Chad Blair: We Are About To Find Out If Negative Advertising Works In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

The most famous negative campaign advertisement in U.S. politics ran only once, but it is still remembered today.

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The 60-second video never actually mentions Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964. Instead, it shows a young girl picking petals from a daisy as she attempts to count from 1 to 10.

The commercial then shifts to a voiceover countdown of the kind used for rocket launches —“10, 9, 8” — until the screen shows a nuclear explosion. That’s when the voice of President Lyndon B. Johnson is heard saying, “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

Whether the ad, remembered as “Daisy” and airing just two months before the election, made a difference in voters’ minds remains a subject of debate. But it did come just two years after the Cuban missile crisis and a year after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And LBJ defeated Goldwater in a landslide.

“Daisy” was on my mind over the weekend as family living in the 2nd Congressional District gave me some of the many, many political mailers that have been clogging CD2 mail boxes in recent days. I live in CD1, and my mailbox has only featured positive mailers from my reps and their challengers.

By contrast, in CD2 Jill Tokuda has been the target of tons of these ugly mailers — “she’s weak on gun control! wrong on education! a lover of Monsanto!” — but so has lieutenant governor candidate Sylvia Luke — “she’ll do anything for money! loves trial lawyers, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco!”

detail of a mailer attacking Jill Tokuda August 2022 from Mainstream Democrats PAC
A mailer attacking Jill Tokuda from Mainstream Democrats PAC. Screenshot/2022

As I wrote in a recent column, Tokuda and Luke have been on the receiving end of a slew of TV ads, too, lambasting them both but also heaping praise on their respective rivals in the Democratic primary, Pat Branco and Ikaika Anderson.

Will they work? We will likely know come Saturday night when the primary results come in. It could well determine whether more such attack ads are in Hawaii’s future.

But studies on negative campaigning nationally say that it is often — but not always — money well spent, especially in close elections. Here’s a few takeaways:

  • The primary benefit of television advertising is providing voters with information and “shifting their attitudes” about the candidate.
  • The larger a candidate’s advantage in advertising compared with that of their opponent, “the larger their share of the vote.”
  • There are still “persuadable voters” that respond to television advertising — especially in down-ballot elections, where voters have less information about candidates.
  • Challengers are more likely to attack, but “incumbent-generated messages” are more likely to spread.
  • Attack messages are more likely than advocacy messages “to be retweeted.”
  • Negativity may reduce a voter’s evaluation of the targeted politician, but there could also be “a backlash on the attacker.”
  • The candidate who is attacked is perceived as “less cooperative,” less likely to lead “a successful government,” and “more ideologically extreme.”
  • The person that may “benefit most” from negative attacks may be a third main candidate — neither the target not the attacker.
  • Negative messaging can suppress voter turnout and “contribute to greater cynicism” in the electoral process.

The final takeaway from the studies (which I list at the end of this column) is that more study is needed, especially as media platforms and consumer habits evolve.

Colin Moore, the director of the Public Policy Center at UH Manoa, shared the studies with me. He says he is not aware of anyone in Hawaii doing a study on negative ads.

“It’s one of the many, many things we don’t have solid empirical data on,” he said.

Ads Are ‘Awful, Repulsive’

One veteran local political analyst, however, expressed a view that I think is shared by many — myself included.

“They are terrible — absolutely awful and repulsive,” said Dan Boylan, a history professor, of the Luke and Tokuda ads. “In Hawaii, we talk aloha. We are pretty kind and accepting of one another. This is not Hawaii or Hawaii as it should be.”

detail of a mailer attacking Sylvia Luke August 2022 from Be Change Now
A mailer attacking Sylvia Luke from Be Change Now. Screenshot/2022

Boylan profiled Luke and Tokuda for a MidWeek cover story a few years back when the legislators headed the money committees in the state House and Senate. The women described in the attacks ads in no way resemble the “smart, knowing” public servants he came to know.

