After the 1992 election, a Bill Clinton pollster, Mark Penn, conducted a post-election survey. He found that President Clinton had won because he had followed the Democratic Leadership Council’s moderate path.

Penn wrote, “Clinton won the election because on every issue that the Republicans hoped to dominate — balancing the budget, welfare, crime, immigration and taxes — Clinton staked out a strong centrist position early on.”

Given that loyal Democrats are on the left and loyal Republicans on the right, the balance of the election hinged on moderate independents. Economist Anthony Downs plotted American voters with the large hump of them in the center. So conventional knowledge is that you win primary elections by appealing to your party’s base, and you win general elections by appealing to the center.

Remember this guy? He was a centrist.

Flickr: Justin Ruckman

Then 2016 happened. Socialist Bernie Sanders did better than establishment Hillary Clinton in open primaries, Hillary did better in closed. Donald Trump, one of the most anti-establishment candidates, won both the GOP nomination and the Electoral College. Moderate John Kasich failed to win open primaries. Trump did well among tea party identifiers, some of whom have not embraced the GOP label.

Independents seem to be moving away from the center in this new polarized world. To what extent is this true and what does it mean for candidates in Hawaii?

Unhappy With Government

Based on a survey of over 500 Oahu registered voters taken by about 50 Iolani Advanced Placement Government students in November of this year, like most of the electorate, independent voters have become somewhat more polarized, and many voters are unhappy with government as it is.

Given Trump’s plethora of character problems during his successful campaign, one might think voters strongly prioritize issues over personal character in voting. Our data do not show that, with 39 percent of Democrats saying they vote mostly based on personal character, 45 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans. Independents therefore still do vote a little less on issues and more on character than those who identify with a major party.

Remember this guy? He’s an independent.

Flickr: Gage Skidmore

Yet 45 percent is a significant chunk. Independents in particular are less likely to vote on the hot-button issues of abortion and gun rights. They are more likely to vote on economic issues than Democrats but less than Republicans.

Similarly they are less likely to say they vote on some other issue than Democrats say they do but more than Republicans say they do. Based on this, candidates need to demonstrate good personal character to win independents.

On their level of satisfaction with Hawaii’s state government, Democrats expectedly are happier than others with 33 percent expressing a mildly happy or very happy attitude and 32 percent mildly unhappy or very unhappy. Independents only had 19 percent in the mildly happy or very happy attitude and 43 percent mildly unhappy or very unhappy. Republicans of course are less satisfied with 10 mildly happy, 0 percent very happy and 71 percent mildly unhappy or very unhappy. Even for

How Democrats, independents and Republicans say they tend to base their votes.

Democrats’ nearly even three-way split on level of satisfaction with state government cannot make incumbents feel too secure.

New candidates may want to campaign on bringing some change to the Capitol.

That change is not in the direction Congress is going however. Only 6 percent of Democrats are mildly happy or very happy with Congress. Independents are even lower with 4 percent; even Republicans only register 16 percent mildly happy or very happy with Congress.

Adding mildly unhappy to very unhappy, independents indicate the most frustration, with 71 percent compared to 69 percent unhappy Democrats and 54 percent unhappy Republicans. If the federal government’s performance influences voters, the influence will be in the direction of opposing those who could be blamed for the current mess in D.C.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump wave to crowd at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor.

This guy leads a conservative party.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2016 Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp” and Sanders on democratic socialism. So we would expect corporations to be unpopular. They are. Especially for Democrats, 75 percent of whom said corporations control much of the government and that is a big problem. Even 60 percent of independents and 55 percent of Republicans gave the same response.

Of Republicans, about 5 percent felt corporate power was both strong and good; less than 3 percent of independents and Democrats agreed. Eighteen percent of independents did say the government is not controlled by corporations — higher than 10 percent for Democrats who said this and 16 percent of Republicans.

So the strongest numbers are in opposition to Republicans in Washington, D.C., and to corporate influence on government. All candidates can gain support by distancing themselves from GOP-corporate influence. Opposing corporate power will likely help candidates with both voters in the primary and independents in the general election. Even if this makes them look radical, an anti-establishment campaign theme seems to be more valuable today than it was in decades past.

Personal character remains a strong factor, but on the issues there is less of a clear/even curve of left to right voters as there was in the past. Politics have indeed polarized.

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About the Author

  • John Bickel
    John Bickel teaches high school history and American Government. He has also taught at Chaminade University and Hawaii Pacific University. He is President of Americans for Democratic Action, Hawaii Chapter and serves on board of Progressive Democrats of Hawaii and the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party.