The Hawaii governor’s office is up for grabs three weeks before election day, with former Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie holding a slight edge over his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, according to a new Civil Beat poll.

Abercrombie leads 47.2 percent to 44.3 percent, with 8.5 percent undecided, an automated telephone poll of 1,151 likely voters found. The survey was conducted Oct. 11 by Aloha Vote, a Hawaii subsidiary of Merriman River Group (MRG), a Connecticut research organization that also polled the 1st Congressional District special election in May and the primary election in September for Civil Beat. The margin of error is +/- 2.9 percent.

“Abercrombie has a slight advantage,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group. “When you look at the undecideds, it looks like they’re his for the taking. The reason, he says, is that the group is overwhelmingly supportive of President Obama, with 71 percent approving of his performance in office. That’s even higher than the state total of 62 percent.

“All things being equal, Abercrombie has a better shot at the undecideds,” Fitch said.

In many states, Democratic candidates are keeping their distance from the president. In Hawaii, Fitch said, a visit from the president would help Abercrombie. Abercrombie has deep ties to Obama that go back to the president’s father. He also supported his presidential candidacy while the state’s most powerful Democrat, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, backed Hillary Clinton’s nomination.

“The message for Abercrombie from the poll is that he’s got everything to gain but nothing to lose if he can get the president to come for him,” Fitch said. “Only 5 percent of people who disapprove of Obama are voting for Abercrombie.”

Abercrombie would win handily if he could get all Hawaii voters with a favorable opinion of Obama to vote for him. His challenge is that 19.9 percent of those people support Aiona.

If you’re Aiona, Fitch said, you hope that Obama stays home and you keep trying to make the election more about local Hawaii issues, casting yourself as the person who’s been here on the ground while Abercrombie has spent the past two decades in Washington.

Other key findings of the poll:

  • Abercrombie is losing 15 percent of people who said they voted for him in the primary. They’re now voting for Aiona. “He lost 15 percent of his vote in three weeks,” Fitch said. “I don’t think it’s about him. The two possibilities are that Republicans thought he was an easier target (than his primary opponent, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann). But probably more likely, they’re people who just didn’t like Mufi Hannemann.”
  • People who said they voted for Hannemann in the primary are opting for Aiona by a 2-1 margin. Abercrombie is doing “shockingly bad” among Hannemann voters, Fitch said. Aiona is getting 59.6 percent of Hannemann supporters, with Abercrombie receiving only 30.9 percent. “Part of it is because the Hannemann voters were more independent than Democrat,” Fitch said. “The question is was it strategy,” referring to possible Republican efforts to ensure a candidate they thought would be easier to beat emerged out of the Democratic primary. Hannemann and Aiona have essentially identical views on social issues.
  • The neighbor islands are a toss-up, with Abercrombie dominating the area he represented in Congress, the 1st Congressional District, essentially urban Honolulu, 50.1 percent to 40.9 percent, but losing 49.4 percent to 42.8 percent in the part of Oahu that falls into the 2nd Congressional District. On the neighbor islands, Aiona is at 46.5 percent vs. Abercrombie’s 44.7 percent. Just as Abercrombie could use Obama’s help, he could also use Congresswoman Mazie Hirono‘s help, Fitch said. Hirono represents the 2nd district and is widely believed to be a lock for another term.

When it came to the main reason voters were supporting a candidate, only three of the choices offered by Civil Beat earned double digit support, with being a stronger leader crushing the other options at 57.9 percent, vs. 16.2 percent for their stance on civil unions/social issues and 11.6 percent for the economy/jobs.

Of those who said being a stronger leader was their main reason for supporting a candidate, 54.7 percent support Abercrombie while 40.2 percent support Aiona. But for those for whom civil unions and social issues were the most important reason behind their vote, 54.8 percent backed Aiona and 42.5 percent Abercrombie. Aiona dominated when it came to those for whom the economy/jobs were the main reason for their choice, 60.9 percent to 24.1 percent. For those for whom education was No. 1, 41.7 percent chose Abercrombie and 35.7 percent Aiona. Abercrombie had a strong lead among those for whom energy and the environment were most important, 47.1 percent to 35.3 percent.

The poll showed that, as one might expect, Aiona is doing better among voters who identified themselves as evangelicals or Mormons, while Abercrombie cleans up with people who say they’re not religious and Buddhists. Aiona, a Catholic, is beating Abercrombie by a much narrower margin among those of his own faith, 49.2 percent to 43.0 percent.

As for age, it turns out that Aiona does better among voters of Abercrombie’s age, 72, and Abercrombie does better with those of Aiona’s age, 55. Aiona has the support of 48.4 percent of those 65 and older, while Abercrombie gets 42.4 percent of that group. In the 50-64 category, Abercrombie gets 54.6 percent of the vote, vs. 40.7 percent for Aiona. Aiona is stronger with the 35-49-year-olds, 52.9 percent to 37.3 percent. They’re tied with the younger group.

Abercrombie is stronger with women, 47.9 percent to 42.2 percent, while Aiona is on top with men, 50.0 percent to 45.7 percent. It’s common for Democratic candidates to do better with women and Republican candidates to do better with men.

What’s clear from the poll is that the race is a tough fight.

“All things being equal, Abercrombie wins,” Fitch said. “But it’s close.”

COMING THURSDAY: Civil Beat poll results on the 1st Congressional District race between Republican Charles Djou and Democrat Colleen Hanabusa.

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