The margin of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s loss in the 2014 primary was the largest of any incumbent governor running for re-election in U.S. history.

The usual explanations for this extraordinary event miss what made this election so historically different.

The really extraordinary part of this election was not the governor’s mistakes or the candidates’ campaigns.

Rather it was the low key but exceptionally profound transformation process that went on among the voters, leading them to move from disapproval to actually voting against the incumbent.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie looks out over Kona while waiting to debate Sen. David Ige presented by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce at Kealakehe High School on July 29, 2014.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie looks out over Kona while waiting to debate Sen. David Ige in July during a primary campaign that ended in defeat for the governor.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Many of the typical explanations emphasize the governor’s mistakes: support of the pension tax, Kakaako, the botched negotiations with the teachers union, a tendency to make nasty remarks, his inability to transition from Congress to state house, and many other variations of this same theme.

Others stress campaign tactics, especially Ige’s. Grass-roots campaigns and coffee hours, which were the favorite explanations among Ige’s supporters on election night.  Sure, they were important, especially considering the challenger’s lack of money.

But everyone does those things, and you would have to have one heck of a set of coffee hours to achieve the number of votes Ige got.

Overall, David Ige’s campaign style did not exactly set the world on fire and yet …

People began to think about politics in ways that undermined Abercrombie’s chances well before David Ige became a candidate.

This voter story goes well beyond low approval ratings, which only scratch the surface of what happened.

Under normal circumstances Abercrombie’s mistakes would not have cost the governor the election because incumbent governors here and elsewhere make big mistakes and still win almost all the time.

Between 1992 and 2010 nationally less than 20 percent of incumbent governors running for re-election lost.  In Hawaii that has happened only once, in 1962 when John Burns beat William Quinn.

This reservoir of discomfort, attentiveness, and assessment that led to an anti-Abercrombie vote went much deeper than just surface disapproval ratings.

Incumbency means the bar is very low.  A scandal is the only consistently compelling threat to an incumbent.

So it is safe to assume that a sizeable portion of the 80 percent who won re-election had approval ratings as low as Abercrombie’s.

Considering the powers of incumbency, a governor does not have to have anything even close to a pristine record to win.

Though Abercrombie’s approval rating was low, it was not all that low.  Most incumbent governors win with that level of approval.

When Did the Tide Turn?

There’s a strong case to be made that David Ige had this election won even before the campaign began.

Polls showed that the public reversed the usual pattern.  A very large number of people chose Ige before they knew him.

Most unknown outsiders like Ige have to begin with the challenge of getting name recognition.

That was certainly the case for all of the Democratic candidates in the 2014 First Congressional District, as it was for Tulsi Gabbard in her successful 2012 bid for the Second District seat.

But David Ige was different. In fact, he probably still has low name recognition compared to gubernatorial general election candidates running elsewhere.

Psychological studies consistently show that people make choices first, and only then search for justifications for these choices.  In his book, “The Righteous Mind,” the psychologist Jonathon Haidt calls this “the intuitive dog and its rational tail.”

In that sense it is not that uncommon for someone to choose a candidate first and then search for reasons later — a pretty good nutshell description of the Ige phenomenon.

What’s different in the 2014 case was the degree to which people were open to liking someone about whom they knew so little and the intensity of the subsequent search to rationalize this choice.

If it were business as usual, people would have griped about the governor, another candidate would have entered, the election would have been contested and maybe even close, but the flawed, bloodied incumbent would survive.

What was going on was definitely not business as usual. A mobilization was taking place, not the kind we saw at the Capitol regarding same sex marriage and not even the kind that brings more voters to the polls.

Something quiet but powerful happened that translated individual grievances and complaints into an actual shift in voting.

People began to think about politics in ways that undermined Abercrombie’s chances well before  David Ige became a candidate.

This sub rosa, subtle translation process, which is not all that common in American politics and quite uncommon in low voter turnout Hawaii, more than anything else brought about Ige’s victory.

Among those average voters, a three-step sequence took place.

If any of these three steps had not taken place, the election could very well have turned out differently.

Here are the steps:

• The first step: Ordinary people who are not normally active in politics began to talk about Abercrombie’s problems: “Did you hear about this one?”  “Yeah, and how about this other one?”

Remember that most people do not talk about politics very often if at all, and certainly not often prior to a political campaign.

We are not talking about roundtables here or even self-conscious political discussions, but rather just run of the mill, typically quick often-incidental conversations, like “What’s with Neil?”

• The second step: the average person — again not in explicit, formal ways — converted these anecdotes into an assessment of the governor himself.

That made people more negative toward the governor and also more attentive to stories and examples that reinforced their attentiveness.

That is a conceptual leap, especially for folks who normally do not spend much time thinking about politics.

• The third step: This exceptionally large group of attentive, sensitive potential voters decided that all this was enough to break their typical habit of voting for an incumbent.

‘Flawed Governor’

For a significant number of potential voters, this process was under way well before David Ige declared.

This reservoir of discomfort, attentiveness, and assessment that led to an anti-Abercrombie vote went much deeper than just surface disapproval ratings.

Disapproval is an attitude, while voting is behavior.  It is the difference between not liking someone who has been around for a long time and actually doing something about it that is contrary to the way you typically behave.

For voters in Hawaii and anywhere else for that matter, that’s an exceptional leap.

The media played a role in this. Throughout the governor’s term, the media-created view of reality — a master narrative — stressed the governor’s difficulties and mistakes.  Two words that best describe the theme of media coverage is “flawed governor.”

But the media did not create this reality.  This view reinforced what was going on among potential primary voters.

Well before the election — even well before Ige declared his candidacy — a significant number of voters, maybe large enough by itself to defeat the governor, had already completed the three steps.

For others it took longer, but the last-minute surge of Ige voters would not have been so dramatic or large if this three-step reservoir of antipathy toward Neil Abercrombie had not already been pervasive and well under way.

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