So much for Mufi Hannemann‘s runaway victory.

City Council member Tulsi Gabbard has overcome an early 45-point deficit to pull into a dead heat with the former Honolulu mayor two months before the Democratic primary likely to determine Hawaii’s new representative in Congress.

The Civil Beat Poll conducted two separate public opinion surveys of the race in the last two weeks, discovering and then confirming that likely voters in the 2nd Congressional District primary have fled from the polarizing Hannemann in the months since the last time their temperature was taken. The seat, vacant as Rep. Mazie Hirono has opted to run for U.S. Senate this year, is up for grabs, and Gabbard has the momentum.

The first of the two Civil Beat Polls, part of a larger poll of several races, surveyed 340 likely Democratic primary voters between June 5 and June 7 for a margin of error of +/- 5.3 percent.1 It found a 35-31 split in Gabbard’s favor over Hannemann; a gap within the margin of error means the race was a statistical tie at the time the phone calls were made. Big Island lawyer Bob Marx scored 11 percent and former Office of Hawaiian Affairs chief advocate Esther Kiaaina 10 percent, leaving 14 percent undecided.

Civil Beat conducted a second survey a week later for two reasons: to confirm the dramatic turnaround, and to find out why voters changed their minds. The second poll surveyed 685 different likely Democratic primary voters on June 13 and June 14 for a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent.2 This one found Hannemann at 34 percent and Gabbard at 33 percent — again a statistical tie. Marx and Kiaaina both sat at 10 percent, and 12 percent were undecided. Both polls asked voters who they’d vote for “today.”

Taken together, the polls provide a snapshot in time that shows even support for the two leading candidates among a combined sample of 1,025 likely Democratic primary voters — well within the total margin of error of +/- 3 percent.

What Happened?

The new Civil Beat Poll results represent the first publicly available numbers in months and could alter the shape of the contest considering how much they differ from the previous moment-in-time pictures of the race.

When he first announced his candidacy last August, Hannemann touted a 66-to-11 edge over Gabbard. In early February, he released new internal polling numbers showing a 57 percent to 15 percent lead. Both of his surveys were conducted by QMark Research.

More importantly, an independent poll conducted by Ward Research for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now in late January and early February found Hannemann with 65 percent support versus 20 percent for Gabbard.

Those three surveys pointed to a blowout victory for Hannemann and showed Gabbard would struggle with name recognition statewide. Then just 30 years old (she turned 31 in April) and a quiet first-term member of the council, Gabbard was little-known on Oahu and all but a completely unknown quantity among the neighbor island voters that make up about 60 percent of the 2nd Congressional District.

The Star-Advertiser (subscription required) explained that 23 percent of those surveyed didn’t know enough about Gabbard to form an opinion about her, and another 40 percent had never even heard of her. That was actually an improvement from the internal Hannemann poll from six months earlier, when 51 percent of voters said they didn’t know who Gabbard was.

In a Civil Beat commentary last September, political analyst Neal Milner explained what Gabbard had to do to have a chance of overcoming that hurdle:

Gabbard needs first to get many more people to know who she is and what she is running for. Call it branding, call it name recognition, the process involves variations of this essential message: “Hi, I’m Tulsi Gabbard. That’s T-U-L-S-I G-A-B-B-A-R-D, and I’m running for The Second District Congressional seat.”

Whether she actually had to spell her name for voters is unclear, but whatever she did since February appears to have worked. The Civil Beat Poll shows nearly two-thirds of voters have now formed an opinion of Gabbard, with the other third saying they don’t know enough about her to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Those who have formed an opinion have largely formed a positive one. Forty-eight percent of those polled said they have a positive opinion of Gabbard, versus 16 percent who said negative and 36 percent who couldn’t say. Hannemann’s positives are exactly the same as Gabbard’s — 48 percent. But his negatives/unknowns picture is a perfect mirror image of Gabbard’s — 36 percent negative and 16 percent who couldn’t pick an answer.

Why Did It Happen?

