U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has a narrow lead over U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic Senate primary, 36 percent to 33 percent, according to the latest Civil Beat Poll.

But with a 3.3 percent margin of error and nearly one-fourth of voters surveyed saying they are undecided, neither candidate has a clear advantage in a race that will be decided just over a year from now, on Aug. 9, 2014.

Schatz, appointed in late December by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to the seat held by the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, is being challenged by the congresswoman who Inouye wanted to take his place.

The race has divided the state’s dominant political party, in part because of Inouye’s influential standing in the party even after his death, and because the candidates hold similar policy views.

Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted the Civil Beat Poll, said survey results showing a statistical tie between Schatz and Hanabusa are not surprising.

“You’ve got two strong, well-known, well-liked candidates, and this will be a high-profile primary, it seems, of great interest to Hawaii,” he said.

The poll was conducted June 18-20 and June 24, and it’s possible Schatz was helped by the June 16 endorsement of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest union. Almost 40 percent of those surveyed said they or a family member belonged to a union.

Merriman River Group randomly surveyed 869 registered voters using touch-tone polling; 78 percent of the calls were to landlines, 22 percent to cell phones. Cell phones are called by an operator who then switches the person who answers to the computer poll if they would like to participate in the survey.

Later this week Civil Beat will publish stories on the governor’s approval rating; how voters feel about gun control proposals, a ballot initiative system and holding Memorial Day on May 30; and other issues.

Large Undecided Vote

In the June poll, Schatz and Hanabusa garnered nearly identical positive views from voters (49 percent and 48 percent, respectively). More people had a negative opinion of Hanabusa (41 percent) than Schatz (27 percent), but Fitch downplayed those numbers.

Of greater significance, he said, is the 23 percent of voters who say they haven’t made up their minds. It is to these voters the campaigns may want to consider increasing outreach — or “micro-targeting,” as the technique is known.

Broadly speaking, when it comes to voters in the primary, Schatz draws more support from males, Caucasians, people of mixed ethnicity, political moderates, Republicans and independents, college graduates and those with incomes over $100,000.

Hanabusa draws more support from women. She also does better than Schatz among ethnic Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, Hawaiians and Latinos; political conservatives and those with a high school education.

Both candidates are roughly tied when it comes to support from voters describing themselves as Democrats, as liberals or progressives, and with ties to unions. Schatz does better with people making between $50,000 and $100,000, Hanabusa with those making less than $50,000.

But many people are still unsure of who they would vote for in the primary. They include double-digit numbers of women, liberals and progressives; people of all age groups; Japanese, Filipinos and Latinos; folks with labor connections and people making under $50,000.

Civil Beat asked registered voters how they voted in the 2012 Senate race, and the responses demonstrate a strong preference for status quo Hawaii Democrats.

Thirteen percent more said they voted for Mazie Hirono over Ed Case in the primary, while 25 percent more said they voted for Hirono over Lingle in the general election. That tracks pretty well with the actual election results: Hirono beat Case by 17 percentage points and Lingle by 25 percentage points.

Seventy percent of voters surveyed in the June poll also voted for President Barack Obama’s re-election, and nearly that many approve of his job performance; both figures are much higher than the national average.

Campaign Calculations

While Schatz and Hanabusa hold similar political views, their campaigns have stressed different characteristics.

Hanabusa, who served as Senate president, has touted her leadership experience and focused on Hawaii’s military and geopolitical position in the Asia-Pacific region. She links her campaign to Inouye whenever she can.

Schatz, who served as lieutenant governor and party chair, has emphasized his seniority in the Senate and his relative youth. His top issues include combatting global warming. Schatz, who has two young children, frequently says how important it is to work for future generations.

One challenge for Schatz is that 25 percent of voters said they were “unsure” of their opinion of him. It suggests that Schatz is still unfamiliar to many voters in spite of having entered local politics in 1998, the same year as Hanabusa.

One advantage for Hanabusa may be that nearly 60 percent of voters in Civil Beat’s survey either served or have a family member who has served in the military. And, despite plenty of union endorsements, Schatz has not locked up the union vote.

Large numbers of Japanese and Filipino voters have not decided who they will vote for, either. Both candidates have supported legislation to help Filipino veterans and their families, and both are strong supporters of immigration reform.

Merriman’s Fitch was asked about the perception that local Japanese do not share their political preferences with pollsters, as may have been the case when Civil Beat was far off the mark in projecting the Hirono-Case Senate primary last year.

“It’s a fair question and certainly something we focused on,” said Fitch. “We think that adding cell phones and a few other modifcaitons have addressed that, and we are comfortable with our poll. We say that with some confidence.”

Fitch noted that Merriman, which has been conducting surveys in Hawaii for years, noted that his polling firm has generally been right on the mark in races involving Hanabusa. The company correctly predicted her results in the 2010 special election and her defeat of incumbent Charles Djou along with the margin of her victory.

While not directly related to the Schatz-Hanabusa race, the Civil Beat Poll found that 54 percent of registered voters had a positive view of Hirono and 67 percent had a positive view of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

For more details, check out the breakouts posted below.

Click here for our full poll including questions, results and crosstabs here.

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