The presidential race in Hawaii is a well-kept secret. Not as much of a secret as the real cost of rail, but more so than most anywhere else.

This says something about Hawaii politics. And what it says is not good.

The best way to understand this is to consider the vacuum of knowledge about Donald Trump’s popularity here as well as the assumptions people make in this knowledge’s absence.

The Donald.
Donald Trump is hitting the right notes with the Republican electorate so far, but does his appeal extend to the islands? Courtesy: Ninian Reid/Flickr

First, to understand this you first need to look at why the Hawaii race is so invisible.

Fill in the blank: In this 2016 election cycle Hawaii voters support _______.

The correct answer: “I don’t know.”

Any other response is a wild guess because there is no useful long-term or short-term information about public opinion here.

There are of course enormous amounts of information about 2016 public opinion in other states and across the U.S. And there is a large body of aggregated, historical knowledge about U.S. public opinion generally.

In contrast, there are also no reliable, historically grounded profiles of Hawaii voters or analyses of its political culture.

There have been a couple of 2016 Hawaii polls but they say little about the kinds of issues dominating the 2016 races.

For instance, how many Trump supporters do we have? What do they believe? How does the Trump candidacy fit into Hawaii’s political history?

Who knows?

Our local media has certainly not taken up the slack. They have covered the 2016 presidential race with the same interest that they would give a student council election.

Even the state’s political officials, particularly Republicans, have been quiet about their preferences.

A lonely Donald Trump campaign sign on the Big Island.
A lonely Donald Trump campaign placard on the Big Island. Is it a sign of something bigger? Courtesy of Dylan Nonaka

As the Hawaii Republican Assembly, Hawaii’s closest thing to a tea party and the state’s establishment Republican organization’s nemesis, puts it, “It’s time for Republican politicians in Hawaii to put on their big boy pants (or their power pantsuits) and have the intestinal fortitude to publicly announce who they support.”

By the way, HIRA has not endorsed either.

UPDATE: The National Federation of Republican Assemblies, with which HIRA is affiliated, has endorsed Ted Cruz.

With our caucuses so imminent (March 8 for Republicans, March 26 for Democrats), everything about the presidential race here is so distant and vague. This creates a political miasma, which in fact is simply a microcosm of our traditional politics of murk.

Hawaii has learned to live with this kind of knowledge fog by converting it into an asset. People here cut through this murkiness by excusing it with explanations assuming that Hawaii is different — a kinder, gentler place.

Voters in Hawaii are different, so this argument goes. They are not as nasty, less ideological. Hawaii’s elections are more sedate — cleaner, in a mannerly way.

And that is where Hawaii’s analysis of Trump, such as it is — or, better, such as it isn’t — fails.

With our caucuses so imminent (March 8 for Republicans, March 26 for Democrats), everything about the presidential race here is so distant and vague. This creates a political miasma, which in fact is simply a microcosm of our traditional politics of murk.

There are two problems with these assertions generally and how they apply to Trump. First, they are unexamined. Second, there is evidence that these claims are at least partially wrong.

For instance, in the last mayoral race, critics claimed that the anti-Cayetano negative ads would be ineffective because they don’t work in Hawaii. You know, the aloha spirit and respect. And how did that turn out?

But for a more compelling, present-day example of the ways these self-serving explanations play out, let’s return to Trump.

As I said earlier, local media have almost totally ignored the question of his popularity in Hawaii.

One exception was a story that Civil Beat ran a few months ago that totally buys into the Hawaii-politeness-civility view.

“Sure, we’re talking about him (Trump) just like everywhere else,” the story’s intro says. “But when it comes to actually electing a leader, he’s definitely not our style.”

To support this view, the story quotes Pat Saiki, former Republican legislator, ex-state Republican Party chair, and the go-to person for media on matters GOP.

Asking Saiki about Trump is like asking the old guy in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “What’s the matter with kids today?”

Saiki said that Trump will not do well in Hawaii because “he is very careless with his remarks, not as respectful as we like our candidates here to be.”

Does that sound familiar? It should by now because it is simply a Hawaii’s aloha-spirit variation of the standard establishment Republican anti-Trump trope on the part of a Republican whose personal political history is closer to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dick Nixon than to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Overall, it is impossible to say anything definitive about Trump’s support in Hawaii. But there are some tidbits that suggest that Trump could do well here.

A Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll of Hawaii voters showed that he did better than any other Republican presidential candidate with roughly the same margin that he is getting nationally. Of course it is the one and only poll on the matter, but still …

It certainly is plausible that Hawaii voters share most of the same feelings as the national voters’ anxieties driving the presidential race, like dysfunctional government, economic difficulties and fear of terrorism. Nationally voters, especially Trump supporters, worry about immigration. That’s less obvious in Hawaii, but who knows?

Eric Pape recently wrote a powerful Civil Beat article about how the American Dream is broken for Hawaii’s middle class.

It is not a stretch to compare Hawaii’s vulnerable middle class with the resentful, threatened mainland middle class voters that appear to be driving the Trump campaign.

Nationally, much Trump support comes from agitated people whose voices are seldom heard politically — folks who don’t ideologically fall into the traditional liberal-conservative frame.

They are budding populists. This emerging populism is the most surprising and important development in the 2016 race.

Yet we know nothing about its impact in Hawaii. This kind of voter is not part of Hawaii’s stunted political imagery.

This prevailing view about Hawaii is harmful because unexamined ignorance leads to shibboleths that disempower people who already lack political voice and strengthen the powerful people who get to define these unexamined ideas as the way things really are.

And who do you think benefits most from the idea that Hawaii is a kinder and gentler place?

Not a Trump fan? So what? Next time it could be your own political views that suffer from this not so benign neglect.

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