To better understand why voter opinion has shifted so much in the last four-plus months, Civil Beat asked about some of the baggage each candidate carries into the contest.

For Gabbard, that baggage has a name. It’s her dad, Hawaii State Sen. Mike Gabbard. The elder Gabbard, now a Democrat representing Leeward Oahu and a leader on environmental and energy issues in the Hawaii Senate, was first elected as a Republican and was among the staunchest opponents of same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Tulsi Gabbard has received financial support from family and friends during her run for Congress. She’s drawn fire for some of her father’s controversial positions and political connections, but has staked out social positions increasingly on the liberal end of the political spectrum as part of her leftward journey and has said she’s her own person.

Many voters agree. Asked if the fact that Mike Gabbard is Tulsi Gabbard’s father makes them more or less likely to support Tulsi Gabbard for Congress, 49 percent said the father-daughter relationship was not important as they made up their minds. But some do see Mike as a burden; 34 percent said the father’s politics made them less likely to support the daughter versus 9 percent who said he made them more likely to support her.

Fortunately for Tulsi Gabbard, only a third of the voters turned off by her father turn to Hannemann. Twenty-four percent stay with Gabbard despite her dad and almost as many choose either Marx or Kiaaina as do Hannemann.

Part of that is because Hannemann isn’t much of a threat to poach support from Gabbard’s left. Civil Beat explored the possibility that Hannemann could become the most conservative member in Hawaii’s congressional delegation based largely on his stances on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Hannemann’s baggage doesn’t have a name, but it’s even more central to his candidacy than Gabbard’s father is to hers. It’s his extensive experience, which can be a pro or a con.

Hannemann will turn 58 next month and has been active in government and politics since he first worked in the Jimmy Carter administration in the 1970s — before Gabbard was born. Asked if Hannemann’s decades of experience made them more or less likely to support him for Congress, 38 percent said it was a plus and 31 percent indicated they want fresh blood representing Hawaii in Washington D.C.

Those who said the experience was a benefit feel strongly about it; 69 percent of those voters indicated they’d vote for Hannemann versus 9 percent for Gabbard. And those who said the experience made them less likely to vote for Hannemann feel strongly about it too; just 6 percent of those voters chose Hannemann as their preferred candidate versus 58 percent for Gabbard and another 28 percent for Kiaaina and Marx combined.

Civil Beat also asked voters to identify the issue most important to them. Here was our exact question:

Which of the following issues do you think is most important for your new Congressperson to work on in Washington? Is it environmental protection and energy independence? Social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage? Jobs and the economy? Long-term problems with debt, Social Security, and Medicare? Or military issues such as war and terrorism?

Among all likely 2nd Congressional District Democratic Primary voters, jobs and the economy came in first at 39 percent, followed by long-term debt with 29 percent, environment and energy with 19 percent, social issues with 6 percent and military issues with 2 percent.

Supporters of Gabbard and Hannemann were virtually identical in their answers, and the splits between the two candidates on the most important issues were negligible.

  • Of those who picked jobs and the economy as their top priority, 39 percent backed Gabbard and 38 percent Hannemann.
  • Of those who said debt was the No. 1 issue, Gabbard scored 37 percent and Hannemann 36 percent.
  • Of those who identified the environment and energy as most important, Hannemann got 25 percent to Gabbard’s 24 percent. (This last issue was a strong area for both Marx (20 percent) and Kiaaina (16 percent).)

Not included in Civil Beat’s exploration of top priorities to tackle in Washington but top of mind for some Hawaii voters were the frontrunners’ somewhat divergent positions on the controversial Honolulu rail project. We asked a series of separate questions to better understand how rail factors into the race.

The short answer: not as much as you’d think.

Hannemann pushed hard for the system during his six years as mayor and is still viewed as one of the key architects. Gabbard is a consistent vote in favor of rail whenever it lands on the council agenda, but she’s been among the most vocal raising concerns about finances in recent months. She declined to comment on the record when Civil Beat talked to her for a story about how she might be a potential swing vote on a key rail bill.

