State of the States: Hawaii

You haven’t spent much time thinking about who will capture Hawaii’s four electoral votes. Partly because you never think about Hawaii unless you’re planning a vacation. Partly because if you accidentally thought about it in election terms, you quickly remembered Biden will win by a lot.

There’s never been a famous Hawaii caucus or primary. Tulsi Gabbard is the only Hawaiian politician to have run for president. General Election candidates don’t usually campaign there. Most senate campaigns are easily won by the Democrat. Yet, I was very excited about getting to talk about what Hawaii can tell us about the election. Keep reading to see why.

2016 Results: Clinton 62.22%, Trump 30.03%

This was the biggest Clinton margin in any of the 50 states (trailing only D.C.) However, native son Barack Obama did even better in 2008 and 2012.

2020 Polls: Biden +27

There’s only one poll. Biden leads it 56/29. There are few other states with just one survey.

Key Historical Shifts: Hawaii voted for the first time in 1960. Richard Nixon actually campaigned there. He’d pledged to visit all 50 states, something nobody has attempted since. For his trouble, he lost the state by 115 votes.

In 1964 and 1968, Hawaii said Aloha! to the Democrats, favoring Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater 79/21, and Hubert Humphrey 60/39 over Nixon. Blue, right? Not so fast. Nixon won by 25 points in 1972, a larger margin than his national landslide.

Jimmy Carter won Hawaii in both 1976 and 1980. The first time, with the same narrow margin as his national victory. The second close win was 12 points better than his overall defeat. So for the first six times Hawaii voted, it was noticeably blue three times and fairly neutral three times. It wasn’t even consistent with the same candidates. By 1984, Hawaii still didn’t like Ronald Reagan as much as the average state did, but his deficit was smaller than four years prior, enough for him to win the state by double digits.

You wouldn’t have ever called Hawaii red, but at that point it would have qualified as light blue, maybe even sorta purple. Republicans haven’t come close since. Bush 43 lost by 9 points in 2004, 11 points worse than the national popular vote. That’s the best recent GOP result. The nomination of Obama put the state completely out of reach, and it now challenges Vermont as the bluest in the country.

What happened?

We often talk about the influence of demographics on moving states from red to blue or vice versa. But the common examples don’t exist in Hawaii. There’s no expanding Latino population. GOP failures with African American voters aren’t a factor either. But three other things are:

Hawaii is the one state with an Asian majority. These days, most Asian Americans vote Democratic in presidential elections. This wasn’t always so. Nationally, Bush 41 finished 24 points ahead of Bill Clinton in 1992 with Asian voters. By 2004, John Kerry received 56% support. The gap has increased since.

This hurts Republicans in California, Washington, and Virginia. It’s lethal in Hawaii. It appears many Asian immigrants are more pro-GOP than their American-born children. That generational transition happened a decade or two sooner in Hawaii than on the mainland. By the 1990s, the majority of Hawaiians of Asian descent were born in the USA.

Once upon a time, sexual orientation was not predictive of political affiliation. Beginning in the 1980s, the LGBTQ community began moving away from the GOP, and now votes almost exclusively Democratic. Hawaii has the highest percentage of LGBTQ residents in the country, over 5% in a 2012 Gallup survey.

While Republicans are still thought of as the party of the wealthy, and did once consistently do better the more affluent the state, county, or precinct was, that’s changed. A lot. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 16 of the most affluent (by median household income) 18 states, including the top eight. Donald Trump won 14 of the 15 lowest income states. Hawaii is the fourth highest earning state.

It didn’t take many decades for Republicans to become non-competitive in Hawaii. Conditions could change back faster than we think. Just not by November 3rd.

Where Biden Could Improve on 2016: There’s not a ton of room, but Jill Stein did get 3% of the vote, and Hillary finished almost 10 points behind Obama’s 2008/2012 results. Assuming Biden can take advantage of being his buddy Barack’s wingman, his numbers could fall between the 2012 and 2016 results. Mind you, that will just increase the gap between popular vote and electoral vote outcomes.

Where Trump Could Improve on 2020: Uh, don’t really see a window. Hawaii has remained more COVID free than the mainland, but federal restrictions on entry visas and mandatory quarantines for Asians and Australians returning from the US are crushing Hawaiian tourism. Plus, it’s not like Trump is going to spend any resources here.

Forecast: If the networks don’t call Hawaii for Biden the instant polls close, something is very wrong.

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