What's with Hawaii? On Saturday the Honolulu Advertiser came out with a poll showing the state going 43 percent for George W. Bush and 43 percent for John Kerry. On Sunday the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and KITK-TV came out with a poll showing Bush ahead 46 percent to 45 percent on Oahu, which casts 70 percent of Hawaii's votes and is 1 to 2 percent more Republican than the state average. This in a state which Al Gore carried in 2000 by a 56 percent to 37 percent, and in which neither campaign has advertised and which no nominee has visited.
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Actually, these numbers are in line with Hawaii's political behavior since it became a state in 1960. Hawaii has two voting tendencies. (1) It tends to vote Democratic. (2) It tends to support incumbent presidents.
Interestingly, when the statehood issue was before Congress, Hawaii was considered a Republican state; Alaska, it was thought, would be Democratic. It has turned out to be the other way around. Hawaii's two House seats have been won by Democrats in every election except for 1986 and 1988, when Republican Patricia Saiki won the 1st district. Hawaii's two Senate seats have been won by Democrats, except for Republican Hiram Fong, who won one in 1959, 1964 and 1970. Democrats held the governorship from 1962 to 2002, when Republican Linda Lingle was elected. Democrats have had huge majorities in Hawaii's legislature for years.
Why so Democratic? The main reason is that Hawaii's Japanese-Americans, who make up about one-third of the population, are heavily Democratic. Japanese-Americans, notably Senator Daniel Inouye, built a powerful political machine in the 1950s that swept to power in 1962 and has dominated Hawaii politics ever since.
But in presidential elections Hawaii tends to vote for incumbents, of both parties. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson won 79 percent of Hawaii's votes, far more than the 50.03 percent John Kennedy won in 1960, when running against the incumbent vice president, Richard Nixon. Johnson won a bigger percentage in Hawaii than any other state but Rhode Island, where he got 81 percent. In 1968, with the incumbent vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic nominee, Hawaii went Democratic by a 60 to 39 percent margin. Humphrey ran better only in Rhode Island (64 percent) and Massachusetts (63 percent).
But in 1972 the incumbent Republican president, Richard Nixon, swept Hawaii by a 62 to 38 percent margin. Only in southern states where George Wallace had run strong four years before did Nixon's percentage increase more over those four years. In 1976 the incumbent Republican president Gerald Ford lost Hawaii, but only by a 51 to 48 percent margin. In 1980 the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, lost 44 states. But he carried Hawaii, by a 45 to 43 percent margin.
Starting in 1984, Hawaii's Democratic tendency tended to outweigh its support-your-incumbent-president tendency. Hawaii did vote for Ronald Reagan by 55 percent to 44 percent, But in 1988 it preferred Michael Dukakis to the incumbent vice president, George H. W. Bush, by 54 percent to 45 percent. And in 1992 incumbency did not work for Bush at all in Hawaii. Prominent Hawaii Republican Orson Swindle was one of the national leaders of Ross Perot's campaign, and Bush won only 37 percent of Hawaii's votes, well below Bill Clinton's 48 percent. In 1996 incumbent Clinton won Hawaii by a 57 to 32 percent margin. In 2000 the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, carried Hawai by a solid 56 percent to 37 percent.