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Hawaii Polls Demand a Critical Eye

It's notoriously difficult to poll in the state, with many surveys missing the mark.

Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa leads appointed Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz in a newly-released poll.

photo of Steven Shepard
February 18, 2014

This weekend's Honolulu Star-Advertiser Hawaii poll brought a raft of surprising findings. Appointed Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz is trailing Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in their closely-watched primary matchup, and Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who appointed Schatz to the Senate and was succeeded in the House by Hanabusa, is losing to his likely GOP rival.

Just because the results are surprising doesn't mean this poll isn't accurate. But it does serve as a reminder that pollsters face unique challenges in Hawaii.

Polling in Hawaii is notoriously tricky. The Aloha State's complex ethnic melting pot makes finding the right sample composition difficult -- especially important when a Caucasian candidate like Schatz or Abercrombie is facing an American of Japanese ancestry (AJA) candidate like Hanabusa or Ige. Ward Research, the Star-Advertiser's pollster, missed the Democratic primary in the state's 2nd congressional district last cycle by a wide margin.

 

Schatz's campaign and other Democrats disputed the poll, which showed Hanabusa ahead, 48 percent to 40 percent. For the primary matchups, Democrats aligned with Schatz's campaign pointed out that 82 percent of all the registered voters surveyed participated in that question, even though far fewer than 82 percent of eligible registered voters are likely to cast ballots in the primary.

Even though Schatz is the incumbent, including unlikely voters would benefit Hanabusa, they argued. As a twice-elected representative for half the state's residents, Hanabusa has higher name identification than Schatz. As a result, lower-information voters -- whom the Schatz camp says are unlikely to vote but are being surveyed in the Star-Advertiser poll -- would be more likely to support Hanabusa.

The Schatz campaign did provide some support for their theory: They released a month-old internal poll showing Schatz with a slim, four-point lead over Hanabusa. But, like the Star-Advertiser poll, they found Hanabusa with more name-ID, and Schatz did markedly better among voters who were familiar with both candidates.

In the gubernatorial race, Democrats feel that the poll, which shows Abercrombie trailing former Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the man he clobbered four years ago, by eight points, is equally flawed. But even internal polling is no easy task in Hawaii: In addition to the mix of ethnicities that make up the electorate, the state and other outside groups have done little work to maintain records of voters there that can be mined for information about vote frequency and other characteristics that help pollsters determine whom to call.

"The voter file is terrible. It's in terrible shape," said one Democratic pollster with experience in Hawaii. "Nobody's really spent the money to make it good. So that's a problem."

With the prospect of tight Senate and gubernatorial races, Hawaii remains a state to watch in 2014. But there's reason to view the poll results we see there with a critical eye, and surveys are likely to be infrequent enough to make poll averages less useful.

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