Recent surveys suggest that while addressing the cooling in cross-Strait relations could improve overall evaluations of President Tsai, a higher emphasis should still be placed on addressing national defense and livelihood issues.
Public evaluations of President Tsai Ing-wen continue to pose a challenge for her administration, but what drives these declining numbers? Surveys from the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation show approval rates declining nearly in half from her inauguration in May 2016 to December 2017 (69.9% to 35.9%), while disapproval increasing nearly sixfold (8.8% to 46.6%). In January, a Taiwan Brain Trust survey found less than a third of respondents claimed to be satisfied with Tsai’s performance, with more respondents favoring Tsai’s co-partisan, Premier William Lai, as a presidential candidate in 2020 (also see here).
Tsai’s policy challenges are well documented and can be split primary into cross-Strait and domestic policy areas. In addition to a China that demands Taiwan affirm the so-called “1992 consensus” as a precondition for dialogue, which President Tsai has been reluctant to do, Beijing has also called an end to the diplomatic truce, which had prevented countries from switching recognition from one country to the other. The end to this truce resulted in Panama switching recognition from Taiwan to China and brought with it concerns that Taiwan’s other diplomatic partners in Latin America could follow suit; all of this has drawn attention to Taiwan’s increasingly complicated cross-strait relations.
On the domestic front, Chinese military drills near Taiwan in December and President Tsai’s perceived passivity to these actions in regard to national security, despite her calling for an increase in Taiwan’s defense budget, arguably contributed to declining approval ratings. As for the economy, GDP growth hovers around two percent, which is an improvement from when Tsai took office, but below expectations based on her campaign pledges to focus on the economy. Tsai campaigned on the New Southbound Policy, which would increase economic relations with other countries in Asia and allow Taiwan to decrease its economic dependence on China; the policy has been put in action, but strengthening relationships is a tedious process, and the slowness could be a cause of disapproval. The Tsai administration’s initial lack of progress on another campaign pledge, legalizing same-sex marriage, was largely overshadowed by a Constitutional Court decision in May declaring Taiwan’s current marriage laws unconstitutional. In addition, growing income inequality, low wages, labor law protests, and other social and economic factors remain.
Although survey results are ubiquitous in Taiwan, frequently survey companies and think tanks release only the most basic aggregate results, which are perfect for a soundbite but not for a broader understanding.
Few citizens base evaluations of elected officials on just one issue, and while many factors unrelated to policy likely influence views as well — including a candidate’s gender — our assumption remains that policy areas are the heavy lifters here. But which policy areas motivate general evaluations of President Tsai the most? This is of particular importance as Tsai’s popularity is likely to have an effect on Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates in this year’s local elections. Evidence from 2016 showed a clear coattail effect, whereby those who voted for Tsai were more likely to cast their votes for the legislature for the DPP as well, while unpopular executives frequently hurt their party’s performance in other elections. An increasingly unpopular Ma Ying-jeou and the historic defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 2014 local elections provided momentum for the DPP’s historic 2016 victory, a point that is hard for the KMT to forget but which may also provide hope for a reversal of the same fortune later this year.
Although survey results are ubiquitous in Taiwan, frequently survey companies and think tanks release only the most basic aggregate results, which are perfect for a soundbite but not for a broader understanding. Individual level data allows us to move beyond superficial summations condensed down to one number (e.g. “X % approve of Tsai”) to understand the factors behind this summary. Survey data from National Chengchi’s Election Study Center allows us not only to analyze perceptions in 2017, but to compare it to perceptions from late 2016 previously analyzed here. The recently released twenty-first wave of the “Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study” (TEDS2017_PA09), conducted in September, is available here. Unfortunately, their December wave is not available yet and thus cannot capture the impact of recent events, such as the Chinese military exercises. Rather than relying on one measure of evaluation, this survey asks a series of questions to evaluate President Tsai. These include five policy areas — cross-Strait relations, diplomacy, national defense, economic development and livelihood issues — as well as an overall satisfaction with Tsai’s performance since her inauguration.
