Do Endorsements Hurt or Help Hawaii Political Candidates?

With Hawaii’s primary election just days away, voters may be looking to endorsements from newspapers and special interest groups to help make their ballot choices.

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of endorsements, with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and President Barack Obama throwing their support behind incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The president has also endorsed U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. The Maui News endorsed U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. West Hawaii Today this week endorsed Brian Schatz.

That said, political pundits aren’t overly impressed with endorsements in general and doubt that they have much power to change someone’s mind.

“I think that any single endorsement is over-rated,” said Neal Milner, a retired political science professor from the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “Endorsements are just a small part of the puzzle that only certain people pay attention to.”

Caldwell’s endorsement of Abercrombie might turn some heads, since Caldwell is a reasonably popular mayor who was the city’s managing director under Mufi Hannemann, who is the Independent candidate for governor, Milner said. He pointed out that Caldwell’s endorsement could have impact beyond the primary election, since Hannemann is running unopposed and will definitely be part of the three-way contest for governor.

But Colin Moore, a political science professor at UH-Manoa, doubts even that is significant. “Unless you’re talking about a serious celebrity, it doesn’t matter,” he said. President Obama, therefore, would have a better chance of persuading voters.

While unions might not hold as much sway as they once did, an endorsement from a large union could come with grassroots support and an engaged voting block, both analysts noted. On the other hand, if a Democratic candidate has no union endorsements, that’s also telling.

But union endorsements aren’t likely to make or break a campaign. Moore said, “I don’t think they’re seriously powerful. I don’t even know who my union, (the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly), is endorsing.”

Moore was even more critical of newspaper endorsements. “The Star-Advertiser endorsement doesn’t matter,” he said. “It really depends on what the voters think of the Star-Advertiser already and if they like that candidate, but it can cut both ways. If you hate the Star-Advertiser, it might make you less likely to support that person.”

He said he’s been trying to find even a small effect from press endorsements and hasn’t found one. “At this point, it’s kind of just a quaint tradition more than anything else, really,” he said. “Basically I think politicians and the media think endorsements are more important than they really are.”

Milner said newspaper endorsements are always over-inflated and lack a real punch because people who read them are likely to be people who read the whole paper and are more generally attentive to politics already. For those voters, objective news coverage is more critical in choosing candidates and he’d like to see more of it.

However, Lucy Young-Oda, Editorial Page Editor for the Star-Advertiser, said Honolulu’s largest newspaper has a responsibility as a key community player to publicly support the candidates it feels can best move the state forward.

“When we make endorsements, we aim to persuade, of course—but we also want to provoke robust thought and debate with informed opinions. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. But as journalists working on behalf of the public, our op-ed staffers do the research, vet, and on the big races, have the luxury of sit-down interviews with the candidates,” Young-Oda said via email.

She said even if the endorsements don’t turn an election, they still carry weight. “Our endorsement is particularly valuable to candidates because we are not a beholden or special-interest group,” she wrote. “Day in and day out, our editorials try to keep in mind the best interests of the public and of Hawaii, and our endorsements are no different.”

Milner said political affiliation tends to have more of an impact on voters, so in primary races where everyone is a Democrat or Republican, comparing local and national endorsements could be useful in distinguishing one candidate from the pack.

If you are looking to endorsements to help narrow down your decisions, Milner noted that you can look at patterns of endorsements. For instance, Schatz has more national heavy-hitters behind him than his challenger, U.S. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. Back home, Hanabusa has the backing of much of the old guard, including three former Democratic governors.

Current Gov. Abercrombie has significant union support (including UHPA, Colin), although his challenger State Sen. David Ige has the backing of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“The endorsement from our Hawaii State Teachers Association representing 13,500 educators has been an important boost for our campaign,” Ige said. I am also very honored to be supported by two former governors who know what it’s like to make tough decisions while moving our state forward – Govs. George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano.”

Abercrombie’s campaign press secretary Shane Peters said, “There’s little downside to being endorsed. However, it takes hard work to make sure that the support you receive from the union translates into votes from their membership and manpower in the field.”

Ige didn’t note any downsides to being endorsed, but pointed to what’s important to his campaign. “Above all, I am endorsed by the many hard-working individuals across the state, on every island, who have donated to my campaign in amounts less than $100. They comprise the majority of my contributions, and their grassroots support drives my campaign.”

But the endorsements that really matter don’t come in the form of press releases, articles or union-approved candidate lists, Ige said. “The endorsement that matters the most is the vote each citizen is entitled to cast.”