With election day approaching, Ben Cayetano‘s massive early lead in the 2012 Honolulu mayoral race is shrinking.

Two months before the Aug. 11 vote that could determine the city’s next chief, the former Hawaii governor remains the front-runner in a new Civil Beat Poll of likely primary voters with 44 percent support versus 23 percent for former Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell and 21 percent for incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle.

The survey of 799 voters islandwide 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 +/- 3.5 percent.

Cayetano’s number is down from 53 percent when Civil Beat surveyed voters in late February. Caldwell picked up most of the difference to leapfrog over Carlisle, though the gap between those two is within the margin of error and thus a statistical tie. Both polls asked voters who they’d back if the election were held “today.”

The primary election winner would need more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff election against the second-place finisher. If the 12 percent of voters who are undecided were to split in the same proportions as the voters who say they’ve made a choice, Cayetano would be right at the 50 percent threshold.

Rail and the Mayor’s Race

The new Civil Beat Poll is the first independent survey of the race since February. A pro-rail construction union advocacy group last month released selected survey results it said show diminishing support for Cayetano as part of a ramped-up attack campaign against his candidacy. He called it a “push poll” and dirty politics.

The attacks on Cayetano by the union group and his opponents appear to be working, as is a coordinated effort by the city’s business leaders to push the controversial rail project that Cayetano is running primarily to kill. The Civil Beat Poll finds support for the rail project at 40 percent, up slightly from 34 percent in the February survey and 36 percent in an April survey. Both of those earlier polls surveyed likely voters, whereas the new poll surveyed likely primary voters.

Caldwell has made headway with the growing pro-rail contingent. He positioned himself as the moderate voice on the project, promising to re-engage the community to talk about design issues so he can “build rail better.” Caldwell and Carlisle now split the pro-rail vote at 41 percent apiece; previously, Carlisle had led 51 percent to 34 percent among those voters.

Interestingly, the new poll shows that nearly all of the support Cayetano’s lost since February has come from those who, like him, oppose the rail system. In February, 84 percent of those who oppose the project backed Cayetano. Now, the number has dipped to 74 percent.

It’s not as if Cayetano is any less committed to stopping the rail project. If anything, his anti-rail fervor might be wearing thin with some voters.

In February, most voters — 53 percent — told Civil Beat that rail was the single most important issue as they picked a mayor. But some voters are now indicating the campaigns are too rail-centric. Civil Beat did not ask voters to identify their most important issue again but instead asked directly about all the attention on rail:

The Honolulu Rail project is widely viewed as the major issue that’s driving the debate in the Honolulu Mayor’s contest. How do you feel about all of the attention the rail project is getting? Do you think the campaign is too focused on rail, and isn’t paying enough attention to other issues? Or do you think the rail project should be what the campaign is most focused on?

The plurality of likely voters — 47 percent — said too much attention is focused on rail at the expense of other key issues. Thirty-nine percent said rail’s getting the right amount of coverage, and 14 percent said they were unsure.

Of those voters who say rail gets too much attention, the race is essentially a three-way dead heat, with Cayetano at 32 percent, Caldwell at 30 percent and Carlisle at 27 percent — all within the poll’s margin of error. Of those who think the focus on rail is appropriate, Cayetano still dominates, 64 percent to 16 percent for Caldwell and 12 percent for Carlisle.

In other words, Cayetano has the best chance of success with voters who don’t suffer from rail fatigue. Once they begin to demand discussion of other city issues, his support plummets.

The Demographics Of Support

Cayetano saw his support drop across all sectors of the electorate. You can review the complete cross-tabs at the bottom of this article. Here are the key findings of the poll:

Age: Cayetano is still in command among all age brackets, but the gap is narrowing in most of them. In particular, he went from 59 percent support among voters in their 30s in February to 37 percent in the new survey, and had nearly 10 percent drops among the 40-49, 50-64 and 65+ age groups.

Race and Ethnicity: Cayetano lost ground among every racial and ethnic group since the last Civil Beat Poll, but again still leads in all of them. The largest drop came among Chinese-American voters, from 63 percent to 51 percent. Among Japanese-American voters, Cayetano (35 percent) is in danger of being overtaken by Caldwell (30 percent).

Education and Income: Cayetano lost support from voters at all levels of education. Among those who failed to finish high school, he dropped from 42 percent in February to 30 percent now, and was passed by Caldwell, who jumped from 14 percent to 37 percent. Cayetano support also dipped among those with post-graduate degrees, from 51 percent to 38 percent. Those making the most money, more than $100,000 per household, now support Cayetano at a 41 percent clip, down from 52 percent last time around.

Party and Politics: Cayetano remains very strong among self-described Republicans and independents, and those who say they have conservative political leanings. But the lifetime Democrat is struggling with his own party, tied at 33 percent apiece with Caldwell, who served as majority leader in the Hawaii House of Representatives. The split had been 48 percent to 20 percent in February. Carlisle’s support among Democrats stayed steady at 24 percent.

What Honolulu Mayoral Primary Voters Believe

Because many of Cayetano’s supporters fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum, they tend to differ slightly from the rest of the Hawaii electorate on key issues. Carlisle voters are more middle of the road, and Caldwell’s backers are the most consistently liberal.

Direction of U.S., Hawaii: Across Hawaii, voters are frustrated with the direction of our country and our state, and the most frustrated ones support Cayetano. Forty-three percent of likely primary voters said the country’s moving in the right direction versus 47 percent who said wrong direction. Cayetano voters are split 35-58 percent; Carlisle voters 51-41 percent and Caldwell voters 63-25 percent. For the direction of Hawaii, 41 percent of all primary voters say we’re headed in the right direction versus 51 percent who say wrong. Cayetano supporters are the most unhappy, with 22 percent saying right and 73 percent saying wrong. Carlisle and Caldwell voters are nearly identical, with more than 60 percent pleased with the state’s direction.

Obama Approval: Hawaii voters remain very supportive of President Barack Obama’s job performance, with 62 percent saying they approve and 34 percent saying they disapprove. That gap shrinks to 52-47 percent for Cayetano voters and expands to 72-28 percent for Carlisle backers and 84-15 percent for Caldwell supporters.

Same-Sex Marriage: Statewide, likely primary voters do not believe same-sex couples should have the legal right to get married: 41 percent said yes and 47 percent said no. Cayetano voters were split 37-55 percent, while Caldwell voters were 51 yes, 39 percent no. Carlisle voters were in the middle.

Economy, Jobs and Debt: To better understand voters motivations in the U.S. Senate and 2nd Congressional District races, we asked if voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would focus on job creation or one who would focus on long-term debt solutions. Statewide, 49 percent said debt and 37 percent said jobs. For Cayetano supporters, the split was 51-39 percent versus 49-40 for Carlisle voters and 45-46 percent for those who back Caldwell.

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