Here come the attacks…

One of the things that comes out time and again about Tsai Ing-wen is that she is a clean candidate. This is an important characteristic for all election candidates, but is particularly salient in an election where the incumbent prides himself on his own clean image and the challenger party has to deal with the baggage of a former party chairman and president jailed for corruption. With exquisite timing then, the KMT has launched a concentrated attack on Tsai’s image.

It started during the first presidential debate, where Ma made a concerted effort to tie Tsai to the Chen Shui-bian administration. Guilt by association is a common tactic, and though derided for his continual references to CSB, it is a vulnerability for the DPP. Of course, the KMT’s own history is, euphemistically, not blemish free either, and has been the subject of opposition attacks since the Tangwai era. It strikes me that voters may already be somewhat inured to revelations about the KMT. In any case, consistent revelations about the party (its connections to big business, media, civil service, military, China, the mafia etc. etc.) have not prevented it from maintaining its control of the legislature and being competitive in every executive election throughout the democratic period. Clearly, scandals and nefarious dealings have not devastated KMT support levels.

After ‘priming’ voters during the TV debate, the KMT reinvigorated an old issue (Tsai’s consulting role for a biotech company) in a legislative hearing that was clearly stage-managed. I am not a lawyer and have no detailed knowledge of the case. But an issue from 2007, which has not had any new developments, suddenly appearing on the public agenda at the sharp end of a campaign in which Tsai’s clean image is one factor in her strong poll performance, is obviously instrumental. And of course, it is the same tactic the KMT used in 2000, when friendly media broke the Soong Hsingpiao scandal. The difference is in the timing: this time round they waited until the final month of the campaign, no doubt hoping that it will dominate the rest of the campaign agenda.

Will it work, i.e. will it reduce Tsai’s support levels sufficiently that Ma will win regardless of the Soong-effect on election day? Let’s see. First, three decades of research on negative campaigning suggests that ‘there is no consistent evidence in the research literature that negative political campaigning ‘works’ in achieving the electoral results that attackers desire’ (Lau et al. 2007: 1185, italics in the original). Second, the majority of voters have already made up their minds who they are going to vote for. Confirmed DPP supporters will not be swayed by this. But, if the opinion polls are to be believed (Haha), a substantial segment of the electorate (10-20%) is still undecided, and we know that these voters tend to be influenced by what happens during the final part of the campaign. Furthermore, the KMT may be trying to create sufficient fear of a DPP comeback among (currently, self-declared) Soong supporters, that come election day, they do not dare register their dissatisfaction with Ma by making him vulnerable by voting Soong.

Could Ma risk a backlash? Research in the US suggests that voters (specifically weak partisans and independents) can withhold or withdraw their support for a candidate whom they perceive to be engaging in unfair, unwarranted or otherwise dastardly behaviour. If voters perceive these attacks on Tsai to be instrumental, could they hurt Ma (to whom the image of the gentleman-statesman is very important) more than Tsai? They could, which is why it is such a clever move to delegate the attack role to the party.

In a paper I have coming out in the Asian Journal of Communication using advertising as a proxy for campaigning, ad sponsorship was a robust predictor of all operationalizations of negativity, i.e. there is systematic evidence that presidential candidates get their parties to do the dirty work. In the paper I surmise that this is to avoid the backlash effect, to maintain ‘plausible deniability’ should voters react badly. Thus, while expecting attacks on Tsai to continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yu Chang case itself is made by Ma’s surrogates in the party and media.

What should Tsai do? A far-away leading candidate would be best off ignoring the bait and staying above the fray. Responding can only keep the issue on the agenda. But Tsai is not in that position and cannot risk doing a John Kerry, i.e. letting the scandal grow in the vacuum of a non-response. The allegations have met with a forceful rebuttal, and the DPP has framed the attack as a dirty tactic. Unless the scandal continues to grow and eats in to her poll numbers (in which case a party-led counter attack would be appropriate), she should move on and get back on message.

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