Rail remains unpopular among Oahu voters, with 53 percent of those likely to vote in the mayor’s race in August saying they oppose it versus 40 percent who support it.

It’s a very different story on the neighbor islands, particularly among those who plan to pull a Democratic ballot in August. Likely 2nd Congressional District Democratic Primary voters together support rail 48 percent to 35 percent. About 40 percent of voters in the district reside in so-called “rural” Oahu.

Hannemann does better with those who said they support rail, drawing 46 percent versus 24 percent for Gabbard among those voters. Gabbard, in turn, does better among voters who oppose rail, pulling in 48 percent to Hannemann’s 21 percent.

But put it all together and rail doesn’t move the needle much in the congressional race.

Seventy percent of those polled said either that Gabbard’s position on rail was not important to them or that they were unsure if it impacted their vote. Of the 30 percent who said rail had an impact on whether they’d vote for her, half said it made it more likely and half said less likely.

Even for Hannemann, whose position on rail is more clearly defined in voters’ minds, nearly 50 percent said either that rail was unimportant to them or that they were unsure of the impact. Again, of those who said rail would have an impact on whether they voted for Hannemann, half said it would make it more likely and half said it would make it less likely.

In both cases, some voters who said a candidate’s position on rail made them more likely to vote for that candidate still indicated they would vote for another candidate. Similarly, some voters who said a candidate’s position on rail made them less likely to vote for that candidate indicated they’d hold their nose and vote for that candidate anyway.

The existence of those voters shows rail’s limited impact on the race.

When Did It Happen?

Half of voters surveyed said they made up their minds in the last month. A full quarter made their decisions in the two weeks before the second poll was conducted June 13 and June 14.

Gabbard clearly has the momentum.

Of those who picked a candidate in the two weeks leading up to the survey, Gabbard leads Hannemann 42 percent to 26 percent. Of those who chose in the two weeks before that, the split was 44-32 percent in Gabbard’s favor. Both represent a big change from the voters who settled on a candidate more than a month ago; they went for Hannemann, 49-31 percent.

It’s worth noting that the surveys were conducted during and after Hannemann skipped a debate on Maui on June 5. During the televised forum, Gabbard reminded viewers of Hannemann’s absence — and the empty chair placed on stage in his stead.

The geographic cross-tabs show a shift from Gabbard back to Hannemann on Maui between the first survey and second survey. But it would be a mistake to read too much into small neighbor island samples, particularly in the smaller first poll, because the margins of error become unwieldy. (You can review the geographic breakdowns and complete cross-tabs for both polls at the bottom of this article.)

A larger question looking forward: If a lot of voters have changed their minds in the last month, might they switch sides again (and again) before the Aug. 11 primary?

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they’ll “definitely” vote for their preferred candidate and 33 percent said they’ll “probably” stick with their current choice but might not. Hannemann and Gabbard voters both fall in that range, with Hannemann’s support slightly more concrete. That gives Hannemann a slim lead among voters who say they’ve locked in their selection.

On the other end of the spectrum, just 51 percent of Marx’s voters said they’re sure they’ll stay with him versus 49 percent who said they might abandon ship. Generally, support for second-tier candidates tends to fall as election day approaches and voters look for a horse with a chance of victory.

The August winner will be determined by who is better able to solidify their soft support and pick up wavering voters who had been leaning toward a rival candidate or had been undecided.

The Entire Field

The Democratic primary winner will face a Republican in November.

Little-known Matthew DiGeronimo and Tea Party activist/songwriter Kawika Crowley are facing off for the GOP nomination. Here’s the full list of registered candidates for the 2nd Congressional District seat:

  • Kawika Crowley (Republican)
  • Rafael Del Castillo (Democrat)
  • Matthew DiGeronimo (Republican)
  • Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat)
  • Mufi Hannemann (Democrat)
  • Esther Kiaaina (Democrat)
  • Bob Marx (Democrat)
  • Miles Shiratori (Democrat)

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