Swaying Undecided Young Voters in Taipei

As newcomers to electoral politics, Ko and Lien have run campaigns that seek to appeal to young people. Will this strategy encourage young skeptics to vote at all?
C. Ed Hsu

With the narrowing margin between the two top candidates in the Taipei mayoral election, undecided voters — whose numbers have increased in recent weeks — will likely be the deciding factor in the election. How to win over voters who are still on the fence, especially the young ones who may not be as easily swayed by old-style politics, will be a crucial component of each camp’s strategy ahead of Nov. 29.

According to recent statistics by Taiwan Indicator Survey Research (TISR), independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was leading Sean Lien (連勝文) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) by less than 10% (Ko: 33.8% vs. Lien: 24.4%). More than 12% (12.6) said they did not intend to vote, while more than 25% did not provide an answer. Though observers are of the opinion that younger voters (namely those in the 20-49 age bracket) are more likely to vote for Ko, many members of the younger generation are thought to be members of a silent majority within the undecided group, one that is too skeptical to vote. Consequently, campaign strategies that encourage young skeptics to turn up and check the box later this month could, depending on their success, make or break the election.

What, therefore, constitutes a sensible campaign strategy to sway the undecided, particularly younger voters? This article provides some perspectives on potential reasons for the increase in the population of undecided voters, what might work to a candidate’s advantage, and concludes with some advice on campaign strategy.


The undecided: Normative vs. positive election platforms

The Taipei mayoral election is an unconventional campaign. The two main candidates have little (if any) political experience (Ko and Lien have never been elected to anything). This lack of experience may in fact have compounded the indecisiveness among a large segment of potential voters. Common to many political newcomers, Ko and Lien have tended to run on a less realistic, or normative, campaign platforms, in direct contrast with the politically savvy, sophisticated candidates who usually offer more practical, or positive, campaign platforms.

Normativeperspective holders provide prescriptive, value-based statements, and consider what actions should be taken in a perfect world. In the present Taipei campaign, due to their lack of political sophistication, Ko and Lien’s normative election platforms on major policy issues — urban renewal among them — have often sounded naïve and are therefore subject to criticism for their idealism and (perceived) lack of practicality.

In contrast, positive-perspective platforms tend to more fact based, and are likely more mindful of political realities and the interests of stakeholders. Lien’s “entertaining” role-playing and Ko’s decision to run as an independent may be an outcome of this.

In practical terms, a normative campaign platform seems to have intuitive appeal for the younger generation over a positive one, as this group is likely more idealistic than its senior (and more “sophisticated”) counterpart.

How, then, can such an approach to campaigning be improved?


Motif as a rhetorical device

A common tool employed in a campaign to get a message across is a motif. As a rhetorical device, a motif uses the repetition of a concept to heighten the importance of, and draw attention to, an idea. A not-so-distant example from the U.S. was presidential candidate Barak Obama’s campaign motif of change and hope, which was repeated throughout his campaign.

In the Taipei mayoral election, campaign motifs have been loud and clear: Ko’s involves a pledge of benevolence and personal integrity, whereas Lien’s is “pro business” and “pro economy.” Although such strategies can appeal to younger voters, they can, as we shall see, also be double-edged swords.

When used appropriately, motifs can be very effective in appealing to younger people. Motifs were skillfully employed in Ko’s campaign to characterize Lien. For instance, Ko’s camp has taken advantage of a Lien’s status as rich and privileged.


Youth language

Efforts at cultural like-mindedness and demonstrating one’s ability to speak a foreign language (the latter serving as a proxy for a candidate’s international vision) also appear to be important. For example, in an ostensible attempt to attract younger voters, Lien has been seen dancing with street artists and has played different hard-labor roles for photo ops. He also had lunch with international youths in Taipei where he discussed his vision for the city. He has also challenged Ko’s English-speaking capability.

After all has been said, performed, and done, are these tactics effective in courting young voters and turning the election around? That is unlikely.

Dancing with the younger generation, engaging in role-play and speaking English are nice additions to a mayor’s personality, but in and of themselves they are not sufficient or necessary qualifications for a competent mayor. Today, young people in Taiwan are understandably far more concerned about job opportunities and freedom of expression, about their hopes and dreams for the future of Taiwan, and are worried about changing the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait for uncertain economic gains, then whether a potential mayor can speak proper English or appear comfortable holding a shovel. They want answers to these fears and anxieties eased — sooner rather than later — through a change in the city’s leadership. This was made evident by the Sunflower protests in the spring and the wide participation of youngsters in civil activities in Taipei and across Taiwan.

