WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is going to carry Hawaii’s four electoral votes Tuesday.

But beyond that bit of very unsurprising news is the suggestion that Obama’s victory in the islands in 2012 could well be narrower than it was in 2008, and that it’s narrower now than it was a month ago.

A survey of 1,218 likely general election voters across the state shows the Hawaii-born Democratic incumbent with a 61 percent to 34 percent lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The survey, which was conducted between Oct. 24 and Oct. 26, had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.1

That 27-point advantage is down slightly from his 32-point lead (62 percent to 30 percent) Obama held in late September, and down significantly from the 45-point win (72 percent to 27 percent) four years ago that made Hawaii the state with his largest margin of victory.

What Happened Since Last Time?

The previous survey was conducted between Sept. 26 and Sept. 28, when Obama was near the peak of his month-long post-Democratic Convention surge and looked like he was on the cusp of a runaway victory. But things changed somewhat dramatically in the subsequent weeks, spurred primarily by Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate.

Even though Vice President Joe Biden performed strongly in his matchup with Republican veep nominee Paul Ryan and Obama recovered in the final two debates, the contest is closer now nationally than it was a month ago.

In all, 28 percent of Hawaii respondents said the presidential debates were very important in their decision, 36 percent said they were somewhat important, and 34 percent said they were not important — roughly an even three-way split. But the fact that Obama supporters tended to say they were less important than Romney supporters shows how the debates were perceived by partisans.

Of those who said the debates were not important in their decision, Obama led by 37 points, 66 percent to 29 percent. That margin shrunk to 27 points, 62 percent to 35 percent, among those who said the debates were somewhat important. And that margin shrunk even further to 15 points, 56 percent to 41 percent, among those who said the debates were very important.

But it’s not clear if the debates actually moved voters or if voters who had already decided on a candidate used the debates as their after-the-fact rationale.

“I think it’s people that are more likely to support Romney, that’s what they point to,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which partners with Civil Beat on its polls. “The debates didn’t make up their mind, I would bet. (But) if you ask why are you supporting Romney, that’s an easy thing to point to.”

Regardless, the race is slightly narrower now than before the debates — both in Hawaii and across the country.

It’s also pretty clear that the race is closer — both in Hawaii and across the country — than Obama’s 2008 matchup against John McCain.

The respondents in the new Civil Beat poll said they voted for the two main candidates in percentages very close to the actual historical results — 69 percent for Obama and 24 percent for McCain, with 7 percent saying neither or they can’t remember. Of those who identified one candidate, the split is 74 percent to 26 percent. (Remember, Obama topped McCain 72 percent to 27 percent in Hawaii in 2008.)

So Romney’s superior standing comes in part from folks who supported Obama four years ago. Of those who said they voted for Obama in 2008, Romney peeled away 13 percent, while Obama convinced 8 percent of a much smaller group of McCain voters to back him this time. Put together, that means more than a quarter of Romney’s current support in Hawaii — 26 percent — are converts who went for Obama last time.

Hawaii’s Role In The Race

If Obama does win Hawaii by “only” 27 points, that would actually constitute an underperformance in the eyes of many election watchers and prediction models. It’s those types of underperformances in noncompetitive states on both sides of the political spectrum that could lead to a controversial and rare, but not unprecedented, split decision where Romney wins the popular vote but Obama wins a second term by virtue of the electoral college.

That outcome would go a long way to resolving the disparity between recent swing-state surveys of the race, which continue to point to an Obama win, and national polls of the race, which point to a tie or a narrow Romney win.

If the race is very close, Hawaii could actually play a different role: decider.

In a universe where Romney wins Florida, Virginia and Ohio and Obama wins Colorado, Wisconsin and Iowa and all those states are called early in the evening, Obama would be stuck on 268 electoral votes after the West Coast polls close. That would leave him one vote short of a tie and two votes short of a victory. There are myriad ways to reach the same or a nearby number.

Hawaii wouldn’t be called until 11 p.m. on the East Coast. By virtue of being the westernmost blue state, it would be in the position of giving Obama his final four electoral votes and a second term in the White House.

Obama’s Role In Hawaii Races

The chances of that particular scenario playing out are small, but, according to the poll, there is one virtual certainty for Tuesday: Obama will win Hawaii, and he’ll win it handily.

Obama had already built a substantial advantage at the time of the survey, leading 66 percent to 31 percent among the third of respondents who said they’d already voted. (Early walk-in voting began Oct. 23, and absentee mail ballots were sent to voters starting around then.) Romney was closer, down 59 percent to 36 percent, among those who said they haven’t voted yet but definitely intend to. But those votes are not yet in the bank.

“Oftentimes in a lopsided race like this, when it comes time to actually cast their vote, the people who are soft and undecided are likely to go with the hometown boy who’s going to win the state,” Fitch said.

“I think there’s a little bit more enthusiasm for Romney. The uptick in national enthusiasm might have helped him pick up some of the softest undecideds, but it’s really of no consequence,” Fitch said. “Obama’s going to win Hawaii, he’s going to win Hawaii easily, and he’s probably going to have coattails.”

“Coattails” means Obama’s presence on the ballot is going to help other Democratic candidates in their races just by virtue of having the same (D) next to their names that he does.

There are three key races where that phenomenon could make a difference:

  • Though the Honolulu mayor’s race is nonpartisan and both candidates have been active in Democratic politics, former Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell led 58 percent to 39 percent among Obama voters, while former Gov. Ben Cayetano led 70 percent to 28 percent among Romney supporters. Any desertion of Romney could spell doom for Cayetano, who was already struggling to hold his lead.
  • Congresswoman Mazie Hirono led 86 percent to 11 percent among Obama voters, while former Gov. Linda Lingle led 94 percent to 4 percent among Romney supporters. Hirono led the race comfortably, 55 percent to 40 percent.
  • Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa led 83 percent to 14 percent among Obama voters, while former Congressman Charles Djou led 91 percent to 7 percent among Romney supporters. Overall, Hanabusa was up 54 percent to 43 percent.

There is one candidate in a major race who doesn’t need coattails. Tulsi Gabbard was up 73 percent to 15 percent over Republican nominee Kawika Crowley — a larger lead than Obama’s over Romney.

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