This may come as a shock to most of you, but: newspaper endorsements in the race for the White House do seem to matter (at least a little). It’s become fashionable to argue otherwise, and with good reason. Newspaper circulation has plunged in recent years and most people clearly get their opinions from TV and radio, often in an echo chamber, without competing views to trouble their minds.
I would certainly never argue that editorial endorsements are key today, but judging from my experience in 2004 and 2008, they should not be ignored. Candidates certainly don’t, as they often make time in their busy schedules to sit down with newspaper editorial boards.
Also, consider this: while readership of print editions has certainly declined, most newspapers actually have more readers these days, because of the same news outlet that has doomed the dead-tree editions: the Internet. And editorial endorsements do get major play on the web when they do appear.
Now, to 2008. As editor of Editor & Publisher from 2002–09, I became quite aware of the publication’s history with this endorsement business. Going back to the early of the previous century, it had charted newspaper endorsements in presidential races—not as they happened (news practically traveled by Pony Express back then) but after the fact. They’d send out postcards to thousands of daily newspapers seeking how they “voted” and then compiled the results.
But in a new century, we could just go online every day and search for such endorsements. We did that in 2004 for Bush vs. Kerry (newspapers were about evenly split) and then in 2008. We even listed the circulation of each paper as it made its pick, and kept a running rally of how many millions were in which candidate’s corner.
Last time around, as we went along, it seemed obvious to us that Obama was catching fire. We noted each time a major paper that had backed Bush in 2004 had swung over to Obama—and there were many of them. He easily topped McCain in both the number of papers backing him and in the circulation numbers. Our chart gained wide national play as the authoritative source, with regular links via the likes of NBC’s Chuck Todd and many others.
But I didn’t let it go at that. Two days before Election Day, I really went out on a limb and predicted which candidates would win in the thirteen key “toss-up” states based purely on newspaper endorsements in those states—not polls or common sense or anything else. And what happened? I got them right, except for one. It had to be a better batting average than virtually anyone else.
The same thing had happened in 2004—when I got fourteen out of fifteen correct, in a much tighter race.
Again, I’m not saying newspaper endorsements in this day and age count for much—but they do count. Or at least they did, as recently as 2008. Or seemed to. (Wikipedia has a rundown for 2008 based largely on E&P’s work.)
So we’ll be attempting to chart newspaper endorsements here at The Nation starting in a few days. We’re aware of only one major endorsement so far—for Romney, from the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was recently purchased by right-wing local business interests. (That was one of the many papers that switched from Bush to Obama in 2008.) My assistant Steven Hsieh will be helping out. We probably can’t do as complete a job as we did at E&P—for one thing, editors at dozens of smaller papers would e-mail me their picks, making our job easier—but we’ll surely get all of the major ones and many others. So stay tuned. And then I’ll call the election for you, again, in early November.