Remember the way negative political campaigning used to be done? The 1986 elections stand out with several memorable examples.

There was the whisper campaign spread by word-of-mouth that targeted the late businessman and Congressman Cec Heftel with hints of aberrant sexual habits during his unsuccessful run in the gubernatorial primary.

There was controversy on the GOP side when a union ad used a photograph of a plantation “luna” on horseback, trying to tap into shared cultural images of the bad old days when the plantation field bosses on horseback were the on-the-ground representative of a white Republican elite that controlled both politics and business in the islands with a heavy hand.

And that was also the year that Mufi Hannemann tried to discredit his opponent in the 1st Congressional District primary, Neil Abercrombie, with innuendo of drug use and public stereotypes of long-haired-haoles.

LeadCropClose-up PRP strategy email Gov. Ben Cayetano's mayoral race

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

These were nasty campaigns, but they pale by comparison to the multi-million-dollar compendium of brutal attacks launched against former Gov. Ben Cayetano by the Carpenters Union and its affiliate, the Pacific Resource Partnership, during the 2012 race for Honolulu mayor.

The PRP’s carefully orchestrated campaign aimed to erode Cayetano’s position as the early frontrunner by impugning his character with skillfully crafted charges that he had been at the center of a corrupt “pay-to-play” system while he was governor.

Last week, the public was afforded an unusual look inside the PRP effort when hundreds of pages of emails and notes between PRP and its campaign consultants were made public by a lawyer who represented the former governor in a defamation lawsuit against PRP.

I finally had a chance to sit down and read through the 488 pages, available for download from Civil Beat. And for the past couple of hours, I’ve been trying to decide what I’ve learned from these disclosures. These turn out to be hard lessons.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The emails and assorted documents underscore how well organized and centrally controlled the PRP campaign against Cayetano was from the beginning. It was able to hire top national consultants to do opposition research, then to package it for use in press releases, websites, controlled leaks to reporters, carefully timed news conferences, and a barrage of paid ads in print and on television and radio.

The professional team put together by PRP was impressive in its efficiency. As is so often the case with negative campaigns, the public and the pundits profess to hate them. But that’s not the end of the story.

“This was not a bunch of outliers. They were tied into this new campaign technology. This is how it’s done now.” — Neal Milner

“I think what you see overall is a modern political campaign coming to Hawaii,” says retired professor and political commentator Neal Milner.

“The morality aside, the thing worked,” he said. “And the fact is that it worked against a pretty formidable guy, arguably as good a campaigner as anybody here.”

“This was not a bunch of outliers,” Milner said, referring to PRP’s mainland consultants. “They were tied into this new campaign technology. This is how it’s done now.”

Milner believes the starkly negative campaign that drew the most public attention with its allegations of corruption was successful, at least in part, because it was intimately tied to a sophisticated and similarly well-funded “ground game” that put canvassers in the field going door to door in areas where rail would have its greatest impact. Using sophisticated campaign tools, this effort sought to educate voters, shift voter perceptions toward a more favorable view of Honolulu’s rail project, and track individual voters for future follow-up and election day mobilization.

All this was made possible by money, an awful lot of money. For that, thank the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the now-famous (or infamous?) Citizen’s United decision, which equated money and free speech, unleashing unlimited spending by unions, corporations and other organizations as long as they remain independent of candidates’ campaign committees.

It’s probably fair to say that the PRP campaign against Cayetano introduced the islands to what can happen when the latest in campaign technology and techniques are supported by practically unlimited funding.

What You See (and What You Don’t)

What you see throughout the internal documents is an obsession with keeping control of the message and the manner in which it was developed. 

Messages were decided on, then partitioned into what could be presented to the public as steps in a developing story, each piece adding to the last to build or hold the interest of reporters and the public.

When Cayetano hit back at PRP in June 2012, Jason Stanford, the Texas-based opposition researcher, cautioned against jumping the gun on the carefully planned story line. 

