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Negative political ads a risky tactic

Policy differences are one thing, but personal attacks go against the local culture of not talking stink about others

By Dave Koga


The flyer began showing up in mailboxes in mid-August, calling on Hawaii voters to "Compare and Decide."

In the end, the people did just that.

In the wrap-up of the Democratic primary election for governor, Mufi Hannemann's bulk-mail belittling of Neil Abercrombie became a defining moment -- the clumsy turning point, many contend -- of a bitter campaign.

The flyer's mocking tone and comparisons of the candidates' wives and education immediately struck a nerve with the public.

As the backlash spread, Hannemann swiftly shifted to a noticeably kinder and gentler approach. But the damage had been done -- and it would prove to be irreparable.

A campaign that had begun to show signs of losing support was about to go under.

A poll taken by the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now shortly before the flyer was distributed showed Abercrombie leading Hannemannn, 49 percent to 44 percent. A month later, a Civil Beat poll was pointing to an Abercrombie runaway.

The final printout on election night confirmed the startling shift: Abercrombie received 59.3 percent of the vote to Hannemann's 37.7 percent.

Tom Coffman, who has written extensively about Hawaii politics as a journalist and author and worked on numerous campaigns as a multimedia consultant, says the flyer "was extraordinary in the effect that it had on the election.

"It was the gift that kept on giving."

Advertising executive Phil Wood, whose history in island politics dates to John A. Burns' second run for governor in 1970, says the flyer offered a glimpse of mainland-style tactics based on division and distraction rather than real issues.

Wood thinks the reaction to the flyer will have a residual effect on advertising in the general election, with campaigns treading lightly when it comes to going negative.

"Any campaign adviser will have to think long and hard about the wisdom of this kind of stuff," Wood says. "It was such a blatant lesson. It was flagrant in the worst usage of the word. It sort of hit every hot button for all of us who live here.

"This stuff just doesn't work, and the bounceback is terrible punishment for making a very bad decision."

In the coming weeks, that could translate into a mix of ads -- think of it as a kind of good cop-bad cop approach -- with mainland backers carrying out the nastier attacks and local candidates appearing above the fray.

Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, points to the latest television spot for Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona as a likely example.

The Aiona ad, paid for by the Republican Governors Association, opens by honoring Abercrombie's years of service to the country only to end up scolding him for his voting record.

"It's actually rather clever in its criticism: 'We respect Neil, but it's time for him to move on,'" Milner says. "You can read it as being both sincere and sarcastic."

Abercrombie has yet to release new television ads for his campaign against Aiona, so most of the on-air bickering has been in the congressional race between Republican incumbent Charles Djou and Democrat Colleen Hanabusa.

The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently aired a commercial in which Djou was taken to task for voting with the GOP 90 percent of the time -- which one might naturally assume a Republican congressman would do.

In response, Djou put out an ad in which his wife, Stacy, accused Hanabusa and her supporters of smearing her husband's record "and our family's good name."

Djou then countered with a spot which opens with a video clip of Hanabusa saying, "I can tell you right now, in government, I don't think there's waste per se."

Hanabusa's campaign objected, saying that Djou's ad dropped the rest of Hanabusa's comments, which made clear she was referring to the effects of Gov. Linda Lingle's cuts to the state budget. Her spokesman, Richard Rapoza, said Hanabusa was actually "defending Gov. Lingle -- a Republican -- for her budget cuts."

Wood and Milner say the problem with mainland groups becoming directly involved in island politics is that while they might know advertising, they don't really know Hawaii.

"This company does a campaign for them in Pennsylvania and then gets a job in Hawaii and it becomes an off-the-shelf sort of thing," Wood says. "They'll sit around and say, 'This one looks like a 31-A. Yeah, that'll fit. Let's just change some of the shots and go with it.'"

In the later stages of the campaign, more aggressive methods could emerge.

In May, a national Republican organization called Independent Women's Voice spent $250,000 on behalf of Djou in the special election to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Abercrombie.

Having determined that Democrat Ed Case would be the bigger threat to Djou in the two-way November general election, IWV launched an ad portraying Case as a shadowy "tax-raising liberal" masquerading as a moderate.

After the election, the group bragged on its website that its efforts had drawn independent votes away from Case, resulting in his third-place finish.

Neither Wood nor Milner, though, believe island candidates are likely to turn to political advertising's dark side any time soon.

"On the mainland, holy moly, it's baseball bats at two feet, and may the best man win," Wood says. "We've had smears in Hawaii -- like the Heftel thing (in 1986), which was beyond ugly.

"But unlike the mainland, it's just not the way we do things. There seems to be a feeling in the air that we will respect one another even in warfare. There is something here that makes us fundamentally different.

"Maybe it's the everyday dealing with so many different cultures and ethnic groups that makes us a little more attuned. But as long as we keep reacting like we did (to the flyer), I think we're safe for at least another campaign."

Coffman doesn't believe political culture in Hawaii forbids negative campaigning. It's how you do it.

"I think what we can infer as a generalization (from the flyer fallout) is that you have to tie negative ads to an issue, not the personality," he says. "The flyer defines the line you do not want to cross."

The compare-and-decide format is classic political advertising, Milner said, and many of the elements in the flyer "were precisely along the lines of the campaign: "I have experience running a city. I have solved problems. I have a vision for Hawaii.'

"It was the gratuitous stuff -- the wives comparison, the beard contest, the school for dummies -- that caused the problems."

To Coffman, it was in some ways "a clash of new culture versus old culture.

"My definition of old culture in Hawaii would be that if you don't have something good to say about somebody, don't say anything. That's one of Jack Burns' lines," he says.

"There's a strong tendency in Hawaii not to attack people. It just goes against the grain. We just don't attack people in a way as if we're trying to push them away from the table."

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