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John Hart, chair of communications dept., HPU
Image: courtesy john hart

Truth and Consequences

What we can learn from the mayoral election

While the Nov. 6 general election is more than two months behind us, the consequences are still a matter of debate. Kirk Caldwell’s victory over former Gov. Ben Cayetano in the mayoral race continues to generate controversy, along with investigations of ballot shortages and other voting-day blunders. The Weekly asked three local political analysts–Neal Milner, professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa political science department, John Hart, chair of the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), and Carlos Juarez, chair of social sciences and a political science professor at HPU–for their comments on the impacts of the errors, and what this election might mean for the future of politics in Hawaii.

Shortages

In the light of widespread problems at the polls on Nov. 6, it’s tempting for Cayetano supporters to attribute his loss to ballot shortages. The professors, however, were in agreement that voters should look elsewhere for an explanation.

“The shortages, while clearly problematic, do not appear to have been large enough in number to have had any effect on the outcome,” Juarez said. Caldwell beat Cayetano by 22,510 votes, a surprisingly decisive result in a race that had been expected to be neck-and-neck.

“I don’t want to minimize the screw-up on the election night; I think it does destroy confidence [in the election process],” Milner said. But he added that voters should view the cause as “incompetence, not conspiracy.”

Hart and Milner agreed that Cayetano’s lead coming out of the primary, in which his percentage of the votes (44.1) trumped Caldwell’s (29.1) and incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle’s (24.8), may have been overstated. “Most political experts are terrible at making predictions,” Milner said.

Hart said the polls were mixed, but most of the people he knew were expecting Caldwell to win. “Cayetano was on a difficult row to hoe, fighting the Democratic Party. [From the beginning], I thought it was going to be a firefight . . . It really was him against the world,” he said.

Derailed

While Cayetano’s strong anti-rail position drew support in the primary, it may have also been a detriment, according to Milner, who had said after the primary that Cayetano was the favorite. He cited group insulation as one reason Cayetano supporters may have been surprised. “If you only hang around with people who feel that way [anti-rail], if you only look at information that reinforces that, then you start to think that’s the only way,” he said.

Juarez concurred. “Despite efforts to claim otherwise, he was probably seen by many as a one-issue candidate,” he said.

Voter pools

Milner pointed to differences in voter pools as one reason Cayetano looked stronger in the primary than in the general election. “The main difference between a primary election pool and a general election pool is that people who vote in primaries tend to be more knowledgeable and more interested in politics, and tend to be more up-to-date about key issues,” he said. The primary election brought out those in strong opposition to rail, for example.

In the general election, however, younger voters and those who are less involved in politics tend to turn out. “They’re less likely to be interested in ideologies . . . [and more] interested in competence and character,” Milner said.

Smear tactics

The 2012 mayoral election involved what many commentators called an unprecedentedly negative, well-funded ad campaign assaulting Cayetano’s personal integrity. All three experts agreed that ads attacking Cayetano’s character were probably a factor in his defeat.

“[Cayetano] underestimated the success that a campaign against his character and against his competence would have,” Milner said.

“In the final month before the election, it was clear that Caldwell was benefitting from strong opposition to Cayetano from outside groups, in particular Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP) . . . a trade union group affiliated with the local carpenters union, which stands to benefit substantially from the rail project,” said Juarez, who had also given Cayetano the edge after the primary.

While agreeing, Hart pointed out that PRP didn’t act alone. “To say PRP solely took him out is a hasty generalization. [PRP was] merely the most visible and biggest spending PAC, but there are others.”

The apparent effectiveness of the anti-Cayetano campaign could have far-reaching results in Hawaii politics. “If people think [this sort of negative advertising] works, it will change the way political races are run here,” said Hart. Indeed, concern about the future of Island campaigns motivated the defamation lawsuit Cayetano filed against PRP, according to his attorney, James Bickerton. Although “the law gives substantial damages for harm to reputation–and the loss of the election is evidence of harm to his reputation–this case is not about [winning] the money,” Bickerton commented.

Integrated model

Milner added that negative ads are not effective on their own. “I think you’re going to see PRP kind of campaigns in the future, but that’s not just about negative ads,” he said. “We’ve used attack ads for years . . . we used to do it by gossip. Someone would pass around an anonymous note about the sexual proclivities about a guy running for governor . . . It’s easier to pass gossip [now] because now it’s called social media.”

The real strength of the PRP campaign, he said, was in its information-gathering and coordination. “PRP [was] able to, in some very sophisticated ways, combine running the ads with grassroots politics,” said Milner (See [honoluluweekly.com]).

Continuing discourse

According to Milner, Cayetano simply couldn’t get enough voters in the general election: “He had pretty much squeezed out all the Republican votes he could get, and he had squeezed out all the anti-rail votes he could get [in the primary].”

“In the end, Caldwell was more organized, and had more money, especially from outside groups,” Juarez confirmed. PRP’s total reported campaign expenditures amassed $3.1 million.

Hart said he is encouraging his students to research the attack ads and anti-Cayetano campaign funding.

It’s important to keep analyzing the election to gain more information for the future, Milner said. “Often people lose interest in an election too fast to really learn from it,” he added.