“We should take care not to advance the story too quickly or introduce new characters until the story advances,” Stanford advised in an email to local media consultant Barbara Tanabe and PRP director John White.

What I didn’t find … was any evidence to suggest that PRP or its consultants were consciously making accusations they knew to be false.

The PRP team carefully coordinated four types of media. Paid media consisted of print and broadcast advertising with messages that could be carefully crafted and timed for maximum impact. “Earned media” referred to traditional public relations, leveraging personal contacts with reporters and editors to plant critical questions or stories, hoping for news to be published that would carry elements of their message. Direct mail could be targeted to particular neighborhoods or demographics. And social media harnessed public platforms like Facebook, as well as websites created to support the campaign of negative attacks with detailed, point-by-point documentation drawn from past news stories and public records.

The different types of media allowed for different and sometimes conflicting approaches. At certain points, the results were stunning.

PRP was already questioning Cayetano’s integrity and honesty, planting suggestions that he was corrupt, when the former governor dropped a comment about Sen. Dan Inouye during a mayoral debate, calling him “out of touch” with the islands. PRP jumped on the comment as a “mean-spirited personal attack” on the senator and launched a new website to carry its message, which it titled simply, “Be nice Ben.”

“Here in Hawaii, we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable,” PRP said in a press release. “There are many important issues facing our city and state, and people in Hawaii deserve an  honest debate — not personal attacks.”

Meanwhile, PRP’s personal attacks on Cayetano continued to escalate.

What I didn’t find anywhere in the 488 pages, though, was any evidence to suggest that PRP or its consultants were consciously making accusations they knew to be false. Instead, at each point there was discussion of how to best document the attacks, and how to make that documentation publicly available.

This is important in legal terms. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan, held that public officials can’t prevail in a defamation lawsuit unless they are able to prove “actual malice,” meaning that the statements about them were known to be false, or were made with “reckless disregard of the truth.”

To win his lawsuit against PRP, Cayetano would have to prove actual malice. Although these PRP documents disclose lots of PRP’s inside game, and raise lots of questions, they don’t show the use — or misuse — of allegations known to be false.

“I Am Not a Crook”

One final point is worth noting. When PRP launched its anti-Cayetano campaign in early 2012, it knew from early polling that public opinion had turned and rail was in trouble. More than 50 percent of the public was now opposed to the city’s rail plan.

It also knew that Cayetano had a strong and positive reputation.

Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based pollster and consultant working with PRP, pushed the team to start building a foundation for “corruption” charges. Tulchin noted Cayetano’s favorable public image, saying “… it will take a bit of time for voters to really accept that he’s corrupt.”

PRP consultants appear to have counted on Cayetano’s well-known aggressiveness to trap the former governor in a no-win situation and change the terms of the debate.

Cayetano’s vociferous denials of any wrongdoing focused attention on precisely the questions PRP wanted to put front and center for voters.

“Picking a fight with BC (Ben Cayetao) as a faceless organization that no one knows is fine for us and bad for him,” Washington, D.C.-based media consultant Martin Hamburger mused in an email.

“He’s trapped in a bad strategic loop,” Hamburger wrote. “He thinks when he’s attacked he benefits by attacking something no one really knows of (PRP), and by playing the victim. That’s bad strategic thinking. He’s like Nixon saying, ‘I’m not a crook.’”

Cayetano’s vociferous denials of any wrongdoing focused attention on precisely the questions PRP wanted to put front and center for voters, questions related to illegal campaign contributions, no-bid contracts, and charges of pay-to-play politics while he served as governor. The more Cayetano protested, and the more indignant political pundits became, the more the media covered these issues, which is exactly what PRP was aiming for.

“Keep him talking about this,” another of PRP’s media advisors wrote, calling Cayetano’s responses “a great media hook.”

The result was that perceived problems with the city’s rail plan, which began as Cayetano’s strongest suit, largely dropped out of the debate as the election neared and undecided voters became the focus of attention.

“At the end, there just wasn’t any traction for rail because they (PRP) managed to change the agenda,” Milner said.

 

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