Large Margin with a Narrow Range: Why Hawaii Is Not Your Average Blue State

After spending the bulk of my time so far looking at areas where Democrats have been met with their fair share of struggles, I figured it was an appropriate time for a little pick me up - today I am releasing data for Hawaii, the strongest Obama state in 2008 and where Democrats took back the Governor's office in 2010.

Democrats hold huge majorities in both chambers, controlling all but 16% of the House and 4% of the Senate. Continued Democratic dominance in these races is tremendously problematic for Republicans, as it threatens to completely cut off their bench for higher office.

That might seem like a fairly obvious conclusion in all states - where wouldn't Democrats want to hold down every seat? But it is especially relevant in Hawaii, which has displayed dramatically different results than any of the other states the LDI project has looked at so far. While Hawaiian Democrats possess a 58-42 edge on the generic ballot, the state is ideologically far more homogenous than any other state we've surveyed thus far

The above graph is a plot of the five states released thus far. The x-axis is a measurement of where the district falls in comparison to others in the state. For example, 0% is the most Democratic district, 100% the most Republican, 50% in the middle. The y-axis displays how Democratic and Republican those districts are. Keep in mind that this graph is not comparing the political preference of allt he states, but rather the distribution of political preferences within each state. So D+0 for each state does not mean that each party has the same chance of winning that seat in each state, but rather it means that every D+0 district is the average result for that respective state.

What the graph shows is a remarkably small range in political preference for Hawaiians compared to the other states released thus far. The range between the most Democratic and most Republican seats is only 42 - compare that to Maine (80) or Ohio (88), and the contrast is clear. Hawaii's legislature is smaller, which may lead to less partisan districts as they have to cover more ground, but even in Nebraska, where the Unicameral is roughly the same size, the range is a whopping 130.

What this means for Hawaii Democrats is that voter satisfaction can shift fairly quickly, based on the popularity of those in office. There simply aren't Democratic or Republican strongholds that the party can count on regardless of the candidate or climate. These small shifts in favorability can translate into large shifts in electoral preference - I believe this was the case in Governor Linda Lingle's continued success. Gov. Lingle didn't manage to turnout Conservative pockets to overcome the institutional strength of the Democratic party - across the state she simply flipped voters, and then maintained popularity through re-election. But you can't take advantage of those situations unless you have elected officials who are ready to move up through the ranks - and one look at the Senate composition should signal that the Republican bench is dwindling.

It's still hard to pull much out of the Hawaii data, given the lack of states to compare it against (we will have more blue states coming in the next week). But one thing I am curious about is that it would seem to me that Hawaii may provide a case where competitive primaries can have a seriously negative effect on a party's general election prospects.

My rationale is as follows: the Hawaiian electorate is unusually homogenous, at least in comparison to what I've seen so far. Thus, Room for large ideological differences amongst the electorate is much smaller. Unlike in Maine, where there was a huge contrast between the kind of Democrats that would win in Portland as opposed to the rest of the state, there are no big chasms in preference. Thus, this leaves less room in a primary for exchange about different ideas and policies, and forces them to become more personal affairs. The 2002 Ed Case- Mazie Hirono primary seems to be an example of this - while Mr. Case is fairly well known online as a sort of conservative boogeyman of Hawaii Democratic politics, that primary campaign was not about ideology, but was much more about the perceived "old boy network" that Mr. Case tried to cast then-Lieutenant Governor Hirono as a member. Gov. Lingle, still popular from her 1998 campaign, didn't face the same kind of character attacks, and the result was an almost universal swing towards Republicans.

Either way, the results from Hawaii are very different than what we've come across thus far. It makes me more excited to looking at some other states with smaller legislatures, such as Alaska, to see if size is playing a role in shrinking the partisan range. Have a pet theory on why the difference exists, or something else jumping out at you? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Excellent article Matthew! Your analysis seems spot on. Here are a few comments of mine:
    1. For background history, Hawaii used to be a very Republican state. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the first Asian Senator in the US Senate was Sen. Hiram Fong (R) of HI. Hawaii in general used to be dominated by a few major companies that stemmed from plantations and other commercial industries, and Hawaii remained this way during it's early statehood history. After a few years (around what time I unfortunately cannot remember) unions made extremely large pushes and became extremely popular among the working class. Once unions established themselves, Hawaii turned blue (there probably were a few other reasons, but I believe this was the major reason). The State of Hawaii employs so many of our residents, and most state employees belong to various unions that tend to vote blue and support democratic candidates. I believe that because so Hawaii employees primarily work for powerful, established unions, Hawaii residents predominantly vote blue (I don't have the numbers to back this claim up though...)

  2. 2. The example concerning the 2002 Governor race sounds quite accurate, and I agree that certain primaries among democratic candidates end up hurting the party's chances come general election. Your analysis of the governor race makes a lot of sense and I agree with it. For the most part, candidates know that they need to run on the Democratic ticket to get elected. In 2002, there was a pretty close race between Hirono and Case for the nomination. You're right about Case, he always tends to play that role among the democratic party as being more moderate and the "Democratic maverick" you could say. You're right, Lingle was able to carry some of her momentum into the 2002 race to take the Governor's seat over Hirono. Here are some of the reasons for this shift in power: First of all, there was some discontent with the Gov Cayetano administration (which included Lt. Gov Hirono), and Hawaii was still recovering from the drops in tourism caused by 9-11. There was also a pretty nasty teacher's strike that took place a few years earlier that greatly affected Cayetano's (and therefore Hirono's) image. These other elements allowed Lingle to take the Governor's seat, a feat a Republican had not accomplished in decades. Lingle was able to stay in office and was reelected during the economic recovery. The economy was doing well, tourism was up, and other positive things were going on during 2006. Her democratic challenger Randall Iwase didn't pose too much of a challenge and his credentials were not all that impressive. Lingle was easlily reelected. Though criticized for being connected to GW Bush, Lingle remained popular due to the good economy. Of course, we all know that changed in 2008. Lingle established unpopular furloughs, and in 2010 the democrats easily took the governor's seat back.
    On another note concerning the Lingle administration: never before had there been so many vetoes and overridden vetoes in Hawaii State history (again I need to check the official numbers, but I'm pretty sure this is the case). Basically every bill seemed to be this: Dems draft something up, Lingle Vetoes it, Dems decide if they want to override veto (they always had the numbers, so this usually wasn't an issue). This is my personal opinion: Lingle received some bad criticism for not following through on her promises. I believe that the nearly homogenous democratic house and senate made it nearly impossible for any of her policies to go through.

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  4. 3. One last cool case that fits your analysis: When Neil Abercrombie left his seat in the US house to run for governor, they had a special election to fill his seat. Dems Coleen Hanabusa and Ed Case and Rep Charles Djou ran for the seat. There was no primary election; it was winner take all. Hanabusa and Case spent so much time targeting each other, and Djou simply watched from afar as they two Dems debated issues. When it appeared as though Case would be the front runner, Djou then started attacking Case. Ultimately the Dems split the blue vote and Djou was able to get enough votes to win. Hanabusa came in second and Case in third because of the attacks Case received from both sides. During the next general election, it was "decided" that Hanabusa should oppose Djou to take back the seat. Since she no longer had to worry about splitting the Democratic vote, she decisively took back the seat from Djou.

    Matthew, all I can say that I'm very impressed with all of your work. Your conclusion that Hawaii is politically homogenous relative to other states seems very accurate in my opinion. I really hope you keep this all up and enjoy your summer! I apologize if my comments are filled with typos and whatnot.