Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s job approval rating is at 50 percent, a new Hawaii Poll has found, a precarious review that suggests the state’s budget crisis has taken a toll on the governor’s image six months after he was elected.
The poll results offer a split verdict on the Democratic governor’s performance after his first session working with the state Legislature, where he gave a strong State of the State address in January but appeared to lose traction and saw many of his tax and public-policy ideas rejected by lawmakers before the session ended this month.
Abercrombie had to confront a projected two-year budget deficit of $1.3 billion, substantially larger than he had anticipated during his campaign last year. To help reduce the shortfall he made bold — if unpopular — proposals to tax pension income and soft drinks, and to end state Medicare Part B reimbursements for retired public workers and their spouses.
"For a new governor, Abercrombie hasn’t enjoyed a honeymoon period at all," said Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research Inc., which conducted the poll for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now.
"And what this tells me is that the budget crisis and the difficulties in balancing the budget, difficulties with the Legislature, (have) really taken a toll on his approval rating."
Abercrombie has acknowledged that he has not met the high expectations held by many Democrats when he was elected after eight years under Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican.
Cynthia Timberlake, a retired librarian who lives in Pearl Ridge, said she has followed Abercrombie’s political career for four decades and believes he will get back on track after a slow start.
"I just think he can usually come through on what he says he’s going to do," she said. "He cares. I think he cares enough to really work at this."
Ronald Tario, a longshoreman who lives in Nuuanu, said Abercrombie promised too much during the campaign. He said Abercrombie should have been clearer that the state’s budget deficit and difficult economy made some of his "A New Day in Hawaii" plan unlikely in the short term.
"He made a lot of empty promises," Tario said.
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A job approval rating under 50 percent is dangerous territory for a politician. The poll found that Abercrombie has dipped slightly into the red — voters who either disapprove of his performance or say they do not know — on Oahu, among men, Filipino-Americans, seniors and middle-income voters.
Just 39 percent of independents approve of the governor’s performance — a warning from the middle. The governor’s approval rating is also soft — 51 percent — among union households, a core constituency given his strong support for labor.
The poll was taken by telephone among 614 registered voters statewide from May 4 to Tuesday. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.
Abercrombie declined to comment on the poll.
"Gov. Abercrombie’s approach is to be honest and straightforward with the people of Hawaii so that, together, we can address our challenges head-on," said Donalyn Dela Cruz, the governor’s spokeswoman. "We believe support is growing in Hawaii to face up to our problems and work together to fix our government, rebuild the economy, and invest in the future."
Voters gave Abercrombie a better review than state House and Senate lawmakers. Just 38 percent approved of the job lawmakers did during the session. Lawmakers’ job approval was 50 percent among Democrats, 20 percent among Republicans and 21 percent among independents.
The Legislature — like Congress at the federal level — typically receives lower performance ratings than governors and presidents in public-opinion polls, even though voters tend to give their own representatives and senators higher marks.
Voters continue to give Hawaii-born President Barack Obama a much higher job approval rating — 74 percent — than he receives on the mainland. Gallup put the president’s job approval nationally at 50 percent last week.
While this is the first Hawaii Poll to measure Abercrombie’s job approval, the poll also surveyed whether voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him, a question that had been asked about Abercrombie when was a candidate.
The poll found that 55 percent have a favorable opinion of Abercrombie, down from 61 percent in October, a few weeks before the November election. The governor has lost ground among critical demographics for the Democratic Party — traditional Democrats, Japanese-Americans, union households and women.
"There are a lot of, perhaps, misgivings about the pension plan that he initially advocated. And that’s probably where the biggest negative buzz comes from," said Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
"He was looking at the whole smorgasbord of ideas and thoughts, knowing that they were all not going to be receiving total acceptance. He was akamai enough to know all that."
Alex Santiago, a social-service advocate and former party chairman, said Abercrombie — and the public — created unrealistic expectations coming into the session.
"He found that it’s very different once you’re there from when you are running for office or campaigning for something," he said. "The realities of what he was dealing with were much more difficult for him than he thought."
Santiago said Abercrombie will not please everyone — and did not please social-services advocates during the session — but he is hopeful the governor will deliver on his "New Day" agenda.
"A person’s true character is not judged by what they do when the economy is good and the money is rolling in and all the programs they create and all of that," he said. "The real test of character, the real question that people will have, is what do you do — and how do you act — when a crisis hits?
"And this is what he’s faced with right now. I think the jury is still out. I think he still has an opportunity next year, and in the years to come, to really prove his leadership ability."