A plurality of Democratic voters think Gov. David Ige is the most trustworthy candidate running this year and also rate him highest for leadership ability in the new Honolulu Star-Advertiser Hawaii Poll.
Those findings suggest U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa may have a serious problem with her campaign messaging in the final weeks before the primary.
This year’s Democratic campaign for governor is based largely on the themes of leadership and trust, with Hanabusa stressing an urgent need for new and better leadership in Hawaii. Hanabusa is challenging Ige’s bid for re-election and is his leading opponent in the Democratic primary race.
During a televised Hawaii News Now debate earlier this month, Hanabusa said people have urged her to run for governor “because they feel that we are rudderless, we are without direction.” She has also pointedly questioned Ige’s actions during the statewide ballistic missile false alert on Jan. 13, which caused widespread panic.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard echoed that theme when she endorsed Hanabusa in January by describing the missile alert as a “failure of leadership” by the Ige administration.
But that message does not appear to be catching fire. The Hawaii Poll found 45 percent of Democrats rated Ige as having the “best leadership ability” of the candidates for governor, while 42 percent rated Hanabusa as the best leader.
The poll, conducted July 6-11 on cellphones and landlines by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, included 800 registered Hawaii voters statewide. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The March poll was conducted March 13-18 and included 800 registered Hawaii voters statewide, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Among independents, a group that might also participate in the Democratic primary in significant numbers, 31 percent rated Ige as the most capable leader, while just 13 percent rated Hanabusa as the best leader.
Republican voters rated state Rep. Andria Tupola (R, Kalaeloa-Ko Olina-Maili) as the most capable leader who is running for governor this year, with 26 percent of those voters giving her top ratings.
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the rankings of Ige on leadership by Democrats and independents are surprising because many people thought the leadership issue was a significant liability for Ige heading into the race.
“If that was the issue Hanabusa was going to run on, or is running on, that message is clearly not getting across to voters, that she is a strong leader and he is not. Or, maybe they just disagree with her,” Moore said. “Either way, I think given that the campaign has not had a clear message, that’s what is showing up in the numbers here.”
Moore said the voters may be giving Ige some “points for leadership” by virtue of the fact that he is governor, and said it appears people have largely forgiven him for the missile alert scare. That could be because the voters are in a forgiving mood, or might suggest that Hanabusa hasn’t made her case, he said.
“If she can’t beat him on leadership, then she’s in real trouble, because she should be winning on that attribute,” Moore said.
Ige’s ratings on leadership may also be linked to the voters’ assessment of his job performance, which has improved significantly in recent months.
The Star-Advertiser’s mid-March Hawaii Poll found just 49 percent of Democrats approved of Ige’s job performance in the weeks after the missile alert scare, but the new poll data showed 63 percent of Democrats approve of his performance now. His job approval ratings have also increased among independents, from 36 percent in mid-March to 47 percent today.
Ige, meanwhile, has emphasized the trust issue during the campaign, saying he is “committed to restoring public trust in government.” A stock line from his presentations at candidate forums across the state has been that the voters can count on him to do “the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.”
According to the new poll, the voters most likely to participate in the Democratic primary agree that Ige is the most trustworthy of the candidates, with 44 percent of Democratic voters rating Ige as most trustworthy and 36 percent choosing Hanabusa as most trustworthy, according to the poll.
Of the voters who identified themselves as independents, 28 percent rated Ige as the most trustworthy candidate running for governor, with 14 percent selecting Hanabusa as most trustworthy, according to the poll. Republican voters ranked Tupola as most trustworthy.
Moore said he expects the Hanabusa campaign to sharpen its message with more direct criticisms of Ige in the weeks ahead, but that also has risks.
“The trick about Ige, and I think this is something the Hanabusa campaign has struggled with, is that people like David Ige. They think he’s a nice guy, they think he is honest, they think he is doing what he thinks is right, and so that’s a tough person to campaign against because it’s not like you can go after their character,” Moore said. “You really have to sort of go after their performance.”