A high-margin-of-error poll in the Hawaii Congressional race has provoked a lot of worry among Democrats that they may lose a unique special election in the district of Barack Obama’s birth (Kenya has a House seat?):

Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou has the advantage in the special election for Congress, a new Hawai’i Poll has found, giving Republicans the best opportunity in two decades to claim the urban Honolulu district.

Djou leads with 36 percent, former congressman Ed Case is chasing at 28 percent, and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa is trailing with 22 percent. Thirteen percent were undecided.

The poll, taken for The Advertiser and Hawai’i News Now, confirms fears among Democrats that Case and Hanabusa could split the Democratic vote in the winner-take-all election and help Djou score a rare Republican upset.

Looks to me like Democrats have around 50% support and the top Republican has 36%, which doesn’t matter in the current election, but does for the rematch in November, which will only feature one candidate from each party. I can think of at least two California races – CA-48 and CA-50 – where special elections under these rules would have meant a Democrat in seats Republicans ended up winning. And yet the Democrat promptly lost the runoff after the jungle primary where they picked up the most votes.

The idea that national Democrats could have stage-managed this for a different short-term result, by pushing one of the candidates out of the race, is absurd. Ed Case ran against Hawaii institution Daniel Akaka in 2006 – he obviously doesn’t care about those kinds of pressures. And Colleen Hanabusa was hand-picked by the establishment, and when the DCCC tried to intervene on behalf of Case they were met with massive local pushback. So this was basically unavoidable.

That said, I’m thoroughly unconvinced by this poll. It has a high margin of error, and there’s plenty of time left until the all-mail election which can upset the proceedings – in fact there’s a live debate tonight. An election entirely conducted by mail offers unique challenges, and superior GOTV operations – that’s probably Hanabusa – will have an advantage. Also, the culture of the island makes polling notoriously difficult.

And should Djou win, that’s arguably a better outcome than Case, a Lieberman clone winning this special election and probably holding the seat as long as he likes. Djou would have a target on his back in November, and this poll, if accurate, suggests he would be at an extreme disadvantage in a head-to-head matchup against one Democrat. It’s unclear who that Democrat would be, since Hawaii primaries are open to any voter – there’s little partisan advantage as there would be under a closed primary. That primary does not take place until September, and so there could be a new candidate to emerge, especially if Case and Hanabusa are tainted by the special election defeat.

UPDATE: Do read this highly amusing post from Chris Bowers, demolishing Dave Weigel’s argument that somehow the right’s online organizing has made a difference for Charles Djou.

David Dayen

David Dayen