As the old saying goes, “it is not what you say, but how you say it.” Lien’s conversational English (acquired in part through his early childhood, from private school to an overseas education) isn’t what really matters; rather, whether he can deliver his views in a way that inspires and connects his passions with younger voters does. At the end of the day, attitude and a personable touch can say a lot about a person. On this note, polls have consistently shown that Lien has serious problems turning his image as a playboy around; with less than a month ahead of the election, his manufactured image as a hard worker is unlikely to pay dividends.


Carrots and sticks

Both candidates have made extensive use of carrots and sticks — promised rewards and scare tactics — to attract young voters. For instance, Lien has vowed that if he were elected he would reward the residents of Taipei with raised unemployment benefits and retirement pensions, while Ko has promised expanded budgets for education and culture. The scare tactics, meanwhile, have seen Lien warning that if he did not win the election, Taiwan’s industry and economy could be severely undermined, and that pensions for the military and public servants would be in jeopardy.

Although the effect of promised rewards have yet to be felt, the scare tactics are probably the least (if at all) effective in attracting young voters, particularly among younger generations that often are resistant to authority and threatening language. In general, voters should never be made to feel that they are under pressure or obligation to vote for any candidate making threatening remarks.


The moral high ground vs. the business agenda

Ko’s camp has claimed the moral high ground and pledged solid and unquestionable integrity to distinguish itself from Lien’s pro-business, network-and-connection-based agenda. The moral high ground pledge, including Ko’s overcoming personal limitations (on his own admission, he suffers from attention deficit disorder, or ADD), may intuitively appeal to younger people who may seek inspiring figures and a model to follow. This is indeed a distinguishing campaign theme, and one that may have given Ko an edge against his opponent, who seems to have it all.

On the other hand — and this is the aforementioned other side of the double-edged sword — the touting of one’s moral high ground ensures that a candidate’s words and deeds will be under heightened scrutiny and weighed for their consistency. This was evidenced by the selective vetting of Ko’s professional conduct, which we discussed in a previous article.

In addition to worrying about selective vetting, Ko’s campaign should be mindful of the potential pitfalls of taking the moral high ground: self-imposed moral high standard are not always universal, or even legally acceptable (for example, the internal protocols involved in establishing research account standards versus what is permissible by the law). In addition, in times of an economic downturn, young people may be inclined to look more positively on policies to improve the economy than on the abstracts of high morality.

On this note, there was discussion of whether the Taipei mayoral candidate should take a stance on business with China (or for that matter, whether Chinese students in Taiwan should pay the same health insurance rate as locals do, and so on). Although this issue may be particularly relevant for Lien’s campaign, which has pushed an aggressive China agenda to court Taiwanese investors and new immigrant voters from that community, it is not an issue that will have substantial traction in the elections, as a city does not really have subject-matter jurisdiction on cross-strait issues. Since there is no study to support how a China policy would affect young voters, it remains unknown whether candidates’ taking a stance on the China issue would affect young voters.


Final thoughts

With less than a month before elections day, it is still not too late to try to motivate undecided, young people to turn out to vote. Some advice on how to do so:

For Lien, who is running on a pro-business platform: continue to improve market prospects by giving young people hopes and dreams with equal opportunities for success, without changing the nation’s democratic way of life. Specifically, get young voters’ input when proposing any business policy involving China. In addition, avoid engaging in negative campaign tactics, such as making threatening remarks, or using networks of power and influence against his primary campaign competitor.

For Ko, who has sought to inspire supporters, including younger voters: engage in error reduction and avoid making mistakes for the remaining campaign period. Continue to hold the moral high ground (younger voters seem to like it); exercise judgments and control your emotions (e.g., stop being defensive or shoving journalists aside when you are asked tough questions) and defer all non-essential, personal, or trivial questions to your campaign spokespersons; talk under the advice of your legal counsel; and lastly, provide policy solutions that will have a tangible impact on the lives of the city’s residents.

As often demonstrated in the NBA, the team with the least number of fouls/errors will often win the game. Sometimes the same applies to politics.


Ed Hsu studied law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He is an adjunct professor teaching policy and management in California. He is currently on leave in Taipei and can be reached at: chsu@faculty.umuc.edu

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