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Is Hawaii Really Obama Country?

Barack Obama will probably win Hawaii on February 19. He does have a "home state" advantage and an organizational edge, since the state has a caucus. But here's something to ponder: almost 60% of Hawaiians are Asian Americans--as Isaac pointed out, by far the most anti-Obama demographic in the United States in the primaries thus far. And Hawaii's Democratic caucus is closed, which means an even higher Asian percentage among those eligible to vote for Hillary or Obama--not to mention that Hawaii's Democrats are notorious machine politicians, closely tied to the military and to huge unions that are officially in the tank for Clinton.

There's no way to know if Hawaii's Asian Americans will be as anti-Obama as voters in California and New York--who went for Hillary almost 3 to 1. Their psychology may be different from Asians on the mainland, since they're a local majority; their suspicion of "change" might be blunted by his local-boy roots; and if Hawaiians aren't necessarily less racist than mainlanders, they probably are racist in a more post-racial way. Still, it's enough to ask whether Obama's advantage is as big as David Plouffe says it is.

In the absence of any poll data on the issue, I decided to do the next best thing: call my Chinese grandparents, who live above Pearl Harbor. At 8 a.m. Hawaii time, they had just woken up. I led into the discussion by asking my grandmother what she'd been cooking recently--an exhaustive list, including a Chinese New Year's dish traditionally prepared by monks.

"So, I'm doing research on Hawaii politics. Do you know what's going on with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?"

It turns out she has no clue, and she doesn't know if it's legal or not, but she's been having my grandfather fill out her ballots for about 50 years. (According to Professor Jae Ku of the John's Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, this is a common practice in Asian democracies. Family units often serve as political and business units as well, which could be another explanation for Asian-American comfort with the Clintons.) She passed the phone to my grandfather.

"Hello? What's this about the politics?" I asked him about the candidates. He supports Hillary because she has more experience, and explains that Obama's been doing a good job raising money in Hawaii--especially among "haoles" (pron. "howlies," a common Hawaiian pejorative for white people) who he says have been flocking to Hawaii's still-booming real-estate market (note: an unverified assertion).

Furthermore, he says, Hawaii's Democratic Party has been controlled by the Japanese since the 1960s, and influential Japanese-American Senator Daniel Inouye is making a high-profile trip from Washington, D.C to stump for Hillary. This is big news.

My follow-up call to a local expert, Ira Rohter from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, reveals that the Democratic establishment is aggressively working to inoculate the state against Obama--priming their warhorses, the two biggest government unions, for a major turnout effort and bringing professional organizers from the mainland.

During the 2004 primaries, Dennis Kucinich apparently caught them by surprise, coming in second place with the help of left-wing progressive organizers. Now warned, they've vowed to prevent a repeat performance by Obama. They're betting their manpower advantage will overcome Obama's effort to turn out young Hawaiians, who are legendarily apathetic about voting. Professor Rohter speculates that Hillary thinks she at has at least a chance to embarrass Obama by beating him in his home state. He says Obama, who is in Seattle today, may have to consider flying to Hawaii and making a dramatic appearance to galvanize support.

This isn't to say that Obama is just relying on young people. He's also trying to piggyback on the Kucinich progressives and mobilizing his former alumni network at Punahou--the elite private school he attended in his teens. In Hawaii, elite schools like Punahou and the Kamehameha schools provide instant connections to powerful families, giving their alumni an automatic leg up if they want to enter politics. And, as always, Obama's campaign has focused on community organization in a way that Hillary's doesn't even attempt to do. "They're doing all the right things," Rohter, a campaign-organization junkie, tells me.

So even if Obama wins in his native state, it's worth noting that the Democratic establishment there is powerful, and it's fighting him with everything it has.

--Barron YoungSmith