Let’s take a moment this weekend and look back, essentially six months after Civil Beat opened its doors.

This was my first election season in Hawaii and I have a few observations about how things played out from my seat at Civil Beat. On the night of the election, the middle of the night more like it, we shared a number of other observations that you might find interesting.

But for now, I’d like to focus on the governor’s race and the role Civil Beat played in it.

The conventional wisdom might have been correct — that the Democratic primary between Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann was the heavyweight fight, and the general election was a foregone conclusion. But our polling indicated otherwise.

There are no polite words to describe the drubbing Abercrombie gave Hannemann, or perhaps more accurately, what Abercrombie allowed Hannemann to do to himself in the primary.

But after he crushed Hannemann, it seemed like Abercrombie’s team felt it had the governor’s office sewn up. The candidate disappeared. His website didn’t change for days….maybe a week. It was dead. Maybe they just needed to regroup or maybe his polls showed what the Honolulu Star-Advertiser had found when it commissioned polls on the possible post-primary matchup between Abercrombie and Aiona. What the newspaper polls showed was a 12 or 14 percent lead for Abercrombie.

Aiona took advantage of the lull. He went on the offensive right after the primary. Challenging his opponent to debates. Holding what seemed like a press conference a day. His team seemed young, friendly and energetic.

Then came the first Civil Beat poll after the primary, showing just three points separating the candidates and the biggest reason for hope for Abercrombie being Hawaii voters’ positive attitudes toward President Obama, especially a significant block of undecided voters who were even more positive about the president than the public as a whole. It also showed that Hanneman voters were a problem. They were opting for Aiona 2-1.

Civil Beat had been the only news organization that foretold the primary blowout, finding a 17 point advantage for Abercrombie eight days before the election. Hannemann, understandably, attacked our credibility. But we had been right about Hanabusa coming in second in the special election and it turned out that we weren’t as crazy as people first thought when we predicted that Hannemann was more than toast in the primary. That September poll helped put Civil Beat on the map, because we were so different from the Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll that showed a 5 percentage point gap, and TV and radio jumped on our results, spreading them across the islands.

The fact that it turned out we were right with our primary poll meant that when we came out with our first poll for the general election, it got the attention of the candidates.

For Aiona, it posed a problem. How could he get Obama supporters, when his politics and the president’s politics were so far apart? For Abercrombie, it was much easier. Unlike politicians on the mainland, all he needed to do was invoke the president’s name, and in his case he could do it authentically. He truly had a connection. And he needed to get Hannemann supporters back on his train. That’s when they painted Duke as a blank slate, a cipher, somebody for nothing. As for Neil, they painted him as the second coming of Obama, an energetic 72-year-old version. Our next poll showed that he was doing better, and had moved outside the margin of error.

We learned that 34 percent of likely voters had already cast their ballots by Oct. 23, and of that group, Abercrombie was leading by 9 percent. Then Aiona made a major miscalculation, and drew more attention to his religious positions and friendships by holding a press conference to attack what he said were attacks on him. All he did was help point out his views on the separation of church and state. How many times did people have to hear him say, “And we declare that our school will become God’s school and that our Hawaii will become God’s Hawaii,” before they became concerned about his sense of boundaries?

Then came Obama himself, with a TV ad and a telephone call to rally the Democratic troops on the day before the election. And Hannemann joined in with a genuine and convincing appeal in an effective TV ad. And the rest is history.

The final results, a 17 point margin, were even more dramatic than our poll. We showed a 5 percent gap, with 5 percent undecided, the vast majority of whom were leaning toward Abercrombie. Our pollster predicted a “high single-digit win.” We think it was larger because of Hannemann’s ad, Obama inserting himself into the race and Aiona’s miscalculation.

I’ve done a lot of polling in my time as an editor. Once I went so far as to set up our own polling operation at a newspaper, using the classified call center at night. But there are a few things about what we’re doing at Civil Beat that are different.

The biggest is our sample size. Automated telephone polling allows us to interview a huge group of people very quickly. We did 1,181 complete surveys in one night. It took the local newspaper/TV polling firm Star-Advertiser’s polling firm eight nights to interview 608 respondents. The size of our sample means that we have valid sub samples, such as people who voted early.

That’s one reason why our polls have been so accurate, and why the candidates took notice.

Our polls were an important part of our overall election coverage and we’re proud of what we achieved as a six-month-old news organization covering our first election. We hope you noticed, too.

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