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Stunning rurnaround In Hawaii's congressional race

So much for Mufi Hannemann's runaway victory.

City Council member Tulsi Gabbard has overcome an early 45-point deficit to pull into a dead heat with the former Honolulu mayor two months before the Democratic primary likely to determine Hawaii's new representative in Congress.

The Civil Beat Poll conducted two separate public opinion surveys of the race in the last two weeks, discovering and then confirming that likely voters in the 2nd Congressional District primary have fled from the polarizing Hannemann in the months since the last time their temperature was taken. The seat, vacant as Rep. Mazie Hirono has opted to run for U.S. Senate this year, is up for grabs, and Gabbard has the momentum.

The first of the two Civil Beat Polls, part of a larger poll of several races, surveyed 340 likely Democratic primary voters between June 5 and June 7 for a margin of error of +/- 5.3 percent.  It found a 35-31 split in Gabbard's favor over Hannemann; a gap within the margin of error means the race was a statistical tie at the time the phone calls were made. Big Island lawyer Bob Marx scored 11 percent and former Office of Hawaiian Affairs chief advocate Esther Kiaaina 10 percent, leaving 14 percent undecided.

Civil Beat conducted a second survey a week later for two reasons: to confirm the dramatic turnaround, and to find out why voters changed their minds. The second poll surveyed 685 different likely Democratic primary voters on June 13 and June 14 for a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent. This one found Hannemann at 34 percent and Gabbard at 33 percent — again a statistical tie. Marx and Kiaaina both sat at 10 percent, and 12 percent were undecided. Both polls asked voters who they'd vote for "today."

Taken together, the polls provide a snapshot in time that shows even support for the two leading candidates among a combined sample of 1,025 likely Democratic primary voters — well within the total margin of error of +/- 3 percent.

What Happened?

The new Civil Beat Poll results represent the first publicly available numbers in months and could alter the shape of the contest considering how much they differ from the previous moment-in-time pictures of the race.

When he first announced his candidacy last August, Hannemann touted a 66-to-11 edge over Gabbard. In early February, he released new internal polling numbers showing a 57 percent to 15 percent lead. Both of his surveys were conducted by QMark Research.

More importantly, an independent poll conducted by Ward Research for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now in late January and early February found Hannemann with 65 percent support versus 20 percent for Gabbard.

Those three surveys pointed to a blowout victory for Hannemann and showed Gabbard would struggle with name recognition statewide. Then just 30 years old (she turned 31 in April) and a quiet first-term member of the council, Gabbard was little-known on Oahu and all but a completely unknown quantity among the neighbor island voters that make up about 60 percent of the 2nd Congressional District.

The Star-Advertiser (subscription required) explained that 23 percent of those surveyed didn't know enough about Gabbard to form an opinion about her, and another 40 percent had never even heard of her. That was actually an improvement from the internal Hannemann poll from six months earlier, when 51 percent of voters said they didn't know who Gabbard was.

In a Civil Beat commentary last September, political analyst Neal Milner explained what Gabbard had to do to have a chance of overcoming that hurdle: