The front-runner illusion

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The front-runner illusion


The JoongAng Ilbo series “The Age of Smart Voters” showed political awareness is rapidly changing in the aftermath of the mass protest rallies demanding President Park Geun-hye’s ouster. When asked about the qualities voters want from a president, most respondents — 33.2 percent — said transparency. The report also found that voters in their 20s and 30s are more willing to participate in elections than those in their 50s and 60s, making their turnout a major variable.

The survey also confirmed the surge in demand for a progressive leader. Public opinion has drastically changed since the Choi Soon-sil scandal. The driving force of the political market is no longer the suppliers (aka politicians), but the users (or voters).

Yeouido politics, referring to the seat of legislative government, is often supply-heavy. In every presidential election, the idea of a “mainstream” surfaces in which candidates hope to inspire a mob mentality and gain mainstream support. As that support spreads, voters who do not back the candidate avoid responding to surveys, so the rating gap grows and creates the illusion of a front-runner. When that continues, the difference between opinion polls and actual public sentiment can be vast. In last year’s April general election, the opinion polls were disastrous.

The “mainstream” theory has seen many failures. In a JoongAng Ilbo survey on presidential contenders published Jan. 1, 2002, the leader of what was then the Grand National Party, Lee Hoi-chang, dominated Democratic Party adviser Rhee In-je 53.0 percent to 40.4 percent. In a contest between Lee and the Democratic Party’s Roh Moo-hyun, Lee had an even greater lead, 57.9 percent versus 37.4 percent. But in the Democratic Party’s open primary later that March, Roh became widely popular, and Lee’s two-year lead became a mirage.

During the presidential election in 1997, Park Chan-jong was the major contender. In a World Research poll on Jan. 1, the New Korea Party candidate had a lead of 27.4 percent, followed by National Congress Chairman Kim Dae-jung with 20.4 percent and New Korea Party compatriot Lee Hoi-chang with 19.0 percent. But Park did not even get past the primary, much less contend in the general round.

Just as no one in Yeouido expected the Saenuri Party to become the second-largest party in the National Assembly after last year’s general election, this year’s presidential election is hard to predict. Public sentiment is fluid. Rather than follow the politicians, the media should pay attention to voters’ desire for change. The Age of Smart Voters series is the first step in that paradigm change. The presidential contenders need to listen closely to what voters really want.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan.5, Page 29

*The author is a political news reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.


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