WASHINGTON — Mazie Hirono has a double-digit lead over Linda Lingle in the first independent survey of the U.S. Senate race since the August primary election.

The Civil Beat Poll shows Hirono, a Democratic congresswoman, with a 55 percent to 39 percent advantage over the two-term Republican Hawaii governor. The survey of 1,648 likely general election voters was conducted between Sept. 26 and Sept. 28.1 The poll’s margin of error is 2.4 percent. Six percent said they were undecided.

The poll also digs into education issues like furlough Fridays and the ongoing teacher contract dispute. It finds Hirono’s lead was built largely with support from voters who don’t have kids in Hawaii’s public school system.

Of the third of respondents who said they have children who are either in Hawaii public schools or attended public schools within the last 10 years, Hirono’s lead is only 48 percent to 45 percent — a statistical tie among that subset. But among the likely voters with no kids in school now or recently, Hirono’s advantage balloons to 59 percent to 36 percent.

The poll also shows Hirono had strong support among voters who say they have positive feelings about the national economy, 78 percent to 17 percent, while Lingle dominated among those who are pessimistic about the economy, 72 percent to 25 percent.

That makes sense considering Democrats supporting Hirono are likely backing President Barack Obama, who’s touted economic strides. Later this week, Civil Beat will release independent polling numbers for the presidential race in Hawaii.

Hirono leads by varying degrees among both men and women; among all age brackets; among all income brackets; among voters at all education levels; and among every ethnic groups except those identifying themselves as Chinese, where Lingle leads 44-43.

The 16-point overall lead is an increase from Civil Beat’s pre-primary-election polls, when hypothetical matchups between Lingle and both Hirono and Ed Case were surveyed. Hirono led Lingle 46-39 in January and 49-44 in June, with the more moderate Case holding larger leads over Lingle in both instances. Hirono’s lead over Lingle is in line with other polls that have always shown Hirono ahead.

General election polling in the coming weeks could well dictate how the race plays out, including political spending on the campaigns.

If internal surveys by the candidates and political parties align with Civil Beat’s findings, major national Republican contributors including GOP PACs who want to see the GOP take over the Senate might decide their money is better spent in contests where the Republican candidate has a better chance. So far, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the only mainland PAC to spend independently in the Hawaii Senate race since the primary.

Education and Politics

Civil Beat identified education issues as key to the Senate race because they represent key lines on each candidate’s bio. Hirono has focused much of her political energy on early (pre-kindergarten) education, while Lingle drew criticism at the end of her second term as governor for the furloughs that kept teachers and students out of schools on two Fridays each month.

As a baseline question, Civil Beat asked respondents about the level of education Hawaii’s public school students receive. Just 5 percent say the level of education is “excellent” versus 34 percent who say it’s “good,” 44 percent who say it’s “fair” and 14 percent who say it’s “poor.” Respondents with kids in public school offered nearly identical responses about the public education system as those with no kids in public schools.

Lingle was strongest among those who said public education is poor in Hawaii, leading 63 percent to 33 percent. Hirono’s lead was largest among who said public education is good, leading 66 percent to 27 percent.

Next, Civil Beat asked about the impact of teacher furloughs on public education. A plurality, 40 percent, said furloughs had a major negative impact on education quality, versus 32 percent who said they had a minor negative impact, 15 percent who said it had no negative impact and 13 percent who said they were unsure. Again, voters felt the same about furloughs regardless of whether they had kids in school.

Voters most upset about furloughs were least likely to support Lingle, backing Hirono at a 75-18 clip. Those who said furloughs were meaningless were most likely to support Lingle, backing her 82-14.

It’s not clear which way the causal relationship flows; furloughs became so politicized, and Hirono has mentioned them so frequently during the campaign, that voters could be letting their partisan allegiances drive their opinions about education.

Finally, Civil Beat asked about the impact of the ongoing teacher contract dispute on public education. Voters were less likely to say the contract fight has had a major impact on the quality of education than said that about furlough Fridays.

This time, 34 percent said it had a minor impact versus 29 percent who said a major impact and 13 percent who said no impact. Twenty-four percent said they were unsure. Once more, whether a respondent has kids in school did not impact the answers.

Hirono led among those who said the teacher contract dispute has had either a major or minor impact, while Lingle led among those who said it had no impact.

Two Voices, No Difference

In the last survey before the August primary election, The Civil Beat Poll showed Hirono in a dead heat with Case, but she ended up winning by almost 20 points. In our post-mortem, we hypothesized that the use of a mainland, Caucasian voice could explain some of that disparity.

For this survey, Civil Beat used two voices to test that hypothesis. The same Caucasian woman from Ohio was used for half of the calls, and Civil Beat Assistant Editor Sara Lin, who’s of Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry and was born and raised on Oahu, provided the voice for the other half.

There were some differences in the responses to the two voices, and we’ll explore those differences throughout the week as we reveal the results for other general election matchups and key local issues. But the Senate race — the starting point for the experiment — showed no difference.

Hirono led 55 percent to 40 percent among those who took the poll with the “mainland” voice and 56 percent to 38 percent among those who took the poll with the “local” voice.

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