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former US Representative Ed Case
Ed Case

The Case of the 50,000 voters

The former congressman sizes up the primary and looks ahead to November
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former US Representative Ed Case / Change seems finally to have arrived in Hawaii Democratic politics, and in a great irony, the standard bearer for intraparty reform, former US Rep. Ed Case, sat this cycle out. Interestingly enough, there are some strong parallels between this year’s gubernatorial race (vacant seat, well-known Republican running against nominal opposition, hotly contested Democratic primary) and the 2002 campaign, in which Case lost to Mazie Hirono by one percent of the vote. While poring over the numbers Monday morning, we noticed one striking difference between voting patterns in the 2002 and 2010 primaries: More than 50,000 more people cast Democratic ballots this year. We called Case for an impromptu conversation, and we thank him for being willing to go on the record about numbers he hadn’t yet had time to digest.


Neil Abercrombie received almost as many votes in 2010 (142,000) as you and Mazie Hirono combined in 2002 (151,000), even though the dynamics of the two races were very similar. What do you make of that?

I think Hannemann versus Abercrombie attracted more voters than Hirono versus Case. Then you’d have to look at the total number of voters in the pool.

Either way, though, that is a huge difference. Roughly 50,000 more votes were cast on the Democratic side this time. That could mean a lot of things.

I don’t think it means there was a concerted effort to defeat Hannemann on the part of Republicans, though I think you’ll hear some people posit that. In 2002, it was very clear that (then-GOP candidate Linda) Lingle wanted me defeated in that primary. I did hear of, at some level, encouragement of Republicans to vote for Hirono. And that race was decided by what, one percent? It’s impossible to tell what happened. I think Anderson swung that race as much as anything else.

But is Neil’s 22-point margin attributable in any material way to Republicans crossing over? I don’t think so. I think 22 points means traditional Democrats and independents went with Abercrombie.

Most of the focus after your endorsement of Abercrombie was on the way it dealt with Hannemann, but maybe the salient part of it was the other half of that message: That people simply like Neil Abercrombie, regardless of their agreement with him on the issues. Is that what happened here?

People respect and trust Neil, on some personal level, whether they agree with him on policy or not. He has been true and consistent through decades in public service. He’s a real person, and they got a sense that the Hannemann that they were seeing was not the real person. People did not like Hannemann. I think in today’s hopelessly spun political world, people seek real candidates who say what they really think. Neil certainly benefited from the contrast with Hannemann on the question of “Is this a person that I trust?” That doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him in the general election. If you take 150,000 votes for Neil, how many of them are very closely aligned with him philosophically? Not 150,000 of them, not nearly.

How do you assess the general?

I’ve always felt that people underestimated Aiona. Personally, I like Aiona, and I’ve worked well with him. I think he’s a very good up-close-and-personal politician. When I was out on the trail, I saw Aiona at far more of the Hawaii versions of the “rubber chicken” events than any other politician. That adds up over time. I don’t think he should be discounted. I do think that if Neil maintains the same basic tent that he built to win this primary by that margin, it’ll be tough for Aiona.

From a philosophical perspective, we ended up with candidates on opposite ends of the spectrum. The middle is going to decide this. They’ve decided our governor for several cycles now, and they decided (the Democratic primary) race. They both need to reach that group. Those people will also decide who is the First District congressperson.

I think Neil’s message of hope and change–I think what I said in ’02 still holds. “Change with a ‘D.’” Can Democrats leave behind the machine side of their personality and become an inclusive force for change in Hawaii?

Frankly that’s the story of Saturday. When you look at the whole confluence of events, we left the machine behind on Saturday in many ways. That doesn’t mean it’s pau, but certainly we’re well on the way to “Change with a ‘D’” consensus. I think Neil put that together. And if he can continue to put it together, it will be a powerful force.

Where is the Tea Party energy going to show up in Hawaii, if at all?

I think you’re going see it in Djou versus Hanabusa. The Tea Party movement is focused on the federal level, you haven’t really seen it in state and local races yet. Having said that, if the Tea Party stands for a general disillusionment with government, that level of disillusionment exists in Hawaii as well. And I think Neil got the disillusioned-with-government vote.

The Tea Party is characterized as the far right, and it is. But I really take the Tea Party at a deeper level than just extreme conservatives. I’m disillusioned with government and I’m no Tea Party member.

Those are the people who are going to decide who is governor and who is the next member of Congress. The Tea Party isn’t going to have the same role here that it does elsewhere. But to think that 2,500 miles of ocean changes the electoral dynamic is to buy into that thinking that we’re somehow fundamentally different. We’re not.

At this point, the conversation ended. A half-hour later, Case called back.

Uh-oh.

(Laughter) This is the problem with politics–it gets into you. I’m over here trying to work at my day job and instead I’ve been looking at these ’02 versus ’10 numbers.

It’s real, right? It looks like Republicans crossed over in huge numbers. What does that say to you?

The single biggest thing that was different was that only 15 percent of the votes were on the GOP side this time, compared to 30 percent in 2002. It’s glaring that people who were inclined to vote GOP in 2002 stayed over there to get Lingle through the primary. But in this race, they moved over. I think it is also pretty clear that Abercrombie got most of those votes. The Hannemann approach of bringing more conservative voters over to vote in the Democratic primary, I’m not sure that worked. Republicans were focused on getting Lingle through the primary in 2002–

But why would that be? The dynamics were the same–she was in the same kind of token race, in fact against the same guy. How worried could Republicans have been in 2002 that Lingle wasn’t going to get past John Carroll? And yet this was the year they switched over.

Well, I don’t think it’s good news for Aiona. There were far more people starting out supporting Lingle in ’02 than are starting out supporting Aiona this time.

I think (Republicans) this year did sense that Aiona’s chances of prevailing are less than Lingle’s were in 2002. And so maybe what you’re seeing there is a desire among Republicans not necessarily to pick an opponent, but to have a say in whom the next governor is likely to be.

Almost like instant runoff voting.

Absolutely. They’re saying “I like Aiona, but if I have to pick between these other two, I want Abercrombie. I don’t want Hannemann.”