Ethnic voting has always played a role in Hawai'i politics, but never so much as in the crowded Democratic primary to replace Rep. Ed Case in the 2nd Congressional District.
With eight current or former elected officials competing for the nomination — many of whom hold similar views on top issues — it becomes difficult for any candidate to get significant media attention.
This magnifies the importance of name recognition, which is tied directly to ethnic bloc voting.
State Sen. Clayton Hee, a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, has made the ethnic vote the focal point of his congressional campaign by attaching himself to the hip of Daniel Akaka in hope of winning the large Native Hawaiian vote expected to turn out to support Akaka in his U.S. Senate race against Case.
Hee's strategists figure the AJA vote will split among former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, former Sen. Matt Matsunaga and Sen. Colleen Hanabusa; the Filipino vote between Sen. Ron Menor and Councilman Nestor Garcia; and the haole vote between Rep. Brian Schatz and Sen. Gary Hooser.
If Hee can get nearly all of the Hawaiian votes, they conjecture, he could carry the day in a contest that theoretically could be won with a plurality of as little as 13 percent.
The possible flaw in Hee's thinking is that Hanabusa also enjoys considerable Hawaiian support as the senator representing the Wai'anae Coast and as chairwoman of the Senate's Hawaiian Affairs Committee.
Hirono's recipe for success throws a good measure of gender into the ethnic mix.
A rap on Hirono when she was lieutenant governor was that she spent too much time attending women's conferences on the Mainland and not enough time being visible in Hawai'i and preparing to run for governor.
The price was that she became the first Democrat to lose the governorship in 40 years, being soundly defeated in 2002 by Republican Linda Lingle.
But now, the contacts she made with national women's organizations are paying off in the race for Congress, where she is considered the early front-runner.
Last week, she received the endorsement of Emily's List, the nation's largest grassroots network for female office-seekers with more than 100,000 members, including 400 in Hawai'i.
The group favors women who are for abortion rights, curiously ignoring that most of the men in the 2nd District contest are also strongly for abortion rights.
Earlier, Hirono amassed an extensive roster of local female supporters in a group she dubbed "A-Mazie-ng Women."
With the relatively small plurality she could need to win, getting a lopsided share of the female vote would be an obvious advantage for Hirono.
But the risk of playing the gender card so aggressively is that she could seriously antagonize male voters.
Her appeal to the female vote already grates with prominent male Democrats in and out of the congressional race, who wonder if a man could get away with such a blatant pitch for the male vote.
How much outrage and derision would there be, for instance, if Hooser formed a support group called "Gary's G-rrr-eat Guys?"
Obviously, considerations of name recognition, ethnicity and gender are not the best way to decide an election for one of our most important offices.
The only way around it is if the news media commit to the kind of nitty-gritty coverage of this campaign that draws out candidate differences on policy, character and style that should stand out as primary concerns of the electorate.
Then voters must make the effort to inform themselves on these matters instead of taking the lazy way out and casting ballots on the basis of superficial demographic identification.
David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.