Dueling polls paint different picture of mayor’s race

 UPDATED 8:58 AM HST Oct 31, 2012
Caldwell_Cayetano_Split
HONOLULU -

It's perhaps the most antagonistic race for Honolulu mayor in recent history, and both candidates have raised nearly $3 million for their respective war chests. But, when it comes to defining a frontrunner less than a week before Election Day, there's no clear choice between Kirk Caldwell and Ben Cayetano, at least that's what the polls say.  

Two major surveys conducted earlier this month have both candidates as frontrunners: the pro-rail Caldwell, and the anti-rail Cayetano.

A poll released Sunday by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and HNN shows Caldwell with a 53 to 42 percent lead over Cayetano, the former two-term Democratic governor who entered the mayor's race nine months ago as the candidate to beat. The poll of 552 likely voters was conducted Oct. 15-22 by Ward Research, and has a margin of error of 4.2 percent. Five percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

Caldwell, the former acting mayor and managing director, believes the Advertiser-HNN poll mirrors what his campaign has been sensing after finishing second behind Cayetano in the Aug. 11 primary.

"I do feel the momentum in the last couple of weeks," Caldwell told KITV4. "It's just been a fantastic response, and the poll confirms that."

However, another poll released Tuesday by CivilBeat.com disagrees.  The more recent survey has Cayetano as the continued favorite heading into the election, 50 to 45 percent, with 5 percent undecided.  The poll of 886 likely voters was conducted Oct. 24-26 by Merriman River Group, and has a margin of error of 3.3 percent.

"The CivilBeat poll tracks pretty much another poll that we saw, not ours, but another candidate," said Cayetano.  "We think that come Election Day, we'll be good."

Differences in how the two polls were conducted could account for the drastically different results, according to Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii.

Moore, who earned his doctorate at Harvard's Department of Government, believes a larger sample of likely voters could result in more accurate polling. However, he's more concerned with CivilBeat's dependence on voters with land lines.

"What that means is that the CivilBeat poll, because it only includes land lines, is likely to include older voters, who as we know are likely to be more supportive of Gov. Cayetano," said Moore.

Although the survey by Star-Advertiser and HNN used a smaller sample size than CivilBeat.com, it was evenly split among voters with cellphones and land lines.

"Today, about a third of households only have cellphones, and of course that's particularly true among young voters," explained Moore.  "Younger voters here in Hawaii support the rail project at higher rates than older voters, so you can see how a discrepancy might develop in the polling." 

CivilBeat attempts to account for the omission of likely voters with cell phones by using a poll model based on historical records of Hawaii's voter turnout.

"That can be effective if you do it correctly," said Moore, "But again, you're doing a bit of guess work there, and so it's often better just to call people with cellphones directly."

Still, there's no guarantee any poll, even those taken a month before Election Day, will be accurate. As experienced pollsters like to say, any survey is only a snapshot in time.

In July, one month before the August primary, a Ward Research poll commissioned by the Star-Advertiser and HNN had congressional candidate Mufi Hannemann with a 10-point lead over fellow Democrat Tulsi Gabbard.  When the votes were counted, Gabbard beat Hannemann by more than 20 points.

"I think it does show, first, that polling is still more of an art than science," said Moore. "But also, that there could be dangers in trying to guess who's a likely voter and engage in a lot of statistical weighting."

Polling aside, both Caldwell and Cayetano remain confident of victory. Cayetano remains buoyed by the support he receives among seniors and those in their 40s. Caldwell on the other hand, is encouraged by the backing of voters 18 to 29 years old, and those in their 30s.

"I'm working really hard to finish as strong as I can, and you know in Hawaii, you've got to earn every vote," said Caldwell. "You can't accept anything."

"If we don't get a good turnout, we may be in trouble," said Cayetano. "But, if we get a good turnout, which I think we will, we have a good shot at winning."

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