Taiwan has a lot to learn from failure of pre-election polls

Taiwan has a lot to learn from failure of pre-election polls
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature.

That the Kuomintang (KMT) was routed is perhaps not the biggest surprise of all - if it was a surprise at all - stemming from the Nov. 29 elections. Indeed, President Ma Ying-jeou fostered an amendment to the KMT's charter a year ago to ensure that, as president, he would automatically be the party chairman precisely because he expected this defeat.

One true surprise is how far the results of pre-election polls were from the final outcome. Incumbent New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu and Taoyuan Magistrate Wu Chih-yang both held near consistent double-digit leads against their opponents throughout their campaigns according to major polls released by institutions representing the entire political spectrum. Wu was defeated by Cheng Wen-tsan of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Chu barely held up to the challenge from the DPP's candidate Yu Shyi-kun, only winning by the smallest of margins.

Due to the miscalculation of Ma in his initial reluctance to resign his KMT chairmanship on the night of the defeat (he now is expected to quit on Wednesday), the president inadvertently set himself up as the sole target for the anger of KMT supporters. Ma was blamed as the reason behind the KMT's spectacular failure, including the surprisingly weak showings of Chu and Wu.

The unpopularity of Ma and his China policies is no doubt the main reason for the KMT's defeat last week. Yet it does not explain the unexpected disappearance of the strong KMT support in New Taipei City and Taoyuan suggested by polls. Since Ma's low approval ratings and public anger over the KMT's pro-China stance have been a long-term factor in this election, their impact on Chu and Wu should have been reflected in the poll results.

So what happened? Some local media outlets have suggested that as a consistent frontrunner, Chu (and to a lesser degree Wu) might have underestimated the DPP challenge and not campaigned hard enough, some suggesting that Chu was in full campaign mode only late in the game. However, even if that is true, it can hardly explain the evaporation of such a commanding lead. If anything, Chu's poll numbers should have started relatively lower and picked up later (as he was more engaged) if his lack of focus was the main factor.

Another possible reason suggested by political commentators is the so-called "Ko Wen-je factor." The battle between the independent Taipei candidate and his KMT rival Sean Lien had been the main story in the news in the ten days between the release of the last opinion polls and election day. It is possible that Ko's brand of civic engagement and his appeal to the younger generation energized voters beyond Taipei, where Ko won with 57 per cent of votes. The disarray and missteps of the Lien camp (for example, Lien Chan's "bastard" comment) in the late stages of the campaign might also have further disheartened already discouraged KMT supporters nationwide.

A potential factor that warrants special attention, however, is the possibility that polls have simply failed to reflect the true situation on the ground in this election. Pundits have pointed out that landline telephone polls might have underrepresented young voters who are often accessible only via cellphone.

The 2016 elections will go down as an extraordinary point in history. More studies into the breakdown of votes are needed to see if the discrepancy between polls and voting results was a one-time event. If there were significant flaws in the way polling was conducted, however, this election might have changed not only the political landscape in Taiwan but also the way polls should be conducted and weighed.

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