With two months left before the critical primary election, the top two Democrats in the race to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka remain neck-and-neck.

Ed Case and Mazie Hirono each sit at 46 percent in a new Civil Beat Poll of likely Democratic primary voters. Eight percent are undecided.

The survey of 731 voters statewide is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time the poll was taken, between June 5 and June 7.1 The margin of error is +/- 3.6 percent.

The results are nearly identical to numbers released by Case’s campaign last month showing a 46-45 lead over Hirono. Hirono’s team and national Democrats who support her dismissed those results, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chief saying he believed Hirono was up by “double digits.”

In January, The Civil Beat Poll found a statistical dead heat, though Hirono blasted those results as well.

Last year, both campaigns released polls showing strong leads for their respective candidates.2

Hirono has continued to campaign as if she’s a strong front-runner. She’s focused more of her fire on a potential general election matchup with Republican Linda Lingle, who served as Hawaii’s governor from 2002 to 2010, and has declined to debate Case on network television. Starting Tuesday, Case and Hirono will appear in three debates in three days: one on Maui, one on Hawaii Public Radio and one on PBS.

Jobs, Debt and the Economy

Like races across the country this year, the fight for Hawaii’s U.S. Senate seat will be in part a referendum on the still-struggling U.S. economy. Civil Beat asked voters to weigh in on what’s important to them:

When it comes to economic issues, would you be more likely to vote for a candidate who would focus most on fixing the economy and creating jobs right now, or for a candidate who would focus most on solving the country’s long-term problems with debt, social security, and Medicare?

Statewide, 49 percent of all likely primary voters said long-term debt problems were most important versus 37 percent who said they’d prefer a candidate who would work to create jobs right now.

Of the likely Democratic primary voters who said solving long-term debt was paramount, 52 percent said they’d vote for Case versus 41 percent for Hirono. Of those who said creating jobs now was the key, 53 percent backed Hirono versus 37 percent for Case.

Case, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat with some fiscal conservative leanings, has made getting the country’s books in order one of his top agenda items. But when it comes to two of the federal government’s largest entitlement spending programs, Case is like many other Dems in his distaste for making big cuts. At the state’s Democratic Party convention in May, he said he’d fight to protect Social Security and Medicare from Republican attack because gutting the social-safety net would “send millions back into a lifetime of poverty and despair.”

Hirono comes from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Like Case, she talks about how to get the country moving again.

“It’s jobs,” Hirono said in an interview at the Netroots Nation conference in Rhode Island. “It’s getting the economy going. That’s what I continue to be focused on in the short-term. … But truly, we need to get things going. We need to create more jobs. That’s for Hawaii, and that’s for our whole country.”

Case Draws Crossover Support

Hirono is the preferred candidate of party elders and traditional party backers in organized labor, while Case likes to portray himself as a bit of a maverick. So it’s not a surprise that Hirono’s the choice of hardcore Democrats and Case is backed by more independent-minded voters.

Hirono draws the majority of those who identify as liberals and progressives and those who say they belong to the Democratic Party. Case is stronger among those moderates and conservatives and Republicans and independents who say they intend to cross over and pick up a Democratic primary ballot.

Those crossover voters make up a not-insignificant portion of the electorate. Thirty percent of self-identified Republicans said they intended to vote in the Democratic Party primary in August. Of the voters who plan to vote in that primary, 24 percent are self-identified independents.

That helps explain why Case’s voters are almost identical to average Hawaii voters when it comes to support of President Barack Obama. Sixty-three percent of those who said they’d vote for Case said they approve of Obama’s job performance; the statewide mark is 62 percent. And those who are most opposed to Obama, saying they strongly disapprove of his job, are the most likely to back Case — 92 percent versus 3 percent for Hirono. By contrast, Hirono voters overwhelmingly support Obama at a 95 percent clip.

Similarly, voters who say the country and state are headed in the right direction are more likely to back Hirono, while those who say the country and state are going the wrong way are more likely to support Case.

The political differences between Case and Hirono supporters manifest themselves in other ways.

Of the likely Democratic primary voters who said they support same-sex marriage, 56 percent back Hirono versus 37 percent for Case. Of those who do not support same-sex marriage, 58 percent said they’d vote for Case versus 32 percent for Hirono.

Of Honolulu’s Democratic primary voters who support the controversial rail project, 55 percent would vote for Hirono versus 38 percent for Case. Of those who oppose rail, 58 percent back Case versus 35 percent who back Hirono. A large primary election turnout filled with anti-rail voters excited to vote for former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano would be a boon to Case, who leads Hirono on Oahu but trails on the neighbor islands. (Civil Beat will share full poll results for the rail project and the Honolulu mayor’s race later this week.)

