The New York Times editorial page, to its credit, recognizes that newspaper endorsements still have the potential to influence elections—especially the Democratic primaries in which a substantial portion of paper’s readers, and those who might be influenced by the paper’s stance, are inclined to participate. Yet, bizarrely, the editors of the Times keep missing the strategic mark when it comes to helping the candidates and the causes they favor.
That happened a year ago, when the Times sent a confusing signal regarding the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
It has happened again this year, as the paper has failed to provide voters with useful guidance regarding the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York.
My point here is not to celebrate or denigrate the candidates the editors of the Times choose to endorse. Their picks in these races were not necessarily my choices, but they were credible. What I am noting is the failure on the part of the Times to deliver endorsements that speak to the structural realities of races in which the editors are asking voters to consider the paper’s favored contenders.
There’s nothing wrong with the Times seeking to influence the decisions made by voters. Nor is there much question that the paper’s editors would like to play a definitional role in Democratic primaries—“Many primary voters say they haven’t made up their minds. So we’d like to help them,” announced the mayoral endorsement that the paper published May 10. Yet the paper’s editors keep refusing to recognize the dynamics of the races on which they are weighing in editorially.
This was jarringly evident in January 2020. At a point when Elizabeth Warren still appeared to have a chance of taking off as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, the Times editorial page could have provided the liberal senator from Massachusetts with a major boost. A robust endorsement from the paper was just what Warren needed at a critical juncture in the race where polls showed her in a competitive third-place position and a few had her in second place with well over 20 percent support.
Instead, in mid-January, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the Times gave Warren the opposite of a robust endorsement. The editors backed Warren, as many had expected. But they also backed Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, whom most polls had running eighth in the multicandidate field. A number of January polls showed Klobuchar garnering just 2 percent of the vote. A Reuters survey had her at 1 percent.
The failure of the Times to take a clear and coherent position denied Warren the benefits she might have reaped from full-throated endorsement. It probably got some Democrats to take a second look at Klobuchar. But the dual endorsement still robbed the two contenders of the opportunity to build momentum with voters who could only choose one candidate in New Hampshire and later primaries, and who were expected to caucus for an individual contender in the convoluted Iowa caucuses. (The caucus rules made it possible for supporters of candidates who fell below a 15 percent threshold to shift their backing to another candidate, but there was little evidence of meaningful Klobuchar-to-Warren or Warren-to-Klobuchar patterns.)
Warren finished a third in Iowa, while Klobuchar finished fifth. In New Hampshire, Klobuchar moved up to third place (after collecting a number of clear endorsements from papers in the state), while Warren fell to a weak fourth position. By the first week in March, both candidates were out of the running, having fallen far behind the two contenders that the Times pointedly did not endorse: eventual winner Joe Biden and second-place finisher Bernie Sanders.
It’s fair to say the duo endorsement by “the paper of record” was a flop.
Fast forward to 2021 and another crowded Democratic primary race: this time for mayor of New York.
But there’s a twist. Unlike the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, the mayoral race will be decided by ranked-choice voting. That means New York Democrats can rank their choices from one to five. If a voter’s first choice falls short, her support then shifts to the second choice, and the process continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent. (Here’s an explanation of ranked-choice voting, with links to videos that show how the process works.)
Finally, the Times had an opportunity to endorse multiple candidates in a race where that might actually be helpful to voters—and, presumably, beneficial to the endorsees.
So what did editors of the Times do?
Offer a smart, easy-to-use proposal for how voters might rank their top five Democrats? No.
Offer another duo endorsement? No.
The Times went with one candidate: former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia. A veteran of the mayoral administrations of Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, Garcia is a credible contender who is generally seen as a centrist in a race that features several other centrists and several progressives. The Times endorsement, along with that of the New York Daily News (which signaled in its extended editorial toward a top three: Garcia, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Citigroup executive Ray McGuire), has helped Garcia.
Unlike the Daily News, the Times gave no hint on how voters might rank a top five, or even a top two or three. That was particularly harmful for a candidate such as Maya Wiley, the civil rights lawyer and former chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, who is starting to look like the candidate who is best positioned to consolidate progressive support.
If the Times had done a 2021 variation on the Warren-Klobuchar endorsement of 2020, it could have helped two (or more) candidates. And it could have helped voters who can maximize their own influence on the race by ranking multiple contenders.
Unfortunately, the Times editors, who seemed to imagine that ranked-choice voting was a prospect in 2020, refused to recognize that it is not just a prospect but a reality in 2021.