Hawaii’s Republicans should not be fooled about the meaning of Charles Djou’s and Linda Lingle’s losses. The defeats indicate a problem so deep that the quality of the Republican candidates really doesn’t matter any more.

Djou and Lingle were certainly good candidates. They were both well known. Each had well-funded campaigns, certainly compared to Republican candidates in the past. To understand the depths of Republican problems, we need to look at Lingle’s and Djou’s strategies not because their strategies were so flawed but because they were so correct.

Lingle and Djou each took different paths to defeat. Both talked bipartisanship, but Djou stressed his Republican orthodoxy, especially on fiscal issues. He was perfectly at home with Paul Ryan. Lingle tried to play down her Republicanism. Paul Ryan would have had a hard time getting a grasp of her economic views, and he probably would not have been all that pleased when he did.

Taken together, those strategies cover the waterfront. There are no other possible strategies for any candidate, whether Democrat or Republican, who is running for office. The problem for the Hawaii Republicans is that both basic strategies were doomed from the start. The state of Utah used to give a condemned prisoner a choice of being shot or being hanged. For Djou and Lingle, Hawaii was Utah: you get to choose how you are going to lose.

The Republicans’ quandary is easy to describe, hard but essential to fix. The problem is simple arithmetic. There are far too few Hawaii voters who call themselves Republicans, and far too few independents who lean toward the Republican Party. For instance, in the Oct. 1, 2012, poll of the Lingle-Hirono race, 54 percent called themselves Democrats, a little over 20 percent called themselves independents, while only 17 percent considered themselves Republicans. These numbers probably exaggerate the number of Democrats, but they are a good enough general indicator of how deep a Republican candidate has to dig into the pool of independents and Democrats to win an election. During the campaign a common question was “is Linda Lingle really a moderate?” That is the wrong question. The real question is “given the numbers, did she really have any other choice but to compete as one?”

What makes these numbers so significant is that people’s party identification is quite stable. Persons who are the most interested and informed about politics are the ones most likely to vote consistently either Democrat or Republican. Even most independents regularly lean in one party direction or the other. People do change, but in Hawaii’s case think of how many have to do so in order for Republican candidates to be successful.

In more competitive states like Wisconsin, when a party loses a U.S. senate seat or a legislature changes hands, only a relatively few voters have to shift. The race starts fairly close to even. In Hawaii the starting line is regularly staggered the same way that it was in Tuesday’s elections. Hirono and Hanabusa started many more yards closer to the finish line than Lingle and Djou did. There is every reason to think this staggered start will be the same in the future unless Republicans in Hawaii re-think what they are.

For Republicans the 2012 state House races offer at best a glimmer of short-term optimism, but there is no reason to think that short term will become long term, and overall things went as badly as before. Two young, Republican women won seats in areas that are normally Democratic. On the other hand, two Republican incumbent House members lost their seats, a former Republican state senator failed to win his seat back, and the party did not do well in newly created seats. Overall the Republicans kept their lone Senate seat and lost one seat in the House. When Linda Lingle was governor, East Oahu, which by Hawaii standards is a Republican hot house, had three Republican house members. Now it has one. The downward spiral of the state’s Republican Party continues.

Changes in demographics can influence the strength of political parties. The 2012 Obama campaign is a textbook example of how political strategists respond to the changing racial composition of the U.S. electorate. In the Border States demographics are working in favor of Republicans. Right now, long-term changes are working against national Republicans. In Hawaii’s case no politically significant demographic change is on the horizon. As for predictions that such change in Hawaii would benefit Republicans here, remember all that talk about how the influx of well-off Caucasians on the Big Island was going to turn things around?

The second road to party realignment is the most visible and dramatic one. It involves the presence of an issue that is frightening and powerful enough to get large numbers of people to change their minds. Opposition to the civil rights laws passed in the 1950s and 1960s turned the South from Democratic to Republican. Republicans, especially national candidates like Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater saw the opportunity and successfully took it. Though it is hard to imagine an issue so compellingly fearful in Hawaii’s future, this kind of politics offers a strong hint at what Republicans here need to do. That strategy is grassroots politics that looks more like a movement than a political party.

To do this kind of politics, Hawaii Republicans first need to recognize that right now they are more like a marginalized collection of individuals than a political party. Marginalized groups do politics quite differently than political parties do.

Issues do not fall from the sky. People can be convinced and converted. Marginalized groups, whether they were labor unions in the 1930s, Southern California conservatives in the 1950s, civil rights organizations in the 1960s, socially conservative church groups in the 1980s, or the Tea Party activists just a few years ago got their power from first making people aware of issues and then mobilizing them. These grassroots activists were typically very passionate and angry. Often these groups’ enthusiasm or anger drove away the opposition. All of these movements were initially local rather than national, less concerned about electing people to big time offices and more concerned with raising awareness and getting folks on the ground involved. The same thing, a profound sense of marginalization, fueled all of these movements.

Door-to-door politics takes on a different dimension in the age of social media. Nowadays grassroots politics is called “the ground game,” but at its heart the ground game is just small-scale shoe-leather politics enhanced by modern technology. The 2012 Obama campaign set the gold standard for a successful modern grassroots politics that combines today’s media technology with old-fashioned boots on the ground politics.

Unless you have a few hundred millions dollars you won’t be copying this model any time soon, but it can be used on a smaller scale. Environmental organizations do it, and if Republicans are a little queasy about using tree huggers as models, they can consider the Tea Party movement, especially in its early stage.

As hard and as unprecedented as it would be for Hawaii Republicans, grassroots politics is the only feasible alternative. It will require a very different mental timeline that thinks less about finding good candidates and more about understanding that as long as the party is so weak, there is no such thing as a good candidate. It requires a more compelling combination of disaffection, optimism, and willingness to work very hard for initially small rewards.

Do Hawaii Republican activists have the passion, time, and energy to do this? It would be an understandably human response if they choose not to, especially at a time when civic involvement seems to be diminishing in this country. And it is insensitive simply to say to a person, “Get with it! You are not angry enough.” But before Republican stalwarts dismiss this strategy, they need to ask themselves this question: is there a better plan, one that is not full of self-deception?

About the author: Neal Milner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also a political analyst. He headed the UH Manoa Ombuds Office from its beginning in 2006 until the office was shut down in 2009.


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