- Special Projects
If the 2014 Hawaii races go the way the state’s elections usually do, here are the results:
— Brian Schatz wins the U.S. Senate Democratic primary.
— Whoever wins that Democratic primary overwhelms the Republican challenger.
— The winner of the 1st Congressional District’s Democratic primary defeats Republican Charles Djou.
— In the 2nd Congressional District Tulsi Gabbard wins virtually by default against a Republican whose name no one remembers.
— Neil Abercrombie is re-elected governor.
In short, all the Republicans lose, and all the incumbents win.
This is not a prediction. It is a reminder about how little Hawaii elections vary and why that’s the case.
If those are the results, it will not be about the quality of the candidates. It will be about the fundamental forces that profoundly affect all Hawaii elections.
These fundamentals are historically based and create a stable backdrop for any political race. They create inherent advantages for some candidates and inherent disadvantages for others.
Election coverage typically captures the moment, emphasizing the candidates’ characteristics and the everyday campaign events. But when all is said and done, the more basic, transcendent fundamentals often affect the results of the election more than anything else does.
Nationally, this is clearly the case for U.S. presidential races. Certain economic indicators along with presidential approval ratings go a long way toward explaining most of the variance in the final outcome.
We don’t know how important those particular forces are in Hawaii races. In this state, though, it’s clear that there are two other fundamentals that come into play.
Each of these makes it terribly hard for Republicans or non-incumbents to win because the races’ starting lines are staggered against them.
The first fundamental is the huge, stable difference here between the number of voters who identify as Democrats and those who identify as Republicans.
In any race the pool of Democratic voters is much larger than the pool of Republicans. All Hawaii elections begin with this historical arithmetic already firmly in place. “Firmly” is the key word.
The second fundamental is the power of incumbency. In major Hawaii races, incumbents have never lost.
Sure, the 2014 elections show signs of being different enough to counter the fundamentals. Here are some of these possible counters:
— Schatz has never run for his Senate seat.
— There is no incumbent in the 1st Congressional District, and Djou, the Republican, is an experienced and effective campaigner.
— Gov. Abercrombie has a big popularity problem.
— Even if Abercrombie wins the primary, he will face not one but two formidable opponents in the general election.
Countering Republican weakness:
— There is no incumbent in the 1st Congressional District
— Abercrombie’s problems and David Ige’s lack of name recognition.
But consider how strong the two fundamentals leaning in the other direction are.
Every Hawaii race begins with two characteristics. One is that a voter’s party identification is quite stable, as it is everywhere in the country. The other is that many more Hawaii voters identify as Democrats.
This disparity between Democrats and Republicans has been around almost since statehood. It’s become even stronger in the past few years.
In the nearly 55 years since statehood only two Hawaii Republicans have served in the U.S. Congress, Pat Saiki and Hiram Fong. Fong left the Senate 36 years ago. Saiki served just two terms, ending in 1990.
When the state went from multiple member to single-member districts in the 1980s, Republican state legislators began to disappear. Today there are fewer Republican state legislators than there were during the terms of the Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
Lingle got pummeled in her 2012 race for the U.S. Senate by a non-incumbent, Mazie Hirono, with the challenger getting 60 percent of the vote.
Duke Aiona and Djou, the top Republican candidates in the 2014 races, both lost their 2012 attempts to win those offices.
But the best indicator of the depth and permanence of this fundamental Republican handicap, though, is this: Last time Djou did not run a bad campaign. In fact, he ran an excellent campaign. It is hard to see what he can do better this time.
Sure, he will not be running against an incumbent, but this is a district that his opponent Colleen Hanabusa won by 10 percentage points last time.
The 1st Congressional District is a safe Democratic district. The Cook Political Report ranks it in the top 15 percent of the most partisan districts in the country.
“Safe” means just what it says: protected. Nationally, in congressional elections in safe districts the dominant party’s candidate wins an overwhelming percentage of the time. If that candidate is not an incumbent, the challenger has only a slightly better chance.
The general election for governor will feature either an unpopular or a little known Democratic candidate against two strong opponents. Spoilers’ potential for sure.
But a similar election, the 1994 governor’s race, suggests that for Republicans it’s far from that easy. That race included a non-incumbent Democrat (Ben Cayetano) a strong Republican (Pat Saiki), and that hugely successful rascally spoiler, third-party candidate Frank Fasi. Cayetano beat them both. Saiki finished last.
In her two successful races for governor Linda Lingle ended this losing streak, but the deviation was only temporary.
Despite grandiose predictions by both Republican stalwarts and political pundits, the pool of Democratic voters has increased since then.
Generally an incumbent starts a race for re-election with a bump of a few percentage points. In this state that bump has been stable and definitive. Incumbents have never lost in major Hawaii elections.
It’s not for lack of decent opponents. Incumbent governors have faced serious challenges from very formidable candidates like Tom Gill, Saiki, and Frank Fasi.
Cayetano was very unpopular when he ran successfully for his second term against the up and coming Linda Lingle in 1998.
How unpopular? People may be disappointed with Abercrombie, but he has never gotten sworn at and shouted down the way Ben did.
Incumbents Djou and Mufi Hannemann lost their House seats, but each had first been chosen in special elections where the rules are different. When the regular rules were applied, the incumbent fundamentals kicked in.
Incumbency-wise, the U.S. Senate race is different because Schatz has never run for that office before, and a recent study of incumbency in Senate races nationally showed that this kind of new guy doesn’t start with any bump from the voters.
On the other hand, Schatz has been able to accomplish incumbent-like things. He has raised much more money than Hanabusa has. Another recent study showed that incumbents get their most significant fund-raising bump in the first race. So big money people may be treating him as an incumbent.
Schatz’s endorsements have the feel of incumbency. They are more comprehensive, national, and Democratic establishment-like — including, of course, President Obama — than Hanabusa’s are.
Hanabusa is now campaigning as if she is the insurgent. Many claim this strategy is fueled by anger and frustration. Maybe so, but it’s not necessary to do that kind of cracker barrel psychologizing. She is campaigning this way because the fundamentals of incumbency have come to the fore, leaving her no better option.
There are also some incumbency oddities in the governor’s race. In fact on the surface, it appears that Ige is doing so well precisely because he is running against the incumbent.
At the same time, there are three important signs that incumbency’s fundamentals are in play.
The first is that we have been down this road before with results that Ige certainly does not like to think about. In the 1998 Cayetano-Lingle gubernatorial race, Cayetano started well behind and did not really lead until the very end.
Second, Cayetano’s 1998 come-from-behind success had much to do with the fact that he had more funds during the final weeks of that campaign. That will certainly be the case with Abercrombie.
Third, Gov. Abercrombie is using this money advantage to conduct a last minute time-honored media campaign like the kind that saved the day for incumbent Ben Cayetano in 1998.
Close to 30 years before the 1998 race, John Burns, the first Hawaii incumbent governor seriously challenged in a Democratic primary, pioneered this strategy with a sophisticated media campaign culminating with “To Catch A Wave,” a slick purportedly (but of course not really) non-political biographical film.
In early July the Abercrombie campaign began to show “Bucket of Stars,” a mini-biography right out of the Burns play book.
Civil Beat’s Chad Blair described “Bucket of Stars” as sentimental, warm, fuzzy, and often “flagrant.”
That’s also what the critics said about “To Catch a Wave.” Tom Gill and his supporters disdained the Burns film. They found it corny, unseemly, and crass.
They learned the hard way.
Since then, those kinds of films have become a regular part of incumbent governors’ successful campaign toolbox.
David Ige does not have the money to make one.