After three months of relentless campaigning from the primary election until today’s General Election, it seems astonishing to hear a good chunk of voters say they remain undecided.
In recent polls on the Congressional District 1 race, Republican Charles Djou and Democrat Mark Takai are virtually tied, but anywhere from 7 percent to 9 percent of voters say they still can’t make up their minds about which candidate to choose. One candidate’s private poll shows the undecided voters at 11 percent.
Becky Ward, who has been doing political polling in Hawaii for 34 years, says the conventional wisdom used to be if someone told a pollster they were undecided, the reluctant voter was probably Japanese-American and unwilling to reveal their vote or hesitant because they were breaking ranks and voting Republican.
A man emerges from the voting booth at Washington Middle School on Aug 9.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
But Ward says this election is different because so many unfamiliar candidates are running in big races. “People honestly feel they don’t know enough about them,” says Ward.
In previous big political races in Hawaii, Ward said the candidates were “recycled.” That is, well known faces running again and again for the same office or branching out to campaign for a different race.
But now voters have to try to get to know formerly obscure figures such as Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige, who until recently was a modest state senator, and Takai, who kept a relatively low profile in the state House.
Ward says in her company’s poll for the Hawaii News Now/Honolulu Star-Advertiser conducted Oct 11-18, almost a fourth of the people interviewed said they had not heard of Takai or they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Nine percent said that about Djou.
“It is very reasonable for them to stay undecided,” says Ward. “They are watching to see what happens in the last days leading up to the election. They want to make sure the candidate they pick is viable so their vote won’t be wasted. And they want to be sure they are personally comfortable with the candidate.”
She says she saw this kind of kind of indecision in a Hawaii Poll last election when Tulsi Gabbard made her first bid for Congress.
Ward says even though Gabbard had been a Honolulu City Council member, voters didn’t seem to know much about her and in early polls Ward Research did for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “a large chunk of respondents said they were undecided.”
They waited and watched before giving Gabbard their vote.
In Ward’s poll, Djou and Takai were tied 47 percent to 47 percent with 7 percent undecided.
Dylan Nonaka, a Republican political strategist, also believes the undecided voters are genuinely trying to get a grip on whom to select.
“I have plenty of friends who text me and ask me who to vote for,” he says. “They are undecided because they don’t pay much attention to politics. They are not ideologues or political party people but they want to do their civic duty. They wait until the end to decide.”
Nonaka also discounts the formerly conventional wisdom that the undecided voters are Japanese-Americans who are unwilling to reveal their choices
He says maybe a few first and second generation A.J.A. respondents are reluctant, but he adds that third and fourth generations A.J.A.’s are much more willing to share their political opinions.
“They are part of the Facebook generation which is not private about anything,” he laughs.
Pollster Matt Fitch has a different take on voters who say they are undecided.
Fitch is the executive director of Merriman River Group, the company that does polling for Honolulu Civil Beat.
Fitch says, “A definite number of the people who say they are undecided don’t vote.”
He says when it gets late in the game, close to an election, they answer on polls that they are “likely to vote” because they know they should say that; they know it is their civic duty to vote. The polling call piques their interest but a good lot of them will stay home on Election Day.”
He says many in the undecided category are just not interested in politics or elections.
However, Fitch says a few are honestly undecided and will make up their minds at the last minute and a few others may be shy about revealing who they want to vote for.
But he says with the Interactive Voice Response (IVR), also known as “robo-polling” or pre-recorded voice calls that his company conducts, voters are more truthful in their responses than they are when they are talking to an actual live interviewer.
Fitch says in the end the Djou-Takai race will not be won by whoever gets more of the undecideds to vote for them. It will be about which campaign is most successful at urging its so-called solid supporters to actually show up at the polls.
Fitch says historically Hawaii’s Democrats have done a better job with voter turnout.
He sees Takai winning by 4 or 5 percentage points because of Democrats’ past successes at rounding up their supporters at the last minute.
Political analyst and Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner agrees that what matters will be which political party can pull in the most votes for their candidate and that Hawaii’s Democrats are best at that.
Milner says, “The pool of potential Democrat voters is much bigger than the Republicans. The Republicans have so frigging few from whom they can dig up votes.”
But no matter what some specialists say to diminish the value of the undecided voter, the candidate campaigns and political parties say they are keeping an eagle eye on the wafflers and do not discount their value.
“We absolutely need them,” said a Democratic Party strategist who is in town from Washington, D.C., to help out with the local races.
Hawaii Republican Party chairwoman Pat Saiki says the number of undecided voters in the Djou-Takai race gives her hope .
Saiki says, “ I am optimistic. The number of undecided is showing people are not being so quick to say they will vote for the Democratic Party’s lineup.
“Maybe the real possibility of Republicans taking over Congress, is causing them to pause and think, why should Hawaii elect four Democrats to Congress and leave our state with no representation?”
“I am hopeful they will make up their minds on Election Day to vote Republican. We are going full speed to get out the vote.”
Candidate Takai says he says he is reaching out to undecideds as well as his rock solid voters. “We believe the race will be won in the field. We are going door to door to make sure that the people who say they support me actually vote.”
• Stay plugged in to campaigns and candidates this election season with Civil Beat’s Hawaii Elections Guide 2014, your source for information on federal, state and local elections. Click here for a list of candidates with links to their views on questions and issues posed by Civil Beat.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.