The Honolulu Star-Advertiser On Politics column

2014-03-07 | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

March 07--For a few weeks in 2004, Hawaii was that rarest of presidential territories: a "battleground state."

Back then, we had two separate statewide daily papers, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser. They did polls and called the race for president a dead heat.

According to independent polls, Republican President George W. Bush and challenger Democrat U.S. Sen. John Kerry were essentially tied, with Bush a smidgeon ahead.

It appeared so encouraging that GOP Vice President Dick Cheney flew 3,225 miles to Honolulu for a midnight political rally. But it did nothing to turn the poll numbers into a Hawaii GOP win.

Bush won the country; Kerry won Hawaii 54 percent to 45 percent, and a new political clich was born for mainland political writers. Public opinion polling in Hawaii was "notorious" and not in a good way.

"Hawaii is a tough state to survey accurately," proclaimed the National Journal last week.

"Precise polling is notoriously difficult in Hawaii," advised The Washington Post in January.

"Polling in Hawaii is notoriously tricky," chimed in The Huffington Post.

Back in 2012, the Washington, D.C., newspaper, The Hill, bemoaned: "Hawaii is notoriously hard to poll."

A 2010 piece in the Congressional Quarterly's paper, Roll Call, devoted an entire piece worrying about Hawaii polling.

"The biggest polling pitfalls have to do with the myriad ethnic groups in Hawaii," the report said, adding, "Cultural sensitivity when doing surveys in Hawaii is so nuanced that one pollster commented that polling there is more like Japan than in any other part of the United States."

Oh, come on now.

The mainland pollster's handwringing is so intense, you get the feeling that if the community surveyed isn't related to people who came over on the Mayflower, the results are no good.

Some of the latest warnings were spawned by a round of local polls including the Hawaii Poll, sponsored by the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now, and taken by Ward Research.

The poll showed voters picking U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa over U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in the U.S. Senate race. The poll shows Gov. Neil Abercrombie ahead of his Democratic challenger, state Sen. David Ige. And the "inside the Beltway" news analyses were quick to raise the "notorious polling" flag.

Some of Hawaii's leading pollsters differ.

"Polling demands care and diligence in design, execution and analysis no matter where you are," advises Jim Dannemiller, president of SMS Research.

Yes, Dannemiller argues, Hawaii is a cosmopolitan state with many ethnic groups, but "what about Cajuns in New Orleans, Hmongs and blond Lutherans in Minneapolis, Native Americans and Mormons in Salt Lake City, etc., etc., etc.? If ethnicity is the main reason for that contention, U.S. pollsters are in trouble."

Local folks can tell the difference between a local accent and, as Dannemiller says, "a tidewater twang," and there is more of a chance that Hawaii voters won't be bothered with pollsters from the mainland.

"I think the real question here is: Is it more difficult for national pollsters to poll in Hawaii than it is other places?' And, to that, I'd have to say yes," answers Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research.

Mainland pollsters look at ethnic groups and divvy it up whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, Ward says.

"In Hawaii, it truly makes a difference in poll accuracy if you have appropriately represented various ethnicities of the Asian race, particularly Japanese, Filipino and Chinese. Those who look at Hawaii from the outside, and use U.S. Census data to describe the population, miss all the subtleties of ethnicity and voting behavior," Ward says.

The takeaway is that all politics is local, and that includes the polling.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at