Less than two months before the Aug. 9 primary for Hawaii governor, state Sen. David Ige leads Gov. Neil Abercrombie by 11 percentage points among likely Democratic voters.

Ige has 48 percent of the vote compared with 37 percent for Abercrombie. Fifteen percent of those surveyed say they are undecided.

The poll numbers are the culmination of a dramatic turn of events for the incumbent governor who has raised millions for his re-election campaign and is advertising heavily. Ige, the Senate Ways and Means chair little known outside his Pearl City-Aiea district, has raised little money and is not running TV ads so far.

Ige’s double-digit lead caught us by surprise, too. We first polled the race May 18-19 and found a similar double-digit lead. We decided to take a step back and conduct a second poll, much as we did in 2012 when our polling found Tulsi Gabbard pulling even with Mufi Hannemann in the race for the 2nd Congressional District.

Gabbard, a Honolulu City Councilwoman, overcame a 45-point deficit in a matter of months to pull into a dead heat with the former Honolulu mayor.  By August, Gabbard had opened up a 49 percent to 29 percent lead. And on primary day, Aug. 11, she defeated the far more experienced Hannemann 54 percent to 33.6 percent.

So, while we went ahead and published other poll results late last month in the U.S. Senate race and the 1st Congressional District race, we went into the field again on the governor’s race. We wanted to know more about why Ige was outpolling Abercrombie.

Ige at convention

Sen. David Ige speaking at the Democratic Party of Hawaii state convention at the Sheraton Waikiki, May 24, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In our second round, we surveyed 1,078 registered Hawaii voters statewide June 7-9 for the governor’s race. Of those, 729 said they were likely to pull the Democratic ballot in the Aug. 9 primary.

The poll included landlines and cell phone users and has a 3.6 percent margin of error. 

Two-thirds of Ige supporters say they support him because they don’t like Abercrombie.

The June results were consistent with the May numbers — a double-digit lead for Ige.

The poll asked voters to explain in more detail why they were choosing either Ige or Abercrombie, including asking about specific issues. The results suggest likely Democratic voters favor Ige primarily because they don’t like Abercrombie.

But the fact that this poll reflects more of a referendum on an incumbent than enthusiasm for a challenger leads Civil Beat’s pollster to conclude Ige does not have a secure lead.

“Unlike the Gabbard-Hannemann poll, this is one of the most tenuous big leads you will ever see,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat Poll.

Another takeaway: Abercrombie supporters decided three months ago or longer they were onboard with the incumbent. By contrast, Ige’s supporters have come to his side over just the past three months.

Historic Upset In the Making?

Additionally, the poll also shows that Ige may not win a three-way general election matchup, although he would do better than Abercrombie. 

The general election likely will pit former Republican lieutenant governor Duke Aiona and Hawaii Independent Party candidate, Mufi Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor, against the Democratic contender.

Right now, voters would choose Aiona over Abercrombie on Nov. 4 and it would be a toss up between Aiona and Ige, our poll shows, with Hannemann finishing third in either contest. But all are within the margin of error so those numbers are just a general indicator.

Fitch cautioned against reading too much into the three-way matchup this early in the election.

“We are not going to know anything until after the primary dust settles,” he said.

Abercrombie convention

Gov. Neil Abercrombie addressing fellow Democrats at the party’s convention in late May.

The new governor’s poll suggests momentum on Ige’s part, though he has struggled to raise campaign funds and does not have wide name recognition. (The next round of contribution reports won’t be made public until July 10.)

In Civil Beat’s February poll, Ige and Abercrombie were tied at 37 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. Twenty-six percent at that time said they were unsure of who they would vote for.

In the latest poll, with 51 percent of those surveyed saying they have a negative opinion of Abercrombie, he is clearly not a popular governor. Forty-five percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they are not satisfied with his performance as governor.

In terms of specific issues, the governor has middling marks when it comes to his handling of education and the environment and relations with organized labor.

