In Hawaii, it’s best not to let your politics get in the way of your aloha. That’s the message of some candidates heading into Saturday’s primary.
Political attack ads are getting a lot of attention this year, especially in the race for Honolulu mayor where a $5.26 billion light rail project is on the line. There’s also a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs that could sway the balance of power in Congress.
With such high stakes, Hawaii is expected to see even more negative advertising after the primary, mainly due to the influence of super PACs and other independent expenditure groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Pacific Resource Partnership.
But how does this fit in with Hawaii’s island style? Aren’t we supposed to play nice with one another and maintain the Aloha Spirit?
The answer is more complicated than you might think. Negative campaigning is nothing new to the islands, and political experts admit that it can be an effective tool.
Crying foul over no aloha can also be a convenient counterattack for those who come under fire. Such was the case with local contractor Dennis Mitsunaga, who has spent more than $60,000 of his own money to rebuff attacks from PRP by saying its executive director, John White, “does not understand the ways of aloha and respect in our islands.”
At the same time, it’s possible for political attacks to go too far, especially in Hawaii. That’s when there can be backlash from voters.
“The idea that there’s an Aloha Spirit that makes politics here less nasty is just nonsense,” said Neal Milner, the former longtime political science professor at the University of Hawaii. “Politics here was a very high stakes game for years.”
Milner points to the 1950s, in which there was an aggressive grassroots campaign that saw labor groups and Democrats wrest control from the Republican power structure that was reflective of the oligarchy of the Big Five plantation owners. There were fierce battles then, he said, and those continued over the years.
What’s changed is the technology, he said. People are using TV, radio and social media to distribute attacks against their opponents in a “very broad and very systematic” way. In the past, he said candidates relied on the old-fashioned rumor mill.
“This place was famous for last minute gossip,” Milner said. “Gossip would be spread and in many ways it was valued, so politicians in campaigns knew how to use it.”
An example comes from 1986 when Cec Heftel lost Hawaii’s gubernatorial primary to then Lt. Gov. John Waihee.
Heftel, who resigned from Congress to run for governor, claims the loss was due to a vicious smear campaign that included an anonymous mailer sent out just days before the election. At that time, polls had Heftel up by 21 points over Waihee. Heftel was also targeted by a whisper campaign that he said called him a racist and an alcoholic, among other things.
Although there’s no way of knowing with any certainty whether the attacks against Heftel were the cause of his loss — he said it was carried out by Waihee or the Republican nominee D.G. Anderson — Milner said the former congressman’s experience still resonates.
“The Aloha Spirit is always very important here … but the Aloha Spirit didn’t prevent various people from using gossip and other forms of old-style insidious negative campaigning,” Milner said. “Maybe the Aloha Spirit put certain limits on what people would do here rather than elsewhere, but no one knows what those limits are.”
“Historically, there’s been a reluctance in Hawaii to run some of the types of negative ads that are much more common on the mainland,” Winer said. “You will have, in general, more of a negative reaction to negative campaigning here a lot more than you will in other places.”
Winer worked on U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka reelection bid as well as on President Barack Obama’s run to the White House. He said there’s a difference between straight attack ads and comparative ads. The latter tend to get more positive reactions, he said, particularly if they are based in fact and focus on a person’s record.
“I tend to believe that (an ad) has to be well-sourced,” Winer said. “You have to put something out that’s true or at least be able to make the argument that it’s true.”
What’s difficult to know, he said, is how the tone of the ad will play in a “Hawaii ear.” That’s sometimes why it’s important to pre-screen ads with focus groups.
“It’s not just a cerebral exercise,” Winer said. “You can have all the facts in your favor, but if it doesn’t resonate with people’s hearts it doesn’t make a difference. You have to have a familiarity with the people who live in this place and the way that they think and the way that they feel.”
There’s no denying attack ads can be effective. In fact, some of the more inflammatory or poignant ads only need to run once. That’s because the media will grab hold of them and either comment or critique the contents.
In many respects, this is what’s already happening in Honolulu’s mayoral race. The Pacific Resource Partnership has received a lot of press for its attacks on former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is running against incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle and former Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell.
While there’s been a lot of discussion about how much PRP is spending on its pro-rail, anti-Cayetano campaign — about $1.4 million — each of its attacks gets repeated whenever discussed on TV or in print. This is true even when the accuracy behind the ads is being questioned.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which is behind FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit endeavor that judges the accuracy of political speech and advertising. When not in school, Hall Jamieson lives on the Big Island.
She said there’s nothing inherently wrong with political attack ads as long as they’re fair, accurate and pertinent to what is actually being voted on. Sometimes they provide important information about a candidate. But attacks can go too far, she said and at that point voters are voting against something rather than for it.
Hawaii doesn’t see a lot of attack ads when compared to the mainland. Hall Jamieson likens it to places like Maine, Utah and Minnesota, where advocacy is more common than attack. Part of that has to do with Hawaii’s small population and the fact that it’s an island.
“People have a long memory and there still is a sense that Hawaii is a community,” Hall Jamieson said. “People I talk to when I’m on the islands have a fairly clear sense of who these (candidates) are … The kinds of attacks on character that you routinely see in politics are actually harder to make when people know the elected officials.”
High levels of attack in markets where negative campaigns are an uncommon tactic can also lead to backlash from voters, she said. But this is a unique election season in Hawaii, and Hall Jamieson wouldn’t be surprised if the dosage of negative ads increases.
Much of this has to do with the recent proliferation of super PACs and third-party, independent expenditure groups, which can influence elections with money while also maintaining a certain level of anonymity.
“What third parties do is increase the level of attack, and with it the level of inaccuracy,” Hall Jamieson said. “They’re anonymous so there’s no way to hold them accountable.”
The Annenberg Public Policy Center aims to curb this with a new program through FlackCheck.org called “Stand By Your Ad.” Basically, it asks TV and radio stations to turn down deceptive political advertising from third parties.
While the race for Hawaii’s U.S. Senate seat has been relatively cordial in terms of advertising, Hall Jamieson doesn’t believe that will be true once the primary is over and there’s a clear Democratic candidate to face off with presumptive Republican nominee Linda Lingle.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already spent more than $732,000 in advertising in Hawaii, mostly to tout Lingle’s credentials. And with Republicans trying to take control of the Senate it won’t be surprising to see groups from both sides of the aisle duking it out on the island’s airwaves.
“My worry is that if this race looks as if it’s in play, then you’re going to get the firestorm of third-party attacks that we’re seeing in other parts of the country,” Hall Jamieson said. “And this media market hasn’t seen that level of attack before.”
Both Case and Hirono told Civil Beat in a July questionnaire that they would be interested in signing a pledge to curb outside spending in the campaign. This is would be similar to a pact between Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.
Lingle said then she would not sign such a deal.
On Wednesday, her campaign spokesman Lenny Klompus said via email that Lingle would object to ads about her opponent that were false.
“We can expect millions of dollars of vicious third party attack ads to hit the airwaves right after the Primary,” he said. “The public outrage to these false and misleading ads will be very vocal and will be responded to very passionately by Hawaii voters.
“If one of these groups came into our state with dishonest messages about her opponent, Governor Linda Lingle will publicly ask them to stop their advertising.”