The figure below shows satisfaction rates on the five policy areas as well as an overall evaluation of performance, all broken down by partisanship. For simplicity, we combined “satisfied” and “very satisfied.” Several points should be made. Overall, evaluations appear mixed, with clear partisan differences between the DPP and the KMT. In every measure, DPP identifiers’ satisfaction with Tsai surpassed that of the KMT by over 40 percent, the largest deviation being in terms of overall performance (63.82%). The influence of partisan identification, especially in the Taiwanese context, is expected, although the degree of polarization may be disconcerting. Secondly, one would expect that satisfaction rates across the five policy areas would not be independent from one another (e.g. that evaluations in one area influence evaluations on other dimensions), especially those with a strong partisan identification. For the most part this holds true; however, the figure highlights greater variation, especially within the DPP, than might have been expected. For example, of the five policy areas, DPP and KMT supporters both gave the highest levels of satisfaction to national defense and the lowest to economic development. However, the variation among evaluative measures is considerably larger among Tsai’s own co-partisans (23.12% vs. 13.59% for KMT supporters).
To further gauge the influence of these five factors on President Tsai’s overall performance, we conducted a series of regressions that not only controlled for partisan identification, but also demographic factors (age, gender and education). Like the previous analysis of 2016, we found that all five factors positively correlated with higher evaluations of Tsai’s overall performance, with economic development consistently having the largest substantive effect on overall performance.
How do these rates of satisfaction compare to evaluations in 2016? The next figure shows the percentage change in each measure using 2016 as the baseline. Across most measures, satisfaction with President Tsai has declined, although this is not unusual in presidential democracies, as approval rates commonly decline after a short honeymoon period, as seen in the U.S., France and Mexico. Tsai’s approval rates in her first year in office also did not fundamentally differ from Ma’s approval rates in his first year.
Of particular note is the 11.11% drop in satisfaction on cross-Strait relations among DPP supporters. While KMT supporters and proponents of Ma’s cross-Strait policy more broadly emphasize warmer relations, direct flights, economic agreements, and even the first meeting between heads of state, why they would be marginally more satisfied with current cross-Strait tensions, and why DPP supporters would be less satisfied is unclear. The 11.11% drop in satisfaction on cross-Strait relations also points to a larger partisan trend. While President Tsai’s copartisans ranked their satisfaction at an average rate of six times higher than KMT members in 2017, DPP members also showed a greater average decrease in satisfaction across the five policy areas (-4.22 for DPP vs. +0.29 for KMT). A decline in support from fellow party members could be attributed to any of the policy challenges described above, but is most likely due to the policy challenges that correspond with unfulfilled campaign promises.
In the previous analysis in 2016, one of the most interesting findings was that evaluations of President Tsai on livelihood issues generated the largest influence on models using the leadership or morality scores as outcomes, suggesting that a higher emphasis should have been placed on livelihood issues. Since then, the DPP seems to be slightly more satisfied in this area, as it was one of only two policy areas for DPP party members in which satisfaction increased, but it received the largest drop in satisfaction among the five policy areas from the KMT, suggesting a discontinuity in the progress of livelihood issues over the last year.
The survey also asks respondents to rate President Tsai on a 0-10 scale on leadership as well as trust. On leadership, the results show a minor decline since 2016 in the average evaluation across the board (Overall: 4.85 vs. 5.23; DPP: 6.55 vs. 6.77; KMT: 3.77 vs. 3.97). Trust evaluations largely fall in line with leadership scores in 2017 as well (Overall: 4.91; DPP: 6.99; KMT: 3.60). Regression analysis to identify what factors influence evaluations on both President Tsai’s overall leadership as well as trust again found that all five policy areas positively correspond with evaluations, although satisfaction with cross-strait relations exhibited the smallest substantive effect in both cases. Such findings suggest that while addressing the cooling in cross-Strait relations could improve overall evaluations of President Tsai, a higher emphasis should still be placed on addressing national defense and livelihood issues.
Assessing the public’s perceptions of elected officials will always be a bit of a moving target. Nevertheless, the evidence here suggests continued and somewhat predictable challenges for Tsai in 2018, but also the extent to which traditional policy areas influence declining satisfaction.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.