With his approval rating at an all-time low, Gov. David Ige has his work cut out for him if he is going to win a second term in office next year.

Most people who responded to a new Civil Beat poll say they want someone else to take the reins of state government in 2018. And there’s no shortage of people considering the possibility, from island lawmakers to business leaders.

For the first time since Ige took office in December 2014, more poll respondents have a negative opinion of him (38 percent) than positive (35 percent). His approval rating was only slightly higher than that of President Donald Trump and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who were each viewed favorably by just 32 percent of respondents.

Governor David Ige presser. 3 may 2017
David Ige had the benefit of running for governor against an unpopular incumbent in 2014. Next year, his challengers may enjoy the same advantage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a Civil Beat survey of 956 registered voters statewide, 57 percent said they wanted someone else to be governor. Only 20 percent said they wanted Ige to continue in that role.

If those numbers hold, the governor would be vulnerable next year, even in a primary. Several names have been circulating as possible Democratic challengers, such as Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, state Sen. Jill Tokuda and Hawaii News Now General Manager Rick Blangiardi.

How We Did It

“The two toughest positions to hold are governor and mayor — you disappoint more people than you please,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted the poll. 

“It’s just a reflection of the overall mood I think,” Fitch said. “Executives often have lower approval ratings.”

Ige, 60, was unable to muster even a majority of Democrats to support him, according to the poll.

“The two toughest positions to hold are governor and mayor — you disappoint more people than you please.” — Matt Fitch, pollster

Forty-four percent of Democrats viewed the governor favorably, while 26 percent had a negative opinion and 30 percent were unsure. He fared far worse with independents and Republicans.

When broken down by race, Ige, who is of Okinawan descent, is getting the most support from Filipino voters. The poll found 51 percent had a positive view of Ige, which is significant since Filipinos represent the fastest-growing population of immigrants.

White and Japanese voters both had 37 percent approval ratings for Ige, followed by Hawaiians at 31 percent and Chinese at 19 percent. The state’s small but growing Hispanic population gave him a 38 percent favorability rating.

While Ige has not faced any major scandal — his biggest political hits have come from the Senate rejecting two of his appointments — he also has not produced many tangible results to please voters.

That’s partly a product of who Ige is, a soft-spoken engineer who spent 20 comfortable years in the Legislature before making a run for governor. His priorities include important objectives that don’t make for easy sound bites or snappy headlines, such as eliminating unfunded liabilities and updating the tax system.

Ige got off to a rocky start with issues that resonate with voters, such as improving the state’s struggling public school system and protecting the environment.

Teachers and parents — an important voting bloc — have complained for years about how hot classrooms are hampering learning, which spurred Ige to set a goal in early 2016 of cooling 1,000 classrooms at a cost of $100 million. But a year later, only about 200 classrooms had air-conditioning units installed.

The governor has since worked to transform the education system by replacing the superintendent and Board of Education chair. It’s too early to know how well those moves will pay off.

Ige’s predecessor, Neil Abercrombie, lost the support of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, a 13,500-member union, in the months leading up to the 2014 Democratic primary, which Ige won despite a 10-to-1 fundraising disadvantage.

“His challenge is he wasn’t that well known and wasn’t that well liked when he got elected,” Fitch said of Ige. “People were so disappointed and disillusioned by Abercombie. He was the not-Abercrombie candidate.”

On the environmental front, Ige did not fill several key posts for almost two years and the Senate shot down his first choice to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Carleton Ching. The Environmental Council, which advises the governor on issues affecting the state’s natural resources, was unable to meet due to lack of quorum.

To his credit, Ige has also since found people to guide land and water use policy, environmental protection, longterm planning and development. And the 15-member Environmental Council is fully staffed for the first time in 10 years.

The governor has also launched his Sustainable Hawaii Initiative, which lays out broad environmental goals for the state.

He is also planning to sign two significant environmental bills into law Tuesday, including strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the Paris climate agreement and a measure to establish a task force to identify agricultural and aquacultural practices to boost soil health and sequester carbon.

Ige has generally rebounded well from setbacks. After the Ching debacle in early 2015, he switched political gears and with the appointment of Suzanne Case, the former head of The Nature Conservancy, to head DLNR.

And when the Senate earlier this year rejected Ige’s appointment of Tom Gorak to the Public Utilities Commission, he quickly responded with his choice of Jay Griffin, a University of Hawaii faculty member who many expect to be confirmed with little difficulty.

The governor’s approval rating peaked at 49 percent shortly after he took office. It dipped to 36 percent over the following year, crept up slightly then fell to its current spot at 35 percent.

Over the same time period, the voters who viewed him negatively soared from just 22 percent in 2015 to 40 percent in mid-2016 before leveling to the current 38 percent.

With the Democratic primary still more than a year off, Ige has sufficient time — and opportunity as the incumbent — to boost support.

He’ll also likely be looking to raise more campaign funds. As of January, he only had $280,928 in his campaign account, which isn’t much to fend off what appears to be a crowded field of candidates.

Coming Wednesday: Medical aid in dying came close to passing the Legislature this year before falling short. Where do voters stand on the issue?

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