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Does Anyone Really Care About Newspaper Endorsements?

Yesterday was another big day for newspaper Editorial Page endorsements, some of them surprising, some of them not so much. The Salt Lake City Tribune, which had endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008, endorsed President Obama again this year. The Denver Post also endorsed the President for re-election, as did Florida’s largest newspaper, The Tampa Bay Times. On the other side of the equation, The Orlando Sentinel, which had endorsed Obama in 2008, came out for Mitt Romney this time around. There have been several other newspaper endorsements before this, and there will be many more to come between now and the election, most of which will be entirely predictable.

The one question I have about all of it is, who the heck cares about newspaper endorsements?

There was a time, of course, when newspapers were far more explicitly partisan than they are today, not just in their editorials but also in their news coverage. Even after that era passed, newspaper endorsements used to hold great sway especially in large cities. However, I honestly have to wonder what value these endorsements have in an era when anyone with an Internet connection can find out whatever they want to know about any candidate for any office. If there really are people out there who end up deciding who they are going to vote for based on who gets endorsed by a self-appointed board of experts who happen to have access to a newspaper’s Editorial Page, then I have to wonder about their own thinking capacities. Are there really people out there who are so devoid of critical judgement that they base their voting decisions on who some group of anonymous people decided to endorse? As I’ve admitted before, I hardly fall into the category of the “typical voter,” but I quite honestly cannot understand a person who would be influenced by what someone else tells them in an anonymous editorial.

Greg Mitchell, who was formerly an editor at Editor & Publisher, a publication that covers the newspaper industry, argues that endorsements do still matter, at least somewhat:

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.

I’m not sure what this “test” actually proves, though. Perhaps there’s some correlation between endorsements and a candidates victory, but as we all know correlation does not prove causation. The fact that, to  pick one example, Obama might have won more endorsements from newspapers covering Virginia and then gone on to win the state doesn’t mean that the endorsements had anything to do with his victory.  Indeed, the only way you can truly say that endorsements have any impact at all on an election would be to study the polls prior to the endorsement and compare them to both polls after the election and the election results themselves. If there’s no measurable impact as I suspect in most cases there won’t be, then the idea that newspaper endorsements have any impact on political races at all, especially at the national level, is simply unsupportable. For example, as I noted above, The Salt Lake City Tribune endorsed President Obama yesterday, as they did in 2008. John McCain won Utah by more than 270,000 votes, and Mitt Romney will win the state this year by a similar margin. Clearly, the Tribune’s readers really didn’t care who they endorsed.

So, tell me, am I missing something here? Because it seems to me like newspaper endorsements are completely pointless.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I’m sensing a theme here.

    More and more traditionally liberal newspapers endorse Romney.

    Spin: newspaper endorsements don’t matter.

    Polls show better and better odds for Romney’s election.

    Spin: Those polls don’t really count.

    The electoral college seems to be tilting more and more towards Romney.

    Spin: the popular vote is what should matter.

    Keep on whistling, folks… you’re almost past the graveyard…

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 31

  2. Jenos,

    Your paranoia is showing.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 3

  3. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: @Doug Mataconis: Your paranoia is showing.

    I hate to nit-pick on typos, Doug, but you misspelled “amusement.”

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 20

  4. JoshB says:

    From reading memeorandum, when a paper endorses Romney, it’s big news and must be a sign of the pending victory. When a paper endorses Obama, it’s nothing more than a liberal rag and endorsements are dumb. There seems to be literally nothing in the world that will pierce the bubble of their alternate universe. I cannot even fathom how they will spin on November 7.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    There was a time, of course, when newspapers were far more explicitly partisan than they are today, not just in their editorials but also in their news coverage.

    That must have been a surreal time. I can’t even fathom something being more explicitly partisan than today’s shotgun blast of liberal Democrat talking points masquerading as a newspaper industry.

    Back in the mid-1990’s I worked for a law firm that represented a lot of the major newspaper publishers. Even back then circulation managers were all gloom and doom over their declining fortunes. And between you and me and the four walls even back then they already were fudging their circulation figures. Counting free papers delivered unilaterally as “circulation.” Counting papers delivered after people cancelled their subscriptions as “circulation.” Counting unread papers left in racks as “circulation.”

    The more germane question regarding the newspaper industry is whether people even care about newspapers. Based upon the catastrophic declines in readership over the past couple of decades, and given that the trend line only is for additional and steeper declines, and to a large extent their remaining readership consists of people already into their 70’s and beyond, I think we already know the answer to that question and further we already know how the end game will play out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 11

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Are there really people out there who are so devoid of critical judgement that they base their voting decisions on who some group of anonymous people decided to endorse?

    Are there really people out there who are so devoid of critical judgement that they base their voting decisions on who some group of anonymous people decided to endorse they change what they actually think based on what some guy named Doug Mataconis thinks?