Lingle Lying In Wait

The Democratic primary is an attractive option even to stalwart Republicans because of the tight Case-Hirono matchup and the race to fill the 2nd Congressional District seat Hirono is vacating to run for Senate. Republican primary voters have no major choices to make in August.

Lingle is a safe bet to earn the GOP nomination for Senate. She holds an 86 percent to 8 percent lead over John Carroll, according to The Civil Beat Poll. Seven percent are undecided. With 249 likely Republican primary voters surveyed, the margin of error is +/- 6.2 percent.

But just because a big chunk of Republican voters are planning to pick up a Democratic primary ballot in August doesn’t mean they’re abandoning GOP candidates forever. Many of those crossover voters look to be be Case supporters, and not all of them plan on sticking with him through the November general election.

A full quarter — 25 percent — of those who said they’ll vote for Case over Hirono also said they’ll turn around and vote for Lingle against Case should he make it that far. By comparison, just 4 percent of those who said they’ll vote for Hirono in the primary said they’ll switch sides in a Hirono-Lingle matchup.

Of those who said they’d vote for Case in the Democratic primary, more than half — 55 percent — said they’d vote for Lingle over Hirono in the general election if their preferred candidate lost, versus 38 percent who said they’d back Hirono in that matchup. By contrast, just 12 percent of those who plan to vote for Hirono in the primary say they’d vote for Lingle against Case if their preferred candidate lost. Sixty-eight percent of those Hirono backers would choose Case over Lingle.

There are two sides to that coin. It shows a relative lack of Democratic Party loyalty among Case supporters or a comparative excess of Democratic Party loyalty among Hirono supporters. But it could actually make Case a stronger general election candidate.

It’s important to note that The Civil Beat Poll sampled likely primary election voters, not likely general election voters, so the pool is different and it’s dangerous to draw general election conclusions from the primary election survey.

But the results show both Democratic candidates with an edge over Lingle, and Case with the larger one. Hirono holds an early 49 percent to 44 percent lead over Lingle, with 6 percent undecided. Case, by comparison, holds an early 52-36 lead with 12 percent undecided. Because 1,105 likely primary election voters were surveyed, the margin of error is +/- 2.9 percent.

Demographics and Geographics

You can review the complete cross-tabs at the bottom of this article. Here are some other key findings of the poll:

County: Hirono holds big leads over Case in Maui County (55-32 percent) and on the Big Island (57-39 percent), there’s a virtual tie on Kauai, and Case has the upper hand on Oahu (49-42 percent). Interestingly, Case’s primary election advantage is negligible in the urban Honolulu congressional district that holds about half the state’s voters, but he has a sizable edge (55-39 percent) in “rural” Oahu, the portion of the island that’s part of the 2nd Congressional District both Case and Hirono have represented in Congress.

Age: Case does best among the youngest eligible Democratic primary voters, and Hirono does best with those approaching retirement or already there. Seventy-three percent of voters between 18 and 29 back Case, who turns 60 in September, and he holds leads in the 30-39 and 40-49 age brackets. Hirono has an edge with voters between 50 and 64 years old and those 65 or older — a group she’ll join in November.

Race and Ethnicity: Hirono, who is of Japanese ancestry, holds a narrow edge with Japanese-American Democratic primary voters, 47-42 percent. Her biggest lead is among those who identify themselves as Hawaiian — 62 percent to 29 percent. Case, who is white, has a small lead among whites, 50 percent to 44 percent, and larger advantages with Chinese voters (57-37 percent) and Hispanic voters (63-38 percent).

Religion: Evangelical voters in the Democratic primary back Case at a 58 percent to 30 percent clip, while Buddhists support Hirono 62 percent to 28 percent. Hirono is Buddhist.

Income: The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to support Case. He beats Hirono 54 percent to 38 percent among likely Democratic primary voters with household incomes surpassing $100,000. For the group between $50,000 and $100,000, Hirono and Case are virtually tied. And for lower-income voters — those with annual household incomes at or below $50,000 — Hirono leads, 53 percent to 38 percent.

The Field

Case, Hirono and Lingle are the presumed front-runners in the race, but they’re not the only candidates. Eleven filed nomination papers with the state’s Office of Elections. They are, in alphabetic order:

  • Health Beasley (Nonpartisan)
  • John Carroll (Republican)
  • Ed Case (Democrat)
  • Charles Collins (Republican)
  • Michael Gillespie (Democrat)
  • Antonio Gimbernat (Democrat)
  • Mazie Hirono (Democrat)
  • Linda Lingle (Republican)
  • Eddie Pirkowski (Republican)
  • Art Reyes (Democrat)
  • John Roco (Republican)

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