green camp votes (including blue or green leaning independents), we find a stunningly consistent result: in each year, the blue camp beats the green camp by 51-46%, give or take a few percent.

Blue Camp Green Camp
1997/8 49.8 46.2
2001/2 52.4 45.7
2005/6 53.4 44.2
2009/10 50.8 48.4
2014 41.9 55.8

From early 2012 to late 2014, the KMT lost nearly 40% of its identifiers. We should expect this sort of monumental shift to have an electoral impact. As most readers are well aware, the 2014 mayoral races were a disaster for the KMT. Instead of a 50-45% balance in favor of the blue camp, 2014 produced a 55-40% result in favor of the green camp. While much of the media focus was on the personal failings of the KMT’s Taipei mayoral candidate, Sean Lien, the party ID trends suggest that the 2014 debacle was a result of much more fundamental factors. To put it another way, the KMT can’t recreate the old winning coalition simply by nominating better candidates.

Interestingly, while the KMT was hemorrhaging support during the 2012-2014 period, the DPP’s party ID wasn’t changing very much. The KMT was losing the war, but the DPP wasn’t winning it. The DPP was stuck in the 20-25% range. This might have given hope to KMT sympathizers. Maybe all those erstwhile KMT identifiers would come back to the party, or at least they might vote for it in elections. However in the last year, things appear to have changed. While the KMT seems to have finally steadied its support at about 20%, the DPP has started to climb. It has broken through the 25% barrier and is now pushing 30%. After two decades in which the KMT (or the blue camp) was always Taiwan’s top party, the DPP has now clearly emerged as the largest party. DPP party ID has consistently been ahead of KMT party ID by 5-10% for a full year. Again, this is something new in Taiwanese politics, and it would be folly to expect the 2016 election results to look similar to those from previous years. It is difficult to predict exactly where the new underlying central dividing line is, but it is clear that we are no longer in the old 50-45% world.

Nathan Batto is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica and owner of Frozen Garlic, an indispensable blog on Taiwanese politics.