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'Baldy' and 'Golden Boy' bring the magic to Hou Yu-ih's poll numbers

Terry Gou exiting the presidential race is not the main reason behind Hou's jump in polls

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KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih. 

KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih.  (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — In our Taiwan News Poll of Polls, Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih’s (侯友宜) support remained fairly stable at 20-23% from Sept. 1 through to the registration of the presidential candidates on Nov. 24, then suddenly surged and closed the gap significantly with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) frontrunner Lai Ching-te (賴清德).

Yet neither Lai nor Taiwan People's Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) saw much of a jump in support. They remained squarely within the polling band they have been in since this poll of polls began.

'Baldy' and 'Golden Boy' bring the magic to Hou Yu-ih's poll numbers

This is a weighted average of surveys released over the last 15 days. For more information about how individual polls are weighted, click here. (Taiwan News graphic)

It is tempting to look at the poll numbers and conclude that after pan-blue Foxconn founder and independent candidate Terry Gou (郭台銘) dropped out, his supporters shifted their support to Hou. After all, Hou’s jump in the polls is pretty close to the amount of support that Gou had when he exited the race.

No doubt some of Gou’s supporters did switch to Hou and it was a factor, but I suspect that something else is at play here. That is, many of Gou’s supporters switched to Ko, and simultaneously many of Ko’s supporters switched to Hou.

Through much of the campaign, self-identifying KMT supporters showed only roughly 60-70% support for Hou, with the "other pan-blue" category only showing about one-third of support for Hou and another one-third for Ko, and the general category of "pan-blue" in the low sixties. Comparing a Formosa poll from late October with a current poll, we see some results that are not explained by Gou supporters switching to Hou.

Self-identified KMT supporters' support for Hou jumped by around 20%, which is more than quadruple the percentage of KMT supporters that previously supported Gou. Similarly, "other pan-blue" support for Hou jumped by triple the amount that supported Gou, and "pan-blue" by nearly quadruple those that supported Gou.

Simultaneously, support for Ko from all three of those categories more than halved during the same period. Yet, Ko’s overall support has been slightly up since late October.

After previously showing tepid support for Hou, the pan-blue camp is now uniting behind him, with a respectable 90% or so of self-identified KMT people supporting him. They are coming more from the Ko camp than from the former Gou camp.

Welcome ‘Baldy’ and ‘Golden Boy’

While it is possible that some were disappointed with Ko’s performance during the failed opposition unity ticket negotiations, it is far more likely that they are consolidating around Hou because of several strategic moves made by the KMT and the Hou camp.

First, the KMT released their party's list of legislative candidates that are voted in by a vote for parties rather than district constituencies. Top on the list was former Kaohsiung mayor and the 2020 KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who with self-deprecating good humor campaigned for Kaohsiung mayor in 2018 using the nickname "Baldy" (禿子).

Traditionally, the number one slot on the KMT’s party list is their candidate for legislative speaker, the third most powerful position in government. It is looking fairly likely that no single party will win a majority in the upcoming legislature, but with the backing of the likely friendly TPP caucus, he has a very good chance of winning that position.

This was followed up with the announcement that the KMT’s vice presidential candidate would be media personality and Broadcasting Corporation of China Chair Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康), who was at one time considered the "Golden Boy" (金童) of politics in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, Hou started touting plans to revive the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) negotiated with China under former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) but that was never ratified after protesters swarmed the streets in what became known as the Sunflower Movement.

All three of these choices are highly popular with the pan-blue base, but also highly controversial with many more mainstream voters. The message the KMT is sending with these strategic choices is loud and clear but comes with some risks.

Building trust in Hou

Previously, Hou had considerable success in his two campaigns for mayor of New Taipei City by appealing to independent voters and even on the pan-green side. Hailing from a family that has been in Taiwan for hundreds of years and a Hoklo (aka "Taiwanese") native speaker, he campaigned largely eschewing ideology in favor of an emphasis on public service and getting things done.

This is not as effective in a presidential campaign. Voters are not as demanding to know what a mayor’s thoughts are on relations with China, for example, but absolutely demand to know from a presidential candidate.

Worse for Hou, many of those independents in this race are backing Ko, who is less encumbered with KMT ideology. Within the pan-blue camp, many were distrusting of Hou, fearing he might be a secret "independence" supporter and turn out to be a "Lee Tung-hui (李登輝) 2.0," especially among those who hail from 49er families that fled the Chinese Civil War. Hou had been running neck-and-neck with Ko, so clearly the strategic decision was made to double down on the base.

Both Han and Jaw are deep-blue ideologues, pro-China, and from 49er families. They both are charismatic, strong on the campaign trail, and have strong followings of their own among the party faithful.

The KMT looked at the numbers and saw that if the party faithful could be brought back into the fold, they would get a significant leg up on Ko, while simultaneously blunting Ko’s appeal to segments of the pan-blue camp. They bet that with the addition of Jaw and Han, plus doubling down on pro-China proposals like the CSSTA and opening up Taiwan to Chinese students and tourists, doubts the base might have about Hou would be dispelled.

They are also likely hoping that once Hou breaks out ahead of Ko by significant numbers, the "dump-save effect" (棄保效應) of voters hoping for a change in the ruling party would strategically dump Ko to save Hou’s chances of beating the DPP’s Lai. If Hou can maintain his significant lead over Ko, this may happen to some degree, though if it happens it will likely appear more so on election day than polling may suggest.

These strategic moves are a gamble because they will turn off many independent and younger voters. This will put a cap on how high they can rise.

However, in a three-way race, they may be gambling that the KMT base and voters disgruntled with the DPP may be enough to put Hou over the top.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.