By Derrick DePledge, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 03--Gov. Neil Abercrombie is in grave risk of losing to state Sen. David Ige in the Democratic primary, according to a new Hawaii Poll that shows the governor's job approval and favorability sinking among voters.

Ige, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, holds a 54 percent to 36 percent lead over Abercrombie with 11 percent undecided.

No governor has lost re-election since William Quinn, a Republican, in 1962, so Ige could be on the cusp of a historic upset on Saturday.

Forty-six percent of voters who said they were voting for Ige were doing so primarily because they do not like the governor, a sobering verdict for the incumbent.

Abercrombie's job approval was at 38 percent, compared to 43 percent in the last Hawaii Poll in February. His favorability was at 38 percent, down from 45 percent in February.

"The governor's had difficulty almost since he started four years ago -- or three and a half years ago -- with his job approval ratings never making it past 50 percent," said Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research Inc., which conducted the Hawaii Poll for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now. "So we've seen him in trouble all along."

The Hawaii Poll suggests the primary is more a reflection of Abercrombie's unpopularity than Ige's impact.

"I think at this point what we've seen is someone come from very low recognition -- David Ige, with very low name recognition -- and pretty much just spiral up," Ward said. "I've felt like it's a vote against Abercrombie. I said that in February and it looks that way now in everything we see in the poll."

Former Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Republican who lost to Abercrombie in 2010, led both Abercrombie and Ige in potential November general election matchups. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who lost to Abercrombie in the primary in 2010 and is now running under the new Hawaii Independent Party banner, was a distant third.

"I think we need change," said Harry Morck, a construction painter who lives in Salt Lake and backs Ige.

Frederick Reis, a former custodian who lives in Kalihi, said he voted for Abercrombie four years ago but is looking elsewhere in the primary. He said he remembers the unhappy public school teachers who were staging a sit-in at Washington Place in 2013 during contract negotiations.

"They wanted a fair shake, and he never gave them a fair shake," Reis said. "That's not how a politician is supposed to act. You're supposed to help the people. I want a politician that's going to talk straight and then help the people."

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Many Abercrombie loyalists are frustrated that voters appear to be judging the governor based on their disappointment with his personality and leadership style rather than his performance. For example, while Abercrombie imposed a contract on teachers in 2011 that included pay cuts -- the same as other public-sector workers -- a new contract negotiated in 2013 -- the year of the sit-in at Washington Place -- restored the pay cuts and granted teachers pay raises and a reduced share of health insurance premiums.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association endorsed Ige, however, and the teachers union has purchased television advertisements that bash Abercrombie.

Forty percent of voters who said they favor Abercrombie cited his leadership experience.

Terryl Leong, a city parks worker who lives in Manoa, said her impression is that Abercrombie has done well for the state's economy, although she is concerned about his administration's support for residential development on agricultural land. She described herself as a "child of the '60s kind of a person" and remembers that Abercrombie was out demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

"There's part of me that wants to just give him more time to do what he's set up to do," she said.

The Hawaii Poll in the Democratic primary for governor was taken by phone from July 21 to 29 among 458 likely primary voters statewide. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

The hypothetical November general election matchups and job approval and favorability interviews were conducted among 612 likely primary voters statewide. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Abercrombie had led Ige 47 percent to 38 percent in the last Hawaii Poll in February, a nine-point gap that was surprising at the time because most voters were still unfamiliar with the state senator. Ige, according to the new poll, holds a stunning 18-point advantage.

Twenty-eight percent of voters said they had never heard of or did not know enough about Ige, down from 61 percent in February. Fifty-seven percent view Ige favorably, up from 30 percent in February.

The new poll found Ige dominant on Oahu, where he is up over Abercrombie 61 percent to 30 percent, but trailing Abercrombie 46 percent to 39 percent on the neighbor islands, where Ige is less known.

The split among traditional Democratic voters is tighter than the broader sample, with Ige up 51 percent to 40 percent. But Ige does far better than Abercrombie in union households -- 58 percent to 34 percent -- an important constituency in Democratic primaries.

Ominously for Abercrombie, his job approval rating was below 50 percent even among traditional Democrats -- 48 percent -- and was at 34 percent in union households.

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Ige, who grew up in Pearl City and whose father, Tokio, was part of the famed 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, performed particularly well with Japanese-American voters, where he is up over the governor 62 percent to 28 percent. Yet Ige is nearly sharing the vote with Abercrombie among white voters, where the governor leads 49 percent to 47 percent.

"I can tell you that there's been a definite shift in the momentum in the last four weeks," Ige said. "You can kind of see it in virtually every phase of the campaign."

William Kaneko, Abercrombie's campaign manager, said the primary is still winnable.

"Our internal poll numbers indicate this race is dead even," he said in a statement. "Our grass-roots efforts are surging, with key endorsements from President (Barack) Obama, Mayor (Kirk) Caldwell and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The governor is humbled by the level of support he has received to continue for another term."

The upheaval among Democrats has already helped Aiona. The Republican's favorability is at 63 percent, the highest of any candidate tested in the poll, up from 58 percent in February. Fifty-one percent of traditional Democrats view him positively.

"I think the public just has had enough," Aiona said, referring to the federal, state and county levels of government. "I really believe that they're just kind of fed up with the elected officials."

Aiona said many voters "feel like their voice is not being heard," adding, "They're not being treated with respect."

Hannemann, whose favorability was at 39 percent, down from 45 percent in February, said poll numbers for the November general election would not mean much until after the Democratic primary.

"Our strategy all along was to wait until the general election," he said in an email. "We were the last to officially announce, have not done any TV or radio advertising and have not participated in any debates.

"Once we begin campaigning in earnest after the primary, we believe our numbers will move."

Staff writer Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.


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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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