In recent years politicians and the media have often referred to the term "median voters" to describe a particular group within the electorate. However, they often confuse its meaning with that of "independent voters," which refer to voters with no party affiliation, and "undecided voters," which refers to voters who do not divulge their preferences during opinion poll interviews.
The median voter theorem is a well-known concept in game theory. It posits that in an electoral competition between two candidates, if voter policy preferences can be represented along one dimension, the candidate whose views coincide with the median preferences of the electorate as a whole will win the ballot.
This means that in a single-member district plurality electoral system with two candidates, a candidate who really wants to win must lean toward the median because whoever secures that position will win greater voter support .
That theory might not apply, however, if there is more than one issue or more than two candidates in an election. Neither would it apply in a situation where the preferences of the electorate as a whole describe an "M" or normal distribution on the ideological spectrum of a single issue.
In other words, even if the electorate as a whole trace an M-peak, or double-peak distribution in single-member districts, the candidate closer to the median in a standoff between two contenders is still more likely to win unless some of his erstwhile supporters decide not to vote.
Legislative elections used to be based on a multi-member district system. Under the system, candidates might spread across the whole ideological spectrum rather than lean towards the middle, because they can be elected by attracting the votes of minority groups. Hence, in addition to party affiliation and personal image, other factors such as the total number of candidates nominated by the party, successful vote allocation and differentiation of nominees from the same party may all affect election results.
In such elections, candidates in the median position may not be elected if voter preferences show a double-peak distribution. But under the new single-member district systems -- be it elections for local government chiefs, legislators or president -- victory will almost be guaranteed for the candidate choosing the middle path as long as the campaign focuses on one major issue and there are only two candidates.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians running for legislative seats in this year's elections may face a two-level game dilemma. The DPP's legislative primaries are 70 percent decided by opinion polls that include only green camp supporters and 30 percent by a poll open only to party members.
Based on past experience both inside and outside Taiwan, those who actively participate and wield a greater influence in the primaries are usually the party's hardline supporters. Thus, DPP politicians will have a better chance to be nominated if they are backed by die-hard supporters.
In the year-end elections, however, they will have to strive for majority support in one-on-one races. This is a whole new experience. How candidates adjust to their different roles and strategies in the primaries and the official election will be a tough challenge. Naturally, the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) may face the same problem if it also excludes the rival camp's supporters from their opinion polls for the primaries.
Lastly, it is important to note that this discussion is based on a single-issue campaign. Voter structure and preferences may be different in each electoral district. For certain candidates, if they want to win in a single-member district, local service and grassroots management may still prove crucial to being elected.
Wang Yeh-lih is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Tunghai University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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