Hawaii has not rejected a sitting governor since 1962, let alone in a primary.

But 47 percent say they have a positive opinion of Ige and only 9 percent negative. Still, 45 percent say they are still unsure who he is.

If Ige defeats Abercrombie in the Democratic primary, it will be an historic upset. Hawaii has not rejected a sitting governor since 1962, let alone in a primary.

Abercrombie is practically a household name in Hawaii politics, having held elective office for most of the past four decades. For many years he drove a yellow checkered cab with his visage and name on it.

In 2010, after stepping down from the U.S. House of Representatives, he easily defeated Hannemann in the Democratic primary and Aiona in the general election.

Mufi file

Gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann at the Office of Elections in Pearl City on June 3.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

But the governor’s first term has been rocky, marked by high turnover and battles with the Legislature. His approval ratings have never broken 50 percent, according to past Civil Beat polls. And, though Hawaii’s economy is pretty healthy, voters don’t seem to be giving him much credit.

That said, Abercrombie has had solid legislative victories. He called lawmakers into special session last fall to pass same-sex marriage legislation. He pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, something that is now law. The state’s fiscal situation is sound. And several members of his staff and Cabinet are widely respected.

There is a sense that people suspect the governor is in trouble politically.  His campaign has already run several television commercials, expressing his support for the elderly and the young. And the campaign has been trumpeting in radio ads the deal preserving land at Turtle Bay on the North Shore of Oahu.

The spot says nothing of Ige’s involvement in helping to finance the deal, although as the Senate Ways and Means chair he found a way to come up with the money to pay for it.

And, more recently, the governor has used his office to criticize the Legislature for an error in the state budget. House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke blames Abercrombie for suddenly dropping the proposal in the Legislature’s lap in the last days of the 2014 session.

Spinning the Polls

As chairman of Senate Ways and Means, one of Ige’s own campaign selling points is his fiscal competency. Ige has said that as he tours the state he is hearing that people don’t trust their government and they are disappointed with Abercrombie’s leadership.

Ige has also been critical of the governor’s budget request in recent years and that some of Abercrombie’s priorities have been difficult for the Legislature to deal with.

But, the Abercrombie campaign is now countering with “Ige can’t add” as an attack, complete with its own social media hashtag (#Igecantadd). 

The Abercrombie camp has also tried to spin poll numbers in an effort to disabuse the notion that the governor might be in trouble. Last week, campaign manager Bill Kaneko cited an internal poll that showed Abercrombie with a 14 point lead. 

Three-way gubernatorial race poll results

“While there may be newer polls, none are as extensive or in depth,” Kaneko said in an email blast to supporters.

It’s not clear what “newer” poll Kaneko was referring to. But the Abercrombie poll was conducted in March and April, not May and June, which is when Civil Beat went into the field.

Two days ago, Shane Peters, the campaign’s communications director, urged Abercrombie supporters to weigh in on an unscientific online poll conducted by Pacific Business News. 

Aiona declare

Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona announcing his candidacy at the Hawaii State Capitol on May 19.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

URGENT! The Governor and campaign need your help!” Peters said in an email.

Fitch says the Abercrombie campaign has two viable paths to erase Ige’s lead.

Given that the governor has much more money and a large campaign infrastructure, Abercrombie could choose to increase his own favorability numbers through advertising and other means, Fitch said.

The other choice is to go negative.

“While people don’t like negative campaigning, that might be a very effective tactic, because Ige’s support is so soft,” he said. “Lots of his supporters don’t know much about him. The Abercrombie campaign will have an opportunity to define Ige.”

Fitch added, “In negative campaigning, the ultimate goal is to get your opponent’s supporters to stay home. That’s a real possibility here.”

Stay plugged in to campaigns and candidates this election season with Civil Beat’s Hawaii Elections Guide 2014, your source for information on federal, state and local elections.

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