WASHINGTON — Most voters have long since made up their minds about the Honolulu rail project, and their opposition has put Ben Cayetano in good position to become the city’s next mayor.

The Civil Beat Poll shows Cayetano holding a 51 percent to 42 percent advantage over Kirk Caldwell with a little more than a month before Election Day. The survey of 1,257 likely general election voters on Oahu was conducted between Sept. 26 and Sept. 28.1 The poll’s margin of error is 2.8 percent. Seven percent said they were undecided.

Cayetano was the top vote-getter in the Aug. 11 primary but fell short of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote threshold that would have given him an outright victory. Caldwell has actually closed the gap since the primary, when Cayetano got 44 percent of the vote to 29 percent for the former acting mayor and 25 percent for Mayor Peter Carlisle, who was left out of the two-man runoff.

Cayetano, Hawaii’s governor for two terms and an out-of-the-spotlight retiree for the last decade, has been the frontrunner since he jumped into the race in January. His lead is sizable — well outside the margin of error — but nowhere near universal.

Caldwell is neck-and-neck with Cayetano among women, the highly educated and top earners, according to The Civil Beat Poll. He actually leads among voters younger than 30, Democrats and liberals, and those who self-identify as Japanese. So there is a path to victory if certain groups turn out on election day more than have historically.

But Cayetano’s advantage comes from the fact that his candidacy has coincided with consistent negative public opinion about the 20-mile rail system he’s promised to stop if elected. Rail is without a doubt the central issue of the campaign.

In the new survey, 38 percent of likely voters say they support the project versus 53 percent who oppose it. Of those who support rail, 87 percent back Caldwell and just 11 percent back Cayetano. Of those who oppose rail, the split is a mirror image: 84 percent for Cayetano and 11 percent for Caldwell.

But if Caldwell hopes to convince voters they should change their minds about rail, he’s got his work cut out for him. Most voters — 71 percent — said they made up their minds about rail more than a year ago, suggesting there’s little flexibility left even if 10 percent of voters said they were undecided on rail.

Even worse for Caldwell is that most of those who have made up their minds more recently are coming to the conclusion that rail is not the way to go. Of those who decided more than a year ago, the split is 44 percent in favor and 56 percent opposed. It drops to 38-62 for those who decided within the past year and to 35-65 among those who decided in the last few months. Similarly, those who have made up their minds about rail more recently are more likely to back Cayetano’s bid for mayor.

Rail Public Opinion Static

The Civil Beat Poll has asked about rail five different times this year, and the percent of voters opposed to the project has remained remarkably steady.

Month Sample Surveyed In Favor Opposed Unsure
February 2012 Likely general election voters 34% 55% 10%
April 2012 Registered voters 36% 53% 10%
June 2012 Likely primary election voters 40% 53% 7%
August 2012 Likely primary election voters 39% 55% 6%
September 2012 Likely general election voters 38% 53% 10%

Note: Results might not sum to 100 percent due to rounding.

In the new survey, Civil Beat also attempted to gauge the depth of passion on both sides of the rail issue as well as how a key recent development — the Hawaii Supreme Court’s rejection of the city’s segmented burial survey plan — impacted public opinion.

First, we asked rail supporters how upset they would be if the project was not completed and rail opponents how upset they would be if the project was completed.

The responses were pretty similar — 71 percent of opponents said they’d be “very upset” if they don’t get their way versus 65 percent of supporters who said the same thing; 19 percent of opponents said they’d be “somewhat upset” versus 27 percent of supporters; only 7 percent of opponents said they would not be upset versus 8 percent of supporters who said that.

That’s more evidence for polarized and unyielding public opinion.

Supporters were asked if the Supreme Court ruling that the city should have done all of its burial surveys along the entire route before starting construction — and the subsequent halt to construction — reduced their support of the project. Only 5 percent said their support was diminished while 84 percent said it was not affected. Eleven percent said they were unsure.

Opponents, meanwhile, were asked to identify their largest concern about the project among five listed options. This was how they answered:

Concern Percent
“It will not help fix Honolulu’s traffic congestion problems” 35%
“It’s too expensive” 37%
“It will damage Oahu’s natural beauty and landscape” 9%
“Not enough people will use it” 13%
“It will disturb Native Hawaiian burials” 0%
Unsure 6%

The fact that proponents’ positions were largely unaffected by the court’s burial ruling and that, even in the immediate aftermath of the ruling and heavy media coverage of it, an immeasurably small number of rail opponents identified burials as their key concern is yet more evidence that public opinion on rail has been calcified and is unlikely to move one way or the other before the Nov. 6 election.

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