After the DCCC pulled out of the special election in HI-01, most political observers turned their attentions elsewhere. The race, which features two major Democrats and one major Republican in a winner-take-all election, was essentially conceded to Charles Djou, the Republican. It is thought that Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa will split the vote, and Djou will win easily.
I want you to take a look at today’s Honolulu Advertiser, which contains some clues that cut against that conventional wisdom. First of all, turnout for the all-mail election is huge for a special election:
Djou, Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa — the three leading candidates — have had to adapt their campaign tactics in the state’s first experiment with an all-mail special election for Congress after two smaller Honolulu City Council special elections last year.
The state Office of Elections will announce the results shortly after 6 p.m. today. Through Thursday, 159,000 voters — or just over 50 percent of the 317,000 eligible — had mailed back or dropped off their ballots.
I know from special elections in California that 159,000 voters is a ridiculously high number. 317,000 total registered voters is on the low side, but that’s a very big turnout number. In the 2008 general election for this seat, won by Neil Abercrombie, only around 200,000 people voted.
Now, while the DCCC has bugged out, other groups have not, in particular the Hawaii political establishment and labor, who are working for Colleen Hanabusa. In fact, Hanabusa’s entire strategy is predicated on large turnout:
Hanabusa and her allies have been trying to drive up voter turnout, knowing that higher turnout in traditionally Democratic urban Honolulu may prevent a Djou victory.
Hanabusa also wants to prepare for her likely duel with Case in the September primary. The winner of the special election will fill out the remaining months of former congressman Neil Abercrombie’s term. The winner of the September primary will take on the winner of the special election again in the November general election.
“We’re just telling people, if they haven’t gotten out to vote yet, to get out to vote,” Hanabusa said.
Case pooh-poohs this in the article, saying that message beats GOTV every time. And maybe he’s right. And Hanabusa is certainly looking ahead, knowing that splitting the vote on the Democratic side will probably lead to a Djou victory.
But that turnout is unpredictably high, and that leaves out three more days of GOTV, concluding tonight at 6pm local time. And there’s another data point – the excellent attention to absentee voting by Sen. Daniel Akaka, a leader in the Hawaii political establishment, who supports Hanabusa:
Andy Winer, a political strategist and the director of external affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes absentee voter outreach was one of the main reasons U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai’i, beat Case in the 2006 primary for U.S. Senate.
“It’s not just a one-shot deal. You can’t just make a phone call or send one piece of mail to somebody and say ‘Vote by mail,’ and have them understand that,” he said. “It requires a much more focused and concerted get-out-the-vote effort, either by door-to-door, mail or phone calls. It requires multiple contacts and persistent contacts.”
Hanabusa, who has been endorsed by Akaka and U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai’i, has targeted many of the same voters Akaka did in 2006: traditional Democrats, union members, Native Hawaiians and Japanese-Americans.
The only data cutting against Hanabusa is the fact that her campaign stumbled right when ballots reached voters, and there was a surge of early balloting in the three-week mail-in election that began May 1.
I also keep going back, however, to this important caveat on the poll numbers:
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.
First of all, many survey participants — particularly Japanese-Americans — will say they are undecided when they are questioned about their voting preferences.
“And that’s not true,” said Dan Boylan, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii. “They just won’t tell a person with a disembodied voice on the phone how they’re voting.”
Japanese-American women, especially, tend to be underrepresented in polling because they decline to answer — a circumstance that Boylan argued could give Hanabusa an edge in the race.
“Let’s say there is 15 to 20 [percent] undecided, I would cut that in half in favor of Hanabusa,” Boylan said.
We’ll know by 6pm local time (midnight ET). And if Djou wins, it’ll be short-lived, as he’ll only get to face one Democrat in November. But I’m not totally ready to give this to him yet. Not with those turnout numbers.