The flawed math of Moon Jae-in

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The flawed math of Moon Jae-in

The so-called “Moon surge” in the last week before the presidential election received plentiful media coverage with some predicting a Moon victory based on that surge just days before the election. There was just one problem - that surge never took place. Instead, the perceived strengthening of Moon Jae-in was the product of media hype, a misunderstanding of public opinion polls, and his ultimate loss was due in part to his own camp’s fundamental misunderstanding on how voter turnout works.

While it is true that Moon Jae-in had an impressive rise from August through December - rising from support of just 10 percent to seriously challenge Park Geun-hye - in the last two weeks before the election there was no evidence of a surge for Mr. Moon in the polls. For every poll conducted by Research & Research after Dec. 3, support for the two candidates was within the margin of error.

Moreover, in the last six days of the campaign - during which time polling results were embargoed due to Korean election law - that spread was consistently narrower than 2 percentage points. Thus, any perceived gains by Mr. Moon during that time could just as well have been the result of the random sampling error which is a part of any poll. Thus, Moon’s rise was certainly a good story, added intrigue to the election, and it almost certainly sold newspapers. But the Moon surge was a case of the media getting caught in its own echo chamber.

Of course, that kind of media attention can certainly be beneficial to a candidate as it can galvanize the base and increase voter turnout. An increase in turnout, we were told, would work to the benefit of Moon Jae-in because it would mean that many more young voters were making it to the voting booth. But again there was a problem: that is not how voter turnout works. This is where the Moon campaign’s flawed math was especially detrimental to its own efforts.

On Election Day the initial reports of high turnout levels had progressives feeling confident, as they anticipated a Moon victory. Of course, that expectation was created by the Moon camp itself. It had stated that a turnout of 75 percent or more would produce a Moon victory. However, it now appears that no matter how high the turnout, he would have been unable to defeat Ms. Park. The miscalculation seems to have been born out of a misunderstanding of the nuts and bolts of how turnout increases in elections.

The most likely explanation is that when thresholds for a Moon victory were calculated, turnout for those in their 50s and 60s were held at a near constant to their historical trends. In presidential elections since 2002, that turnout has been approximately 78 percent. Thus, by holding that turnout constant, calculations were then made on what kind of turnout would be required of those in their 20s and 30s to swing the election in Moon’s favor.

However, the core assumption of that model did not hold because when voter turnout increases it almost always increases across all age cohorts, not only among certain age cohorts. While the turnout among voters in their 20s reached 65 percent - 13 percentage points higher than the previous two presidential elections - the turnout among those in their 50s reached a staggering 90 percent.

Among all the focus on the youth vote, analysts forgot that old voters could also be galvanized, and this is where increased media attention can be a double-edged sword. The steady reports of a Moon surge may have galvanized older voters - voters who overwhelmingly support Park Geun-hye - as well. It was precisely that galvanization that won the election.

These assumptions on voter turnout bring the demographics of Korea into sharp relief, and those demographics never favored Moon Jae-in. While this story has only emerged in the media after the election, it went largely uncovered in the lead-up to the election.

This was a serious oversight. Korea is an aging society, and since 2007 there has been a 4.6 percentage-point decline in the proportion of 20s and 30s in the total Korean electorate. Accordingly, there has been a 5.0 percentage-point increase among the proportion of voters in their 50s and 60s. As is well-established, they overwhelmingly supported Park Geun-Hye, and this trend is going to accelerate. Their increased numbers, along with their historically higher turnout, made the path to victory for Moon Jae-in an improbable one.

As the Korean population ages, the leading progressive party - in whatever name or form it takes for the next election - will need to focus on addressing the increasingly complex positions of older voters. The flawed assumption on voter turnout led the Moon campaign to over-focus on getting out the youth vote rather than addressing these complex concerns and gaining support among Park’s base.

In the coming elections, these older age cohorts will hold the key to victory, and if the progressive political parties fail to understand that they can look forward to the kind of disappointments they had in 2012. Simply getting out the youth vote was not, and will not be, a reliable path to victory.

*The author is a program officer in the Public Opinion Studies Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
By Karl Friedhoff
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