“They do not deserve this kind of nonsense,” he said, adding that he hoped that it would backfire.

There are indications that that is happening.

“The media onslaught of negativity and mud slinging are counterproductive, turning off voters and would be voters from casting their valuable votes,” a commenter wrote in response to Lee Cataluna’s column last week condemning the ads. “No class, no aloha and so shame!”

The commenter continued: “Fighting fair, letting your actions speak instead of nasty words and candidates that do what is in the best interest of the local people (not international investors or mainland corporations) will earn my vote and the votes of my family members, friends and co-workers.”

But negative campaigning could be here to stay. It was the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that abolished restrictions on campaign advertising by outside groups like super PACs.

If these groups — national ones like VoteVets and local ones like Be Change Now — succeed in defeating Luke and Tokuda while electing Anderson and Branco, that’s certain to bring similar attacks in future elections. The money will flow to them.

Speaking of money: It’s more than a little ironic that Be Change Now, the super PAC tied to the carpenters union, says it is fighting for “Hawaii’s working families.”

A significant amount of the $3.7 million it spent between Feb. 27 and July 29 filled the pockets of mainland political services including Tulchin Research, Rising Tide Interactive, Targeted Platform Media, Haystaq DNA, Red Horse Strategies and Putnam Partners. It paid for advertising, media, surveys, polls, research and voter lists.

In the meantime, candidates like Branco might be having second thoughts about jabbing Tokuda on gun control. On Monday he issued this statement after seeing a new TV spot from VoteVets, which has endorsed him:

“I am publicly calling on VoteVets to pull down the ad they began airing today. Throughout this campaign, I have raised what I believe are serious questions about Jill Tokuda’s record that voters deserve answers to before they cast their vote. That being said, Jill Tokuda’s name and image should never be connected to school shootings, and I sincerely hope that VoteVets will stop airing this ad.”

Too little, too late, it seems. We will find out soon enough.

Here’s those studies I mentioned above:

  • “The Effect of Television Advertising in United States Elections,” American Political Science Review, 2022
  • “Political Attacks in 280 Characters or Less: A New Tool for the Automated Classification of Campaign Negativity on Social Media,” American Politics Research, 2022
  • “Positive Spillovers From Negative Campaigning,” American Journal of Political Science, 2021
  • “Tweeting the Attack: Predicting Gubernatorial Candidate Attack Messaging and Its Spread,” International Journal of Communication, 2018

Read this next:

Eric Stinton: Resisting The Cynicism Of Another Election


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

I feel totally duped by the whole election process because of the PACs. Instead of just voting for the LG by name recognition, I decided to do some research on the candidates. After my research, I decided to vote for Sylvia Luke based on her experience in govt. Right on the day I voted for her, (mail in) the PAC ad came out, claiming she gave favors in the form of tax breaks to Navatek and some unscrupulous people related to Navatek. By the time I read this, it was too late. I had already voted for Sylvia. I feel duped because how is the average citizen supposed to know the truth when these ads have shown to smear politicians in the past with falsehoods? But on the other hand, what if they’re true? If they’re true then I’m sorry I voted for Sylvia and I wish I had gone with my gut and voted for Sherri Menor McNamura who worked hard for businesses during the pandemic and who I felt did a good job with the Chamber of Commerce. Why are these PACs even allowed to exist if they just confuse the voters? There should be a law that only truthful ads are allowed so the voter is not confused by what is true and what is not true. I hope Sylvia earns my vote.

MauiAloha · 1 month ago

If your political opponent approves of your advertising you are doing something wrong.

Keith · 1 month ago

I think PACs along with social media are drivers of greater misinformation, confusion, and polarization in our society. At a time when the country needs to unite, it seems the forces to drive us apart grow stronger. Enemies abroad would be pleased. This experiment of democracy fails when our society is uneducated and cannot differentiate truth from garbage. Our primary will tell us how well our democracy is working.

NoFreedomWithoutObligations · 1 month ago

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