Tuesday, October 6, 2015         

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Isle vote still likely Obama's, but fever has cooled

By Derrick DePledge


Tanya Bruno was a first-time delegate to the state Democratic convention in May 2008, part of a wave of young people driven to party activism by the energy around Barack Obama.

She said at the time that she had been interested in politics but was never motivated by a candidate to get involved.

"Obama was able to get me over that hurdle," she said at the convention. "But now that I'm here, I think I'll stay."

Three years later, Bruno is still a believer in the Hawaii-born president's policies. Her party activism, though, ended with Obama's historic election.

"I would say I still support him and I'm still behind him, but it feels really different than it did back then," said Bruno, a fundraiser for a nonprofit interest group. She lives in Makiki. "Because back then it was all so new and everyone was so enthusiastic, and the last couple of years have been pretty brutal."

Obama's job approval rating nationally is at 41 percent, according to Gallup, near the lowest since he took office, yet in Hawaii he remains a favored son. The president's job approval in the islands was 56 percent through the first six months of the year, Gallup found, a dip from the 66 percent rating he averaged in 2010.

A poll taken in May for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now put his job approval mark at 74 percent.

Hawaii Democrats say they believe Obama is still extremely popular, a source of local pride, and predict he will easily capture the state's four electoral votes next year. Democrats hold a 24-percentage-point advantage over Republicans in the islands, according to Gallup, so Obama's fortunes would have to turn apocalyptic for the president to lose here.

But veteran Democrats privately acknowledge that the intensity behind Obama has faded. The new, mostly younger Democrats who drove record turnout to the party's presidential caucuses and filled delegate slots at the state convention in 2008 did not breathe the kind of fresh life into the party that some thought was possible.

Even at the apex of Obama­mania, veteran Demo­crats estimated that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the newcomers would stay involved with the party after the election. Or, as one longtime volunteer told another wryly at the time: "These people won't be around to make chicken hekka for the fundraisers."

While it is natural for interest in politics to wane in the years between presidential election campaigns, many local Democrats portrayed Obama in far loftier terms than they used to describe candidates such as former Vice President Al Gore or U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. He was going to be a transformational figure, many Democrats said in 2008, an authentic messenger for change, the bridge to a new kind of politics.

Political strategists are interested in the depth of Obama's support in Hawaii because of the potential influence the president could have on other campaigns next year, particularly the U.S. Senate race.

Obama won Hawaii with 71.5 percent of the vote in 2008, a staggering 45-percentage-point gap over U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the largest victory margin of any state (and second to the District of Columbia). If the president were to match that performance next year it would be difficult for former Gov. Linda Lingle, who is considering a Republican campaign for U.S. Senate, to prevail.

Political strategists calculate that if the president gets somewhere around 60 percent to 65 percent of the island vote, the math becomes complicated for Lingle, who must draw from moderate Democrats and independents to win. If moderate Democrats and independents are part of another Obama landslide, they would likely have little incentive to split their votes and choose Lingle over U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono or former congressman Ed Case, the Democratic contenders.

Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who helped lead Obama's Hawaii campaign in 2008, believes the president remains popular because of his policies, his local ties and the fact that Hawaii is a traditionally Democratic state. He also thinks island voters are less inclined than voters on the mainland to reflexively want to throw their leaders out when times turn bad.

Every governor since John A. Burns has been elected to more than one term. No Hawaii member of Congress who has served a full term has ever been voted out of office.

"I think there is a reservoir of patience among local people for our leaders," Schatz said.

But many Obama loyalists have gone from speaking about the gleaming potential of hope and change to the practical realities of governing a divided nation.

Ria Baldevia, the Hawaii coordinator for Obama for America, the president's re-election campaign, was a volunteer in 2008. She said Obama has lived up to her expectations.

"It's a hard journey. It's been a hard journey," she said. "But we are confident with what he's done."

Jacce Mikulanec, who works on the lieutenant governor's Fair Share Initiative to attract federal dollars to Hawaii, campaigned as a volunteer for Obama before the Iowa caucuses. He said he is personally encouraged about the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, the decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the federal economic stimulus package that brought more than $1 billion to Hawaii. He also said the federal health care reform law, while not perfect, was progress after decades of inaction.

"He's done a lot. I think a lot of it gets overshadowed by the economy, but we live in a world economy," he said. "He doesn't get to just wave a wand and everything goes away."

Chuck Freedman, a veteran Democratic strategist who starts Monday as a special assistant to Schatz, was among the most eloquent in describing Obama's potential in 2008. He saw Obama as a transformational figure who could help restore the United States' reputation in foreign affairs and salve some of the raw partisanship in Washington, D.C.

He still believes Obama has those skills, but he is disappointed by what he sees as Republican intransigence in Congress.

"The level of wedge-issue politics presented by the Republican Congress, to me, has really been a huge blockade for there being any kind of consensus," he said.

Bruno, the first-time delegate to the state Democratic convention in 2008, has since shifted her volunteer activism to good-government issues and to interest groups such as Common Cause Hawaii rather than the Democratic Party.

"The gridlock that sort of happened, mostly out of Washington, that's just been really disappointing and frustrating," she said. "And it's so petty."

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