Written by Wen-Ti Sung.

After well over half a year of campaigning, Taiwan’s “nine-in-one” mega-election will conclude in little over a week. As campaigns enter the final dash before the finish line, the principal message in their ads and punditry has begun to shift gear.

Campaign messages in Taiwan seem to follow a consistent three-act sequence: brand building, negative campaigning, and finally positive reinforcement. Early on, the talking points tend to focus on building their candidates’ personal narrative so as to increase name recognition among voters — a voter who doesn’t recognize who you are is less likely to be bothered enough to queue up at the voting booths to vote for you, and s/he may rather take the election day break as a personal day off. For the two principal Taipei mayoral candidates, for example, their official narrative arc might are essentially a variant of the following:

Sean Lien (連勝文): An Ivy League-educated international financier whose professional experience as a global high-flyer gives him more than a few ideas about how to make Taipei a great city. His Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) bona fides are demonstrated through him taking a gun shot in the face while campaigning for the KMT on the eve of the 2010 mid-term election. This fact, in the eyes of some, helped rally KMT voters in the eleventh hour and helped the KMT escape the 2010 elections with a narrow victory. Literally, Lien “took one for the team.”

Ko Wen-je (柯文哲): A rags-to-riches self-made man whose commitment to the less privileged is best demonstrated through him voluntarily giving up his U.S. green card so that as a physician he could care for the Taiwanese people more than for the more well-to-do American patients. His supposed commitment to transcend Taiwan’s divisive party politics and political gridlock is illustrated by the fact that he happened to be both a strong critic of the KMT and the head of the emergency medical team that took care of Sean Lien’s injury on the night of the aforementioned shooting.

Once the personal branding is done, in the later phases of the campaign negative tactics begin to emerge as a way to influence electoral turnout for the other camp. For example, Lien and his pundits criticized Ko’s character and ideology. Specifically, they questioned Ko’s integrity and his hospital unit’s financial records, as well as hinting that Ko is either a closet independence ideologue himself or a puppet of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In any case, Ko’s election would allegedly spell a certain doom for the Republic of China (ROC) polity.

In return, the Ko camp likewise struck back at Lien’s integrity and out-of-touchness. His camp hinted that the Lien family’s exorbitant wealth was ill-gotten, and that, being born with a silver spoon in the mouth, Lien is generally unable to have true “empathy” for the plight of the underprivileged (imagine — pardon the U.S.-centric reference — the reverse of Obama’s argument for nominating Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court).

After the televised debate between Lien and Ko, this week the campaign finally entered Act 3, the “get-out-the-vote positive reinforcement ads” phase. Lien posted his presumably final campaign ad. Titled “One World” (同一種世界), it is a 2 minute-long music video featuring young breakdancers busting their moves to an upbeat tune. Towards the end a caption appears to defend Lien’s privileged upbringing: “Dancing is about technique and focus — one’s ‘background’ has nothing to do with it!”

Ko’s rock-the-vote ad, in contrast, utilizes a more solemn tone. Titled “How long has it been since you last listened to your kids?” (你有多久沒聽你的孩子說話?), an invisible narrator walks the audience through various symptoms of the closure of socio-economic mobility, and he calls on the voters to safeguard their children’s future by casting their vote carefully.

The tone of Ko’s final ad is curiously downbeat for a candidate who has been leading in most polls to date. Although this approach is not without precedent. Ko’s ad is reminiscent of DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) final rock-the-vote ad during the 2008 presidential campaign, which was titled “Guardians.” (守護者篇)

Both ads focus on family relations and communication between parents and their children. Both emphasize that when they are alone in the voting booth, voters should be casting their vote not so much for themselves as for their family members. The difference is that the subjects and objects of persuasion are reversed between the two ads.

Ko’s ad essentially asks parents to talk to their children and feel their children’s concerns about their future, and then vote for the candidate who represents class mobility. Hsieh’s instead called upon the children (i.e. first time voters) to safeguard the democracy that their parents had fought for by not voting for the KMT’s presidential candidate. In other words, in Ko’s ad, the children are the persuaders (their concerns should guide their parents’ vote); in Hsieh’s ad, the parents were the persuaders (their concerns for democracy ought to guide their children’s vote).

Polling data helps us to appreciate why the two campaigns’ take-away messages differ, as Ko and Hsieh were working with very different electoral demography.

In the 2008 campaign, Hsieh faced an uphill battle. According to polls from the closing stages of the campaign, the DPP’s traditional lead in the 20-29 demographics had all but evaporated by the end of president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) unpopular second term (2004-2008). The DPP fared even worse in the 30-39, 40-49, and 50-59 age groups. The only group in which Hsieh had any advantage was with the 60+ year-olds demographics. Hence, Hsieh wanted the parents (older voters) to do the talking and persuade their then less DPP-friendly children.

In contrast, Ko’s voter support generally follows the “the younger the voter the wider the lead” trend: Ko’s lead is strongest among the 20-29 age group and weakest among the 60+ age group. Hence, Ko wants the DPP-friendly children to persuade their less DPP-friendly parents.

Hsieh’s support by age bracket (2008)hsieh
Ko’s support by bracket (2014)ko
Both tables are from TVBS polls released in March 22, 2008, and Nov. 8, 2014 respectively.

So there we have it. All three campaigns seem to have a good grasp of their own perceived weaknesses as reflected in polling data, and all three have tailored their last moment get-out-the-vote appeal accordingly. Taiwan’s election regulations prohibit the release of survey data in the ten-day period before the election day, so we won’t have any new data until the conclusion of the election. However, as I observed in an earlier piece on Taipei’s electoral demography, if Ko’s historically improbable gains among the 40-49 voters and Waishengren voters in the (admittedly fickle) polls can translate into votes for him, we will be set to witness a new electoral realignment in Taipei.

Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Wen-Ti tweets @wentisung. This piece first appeared on Thinking Taiwan. Image Credit: CC by I-Ta Tsai/Flickr.

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