    So Doug, why blog? So you can argue with someone? Well, I suppose it is cheaper than marriage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 5

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    That must have been a surreal time. I can’t even fathom something being more explicitly partisan than today’s shotgun blast of liberal Democrat talking points masquerading as a newspaper industry.

    I was going to mock you for that statement Tsar, but instead I think l I will just point out that you watch Fox news and listen to Rush Limbaugh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: At least in terms of Electoral/popular vote, you have it backwards. It’s quite possible that Romney will win the popular vote comfortably and yet lose the election; much more likely than Obama doing that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    anyone with an Internet connection can find out whatever they want to know about any candidate for any office.

    It is true. Just look up Mitt and you will find that he is both pro-life and pro-choice. He is going to cut taxes and not cut taxes. He is going to increase defense spending and balance the budget while not ending the most popular tax deductions.

    I tell you, whatever you want Mitt to be, you can find it on the internet!

    and with that, I have to go. play nice now, tom

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  10. Tillman says:

    A poll won’t have an impact on the race either. They’re signalers of public opinion, and campaigns react to them. Same thing with newspaper endorsements. Probably to a lesser degree nowadays, as you note.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. bk says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I can’t even fathom something being more explicitly partisan than today’s shotgun blast of liberal Democrat talking points masquerading as a newspaper industry.

    Yawn. Why don’t you just say “lamestream media”? Fewer keystrokes (but equally lame).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    What I’m keeping track of over at my place is the papers that endorse candidates of different parties than those they endorsed last time around without change in ownership. As Tillman, above, noted the endorsements are useful barometers.

    Additionally, they may have some small influence at the margins. If the election is one determined at the margins, as seems likely, a small influence could be significant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. JoshB says:

    When it comes to local matters, I actually do defer a lot more to my local paper (Tampa Bay Times). I can only follow so many races at a time and I trust the editorial board. Hell, I’m even voting for the republican sheriff due to their well-reasoned endorsement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. mantis says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I can’t even fathom something being more explicitly partisan than today’s shotgun blast of liberal Democrat talking points masquerading as a newspaper industry.

    I too am sick of masquerading shotgun blasts!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. mantis says:

    @JoshB:

    When it comes to local matters, I actually do defer a lot more to my local paper (Tampa Bay Times).

    You have a very high quality local paper thanks largely to Nelson Poynter. People in other areas may not be so lucky.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  16. michael reynolds says:

    Ward and June Cleaver care a lot about newspaper endorsements. And I believe the Beaver delivers said newspapers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  17. EMRVentures says:

    I admit to being a newspaper sentimentalist, and wish their endorsements still mattered. I grew up with one of the greatest newspapers ever — Newsday in the 70s and 80s. Yeah, you can ding it for being liberal, but just their sports pages back in the glory days — Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobsen, Tom Verducci, Peter King, Joe Gergen. And the columns — Murray Kempton, Ed Lowe, Les Payne.

    And big. You could kill a man if you dropped a Sunday Newsday on him.

    It pains me now when I go home to visit my parents to see the sad shadow of its former self that Newsday has become, Its endorsements used to matter, when the paper mattered. No longer, alas. That’s a gap that the internet hasn’t figured out how to fill, just yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. DC Loser says:

    And big. You could kill a man if you dropped a Sunday Newsday on him.

    I used to put together Sunday papers for my dad during that period. Nothing came close to the heft of a NY Times Sunday edition. That sucker had about twice the throw weight of Newday and about 3x that of the Daily News.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. EMRVentures says:

    Yeah, a Sunday Times probably weighed about as much as an adult raccoon back in the day, but a Sunday Newsday was nothing to sneeze at either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. C. Clavin says:

    Of course Doug is out today belittling endorsements…here’s what the SLC Tribune endorsement said about his guy Slick Willard…

    TOO MANY MITTS
    From his embrace of the party’s radical right wing, to subsequent portrayals of himself as a moderate champion of the middle class, Romney has raised the most frequently asked question of the campaign: “Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe?”

    The evidence suggests no clear answer, or at least one that would survive Romney’s next speech or sound bite. Politicians routinely tailor their words to suit an audience. Romney, though, is shameless, lavishing vastly diverse audiences with words, any words, they would trade their votes to hear.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sNGZil616ug
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZfXvFAeHVo&feature=relmfu

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  21. Stonetools says:

    For older people who don’t do computers-and there are plenty of those still- newspaper endorsements may matter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  22. JKB says:

    There is an option not yet explored. Namely, coming late in the game, the newspaper endorsements could be a reflection of the local sentiments, even unintentionally.

    As to who cares, bloggers care..in some odd tribute to the ancient form of current affairs/political blogs that the editorial pages are. But overall, no, as they are no longer the only blog in town.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. al-Ameda says:

    I’ve been voting for 40 years and not once have I voted on the basis of an editorial recommendation.

    I’ve never cared what the editorial board of any newspaper endorses. Why would I presume that unknown editorial board members know more about any candidate or any issue than I do?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. rudderpedals says:

    @C. Clavin: Right you are. The Salt Lake City paper’s damning disendorsement of Romney is the buried lede.

