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Editor’s Note: Today we welcome venerable Hawaii political pundit Neal Milner to the ranks of Civil Beat’s regular columnists. Milner is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, a longtime commentator for Hawaii media and author of the recent book “The Gift of Underpants.” In this new column, Milner promises to take a perspective on politics that goes beyond everyday political events.
To understand political campaigns you need to answer two questions: how are the candidates doing and why this is the case.
Campaign coverage in Hawaii never gives decent answers to these questions.
Instead we typically get explanations that are mostly assertions without evidence. This evidence gap is filled by warmed over conventional wisdom and colorful but misleading anecdotes.
Local journalists are partially to blame for this process, but, more significantly, they are also the victims.
The gold standard of campaign coverage should include a variety of polls that appear often enough to track trends; analysts who understand modern campaign tactics; long-term historical, economic and political scholarship that can be used to put the day to day campaign activities into the proper context; media people who know how to incorporate this context into their stories; and post-election studies combining statistics with compelling narratives about the campaign.
Coverage of the 2012 presidential race came very close to this standard. Hawaii is about as far away from this gold standard as you can get. Let’s start with the polls.
UPDATED For many years the Honolulu Advertiser sponsored the Hawaii Poll, which was a very reputable collection of lifestyle and political surveys. The data from these surveys are no longer available. Oops, there goes a database that could be used to measure trends over a long period of time.
(An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated election polling ended when Gannett took over ownership of the paper.)
Today the Star Advertiser and Civil Beat are the only sponsors of publicly accessible election polls. The problem with the Star Advertiser and Civil Beat polls isn’t their quality but rather their quantity. There aren’t enough polls to monitor what is going on. Trend analysis is impossible.
In fact, there is no systematic body of knowledge about Hawaii’s voters. The lack of good information goes much deeper than that. There is a huge gap in the resources needed to explain Hawaii politics.
First of all, there are almost no systematic studies of Hawaii elections. Tom Coffman’s “To Catch A Wave,” still the best book ever written about political campaigns, is close to 50 years old. How much can you say about elections here if there is virtually nothing to rely on between the time of John Burns and the time of Tulsi Gabbard? (Ben Cayetano’s memoir is also excellent, but by its nature a memoir has a limited perspective.)
Here are just a few of the many foundational questions that never get answered: Why is turnout so low here? Why is the Republican Party so weak? How have political campaigns changed since Coffman wrote his book? How does the economy matter in elections? What are the effects of race, ethnicity, and social class? How powerful are labor unions? When do endorsements have impact? What do politics and elections look like from the citizens’ perspectives? People here talk about these questions all the time, but talk is cheap without evidence to fall back on.
What makes this evidence problem even more profound is that there is so little scholarship describing the contemporary political, economic or social history of Hawaii. Without such works, there are no broader perspectives to draw on, no way to discover the link between broader economic and social forces and everyday campaign activities. In short, there is nothing to fall back on and no way to connect the dots.
So professional political analysts as well everyone else who is interested in politics, grab on to half-baked explanations to fill this gap in understanding. Any port in a storm. Some of the most common — and insidious — chasm-filling explanations are old saws, inside baseball sort of stuff that is full of huff-and-puff claims of authority yet bereft of evidence.
This is already apparent in the ways people typically talk about the 2014 races. One gap-filling explanation is about “the machine.” The primary race between Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa, this story goes, is about the Old Guard machine and its critics. Another gap story is “the power of Dan,” in which election analysis gets framed around the late senator’s loyalists, enemies, and personality. Another explanation is “personalities,” the animosity between the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat, Senator Inouye’s dislike of the governor.
Let’s (reluctantly) give these common assertions some benefit of the doubt and assume that they explain some part of the races. So what? The gap-fillers say nothing, nada, about the most important question, which is how does it affect the voters? What about the economy? What about the things that mobilize or turn off voters?
These gap-fillers all focus on elites. Their spotlights shine only on the candidates along with their big money supporters, their operatives, and other politicians. It’s celebrity journalism, politics as theater without the audience. An undecided voter who has been out of a job for a year just might consider something other than Dan Inouye’s legacy, Colleen Hanabusa’s anger, or Neil Abercrombie’s “real” motives in appointing Brian Schatz to the Senate seat.
So there is a double-negative whammy operating here: these old-saw explanations privilege the big shots by making it all about them while diminishing the voters’ voices by saying nothing about what voters are thinking about.
The primary job of any working journalist covering campaigns is to highlight the dots by reporting on the races’ day-to-day events. Too often, what gets covered is what is convenient or what makes good television — a speech, an endorsement, a political ad, or a gaffe, in short the most visible but often less important dots. It is very hard for a reporter to go beyond the dots to talk about patterns or contexts if she has a daily deadline or has to keep her TV segment to less than three minutes (with the political analyst getting only 30 seconds of this).
But even if working journalists have the time and interest to connect the dots, it is tremendously hard for them to do so because the available information is so limited. The lack of core political knowledge about Hawaii creates the same obstacles for journalists as it does for the rest of us.
There are some decent useful quick fixes that could improve coverage of the 2014 elections. These involve both the media and the rest of us. Other changes are more long-term and go well beyond the issues of campaign analysis and consider what needs to be done to make political analysis in Hawaii a more serious and useful intellectual endeavor.
In my next column I’ll take a look at these changes.