Governor Ige?

A new Civil Beat Poll suggests that state Sen. David Ige has a shot at unseating Hawaii’s incumbent governor, Neil Abercrombie.

Ige and Abercrombie are tied at 37 percent apiece among likely Democratic primary voters, the poll shows.

And more than a quarter of those voters, or 26 percent, say they are unsure of who they’ll vote for.

But Ige, a relatively unknown elected official who has thus far raised very little money for the governor’s race, should not start measuring the drapes in the Capitol’s fifth floor offices.

“What you are seeing is rather a public way of expressing discontent with the governor rather than a serious strength on Ige’s part,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat Poll. “There are a couple of reasons. One, Ige’s support actually outstrips those people who say they have a favorable impression of him. People don’t really know him.

“That’s extraordinary, and it’s because this is a referendum on the governor.”

For the governor’s poll, Civil Beat surveyed 1,003 registered Hawaii voters Feb. 12-15. Of those, 643 said they were likely to pull the Democratic ballot in the Aug. 9 primary.

The poll, which included landlines and cell phone users, has a 3.1 percent margin of error. We did not ask voters about Duke Aiona, who is expected to again seek the Republican nomination for governor.

As is often said, public opinion polls are “snapshots in time” and not necessarily predictors of election outcomes. But the Abercrombie campaign might well be concerned that 46 percent of voters have a negative opinion of their candidate and that many voters seem to prefer anybody but Abercrombie.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Civil Beat’s poll was conducted three weeks after the governor delivered his fourth State of the State address and unveiled his first campaign advertisements, both extolling an $844 million budget surplus that he believes his administration deserves credit for.

Our poll was also conducted several days before the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published its own polls showing Abercrombie leading Ige by single digits and trailing Aiona, the former lieutenant governor, by a similar margin.

As unpopular as Abercrombie is, at least most voters have made up their mind about him, and he has a sizable well of support: 42 percent of voters say they have a positive impression of him with just 12 percent unsure. Compare that figure to the 31 percent who like Ige but the 56 percent who said they are unsure about him — the anti-Abercrombie vote that Fitch referred to.

Another comfort for the governor is that he leads Ige 42 percent to 32 percent among voters who identify as Democrats who have a history of voting in Democratic primaries. Ige draws support from voters who describe themselves as Republican, independent and conservative, voters who might well choose to vote for Aiona in the Republican primary instead of “crossing over” to vote Democrat — or for former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is now indicating interest in seeking the nomination of the new Hawaii Independent Party.

Not only does Abercrombie have a huge financial advantage — he raised 10 times what Ige raised in the second half of 2013 and has brought in $3.4 million total in the current election cycle — but he is an incumbent with wide name recognition, the top elected official of the state’s dominant political party and a man who excels at retail politics. Abercrombie crushed Hannemann in the 2010 Democratic primary and trounced Aiona in the 2010 general. And a sitting Hawaii governor has not been kicked out of office since 1962, despite several spirited challenges.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

State Sen. David Ige.

“The challenge for Ige, then, is to reach out to those disaffected voters, convince them he is their man and then get them to do something they have not traditionally done — go vote in a Democratic primary,” said Fitch. “And he needs to do all that with a war chest that is currently one-tenth of the incumbent. I think the next campaign finance deadline will speak volumes to how serious this challenge may be.” (That deadline isn’t until July 10, about a month before the primary.)

The Civil Beat Poll suggests where Abercrombie and Ige demonstrate strength and vulnerability among voter groups.

Generally speaking, Abercrombie, who is white, polls best among Caucasians. Maui voters like him most, urban Oahu voters least. He gets high marks from liberals. But a majority of union households — 58 percent — disapprove of the governor.

Ige, who is Japanese-American, does best among Japanese. He is largely an unknown quantity on all the islands. Conservatives favor him the most ideologically. And he is not well-known among union households.

Fitch downplayed the ethnic statistics because he said they reflect “a logical default position to me more than anything else.”

But he did say Abercrombie “has got some union problems,” suggesting a possible inroad for Ige. Ige recently received the support of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. And the state’s largest public-sector union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, has yet to weigh in on the governor’s race.

What the Civil Beat Poll does not explain is why Neil Abercrombie is not popular with voters.

In addition to the budget surplus, the economy is stable and growing steadily, tourism remains relatively strong and the construction industry has picked up, unemployment is low and the administration has suffered no major scandals. Abercrombie may not be the reason for all the good news, but he would surely be blamed were the state’s finances in worse shape.

Some of the governor’s detractors say labor remains angry with him for imposing a contract on the HSTA, even though top unions have had pay and benefit cuts restored and increased. He has also changed directions on key issues: Abercrombie was in favor of taxing the pensions of seniors before he was against it, and he supported the Public Land Development Corporation before he signed the bill to repeal it. His leadership on same-sex marriage likely pleased his supporters as much as it upset his opponents.

In spite of disappointment with his tenure as governor, and barring some dramatic development over the course of the campaign, Abercrombie is still in a position to win what will be his last election in a career that exceeds four decades in public office.

“This race is and will be all about Abercrombie,” said Fitch. “With all due respect, Ige just happens to be the guy running against him.”

Contact Chad Blair via email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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