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Which “liberal” papers endorse Romney? You called out the Sentinel and that’s not a lib rag, not sure which ones you’re referring to?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  25. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Ward and June Cleaver care a lot about newspaper endorsements. And I believe the Beaver delivers said newspapers.

    Well, heck yeah Michael ….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. bill says:

    well since there’s really not many newspapers left (circulation-wise) i guess the point is moot, and finding one that’s non-partisan, good luck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. rubberpedals,

    THe Tribune endorsed Obama four years ago, it’s no surprise at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Davebo says:

    THe Tribune endorsed Obama four years ago, it’s no surprise at all.

    Four years ago Obama wasn’t running against the “Mormon in Chief”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. Davebo,

    The Salt Lake City Tribune isn’t owned by Mormons. It’s owned by a privately held corporation based in Denver

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  30. James H says:

    I doubt that my local newspaper’s endorsement will shift my vote for president.. But state and local offices are another matter. I still vote for state and local offices, but I don’t follow the contests nearly as closely as I should. If my local newspaper endorses Joe Schmoe for the state legislature over his opponent Jane Doe, I want to know about it. Even if I vote for Doe over Schmoe, I still find it helpful to see why the paper endorsed Schmoe. A well-written endorsement editorial will recap the major issues in the election and summarize where each candidate stands on those issues.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  31. rudderpedals says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Surprise-by-endorsement is subjective. I believe you that you’re not surprised by the paper serving a predominantly Mormon region rejecting the favorite son candidate – and not in a nice way – but I sure as heck am.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  32. rubberpedals,

    You assume people care who a newspaper endorses.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  33. jukeboxgrad says:

    JoshB, I hate it when I do this. I was going to click on the green button, and my finger slipped and I clicked on the red button. Sorry about that. Just wanted you to know.

    I hate Disqus passionately, but at least one nice thing is they let you undo a vote.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. john personna says:

    I posted a bit a while back on cognitive science and the expert idea of what makes people change positions. One main idea was that if trusted sources surprise you with their position, you listen. By that, a trusted paper that surprises, or flips, might matter. Like the Orlando Sentinel example above … for whoever it is who has a pre-existing trust of the Orlando Sentinel.

    Anyone without a strong binding to the paper in question will just do their confirmation bias.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  35. john personna says:

    (This might suggest that bloggers should mind their trust-reputation, if they aspire to change minds.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  36. Just Me says:

    The two large papers with circulation in my area are still pretty explicitly partisan.

    I can tell you right now that one of them will be endorsing Obama and all the down ticket democrats.

    The other paper will endorse Romney and very likely all the down ticket republicans (although they aren’t quite as pure partisan-the Democratic governor stepping down this year was previously endorsed during his other elections by the more conservative paper).

    However as far as how meaningful the endorsements are to the average voter, I would say probably not. I am hard pressed to think of anyone who says they chose their candidates based on newspaper endorsements. I do think side by side comparisons on issues etc may be helpful, but I suspect anymore most people get their information from the internet or more likely TV news.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Moderate Mom says:

    The Tennessean in Nashville endorsed Romney, which was surprising. Nashville, along with Memphis, is a reliably Democratic stronghold in the state, and the Tennessean endorsed Obama in 2008. If the Commercial Appeal winds up endorsing Romney, I’ll probably faint.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  38. jukeboxgrad says:

    anyone with an Internet connection can find out whatever they want to know about any candidate for any office

    Good point. For example, a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to find out all the details of Mitt’s tax plan. They’re here:

    http://www.romneytaxplan.com

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  39. Tillman says:

    @Just Me:

    I am hard pressed to think of anyone who says they chose their candidates based on newspaper endorsements.

    That’s because no one says that. They’d come off looking like a tool. It doesn’t mean a newspaper endorsement didn’t sway their thinking.

    Anyone doubting the efficacy of newspaper endorsements needs to remember that in an age when independent, critical thought is highly praised, you’re not likely to hear people admit to farming their opinions out to a newspaper. They’d use the same reasoning al-Ameda did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  40. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I agree with others that I look to the local paper for information on state and local races and referendum.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  41. bk says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    The Tennessean in Nashville endorsed Romney, which was surprising. Nashville, along with Memphis, is a reliably Democratic stronghold in the state, and the Tennessean endorsed Obama in 2008. If the Commercial Appeal winds up endorsing Romney, I’ll probably faint.

    Whoa! This could be a real game changer! I remember in 2000 how their endorsements of Gore allowed him to carry his home state and capture the election.

    Wait – whut?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  42. bk says:

    I live in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal would endorse Attila the Hun if he were running.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  43. anjin-san says:

    @ Jenos Idanian

    Lack of self-insight is a symptom of paranoia. Thats actually something you should pay attention to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  44. scott says:

    @James H: This is exactly why I care about newspaper indorsements: the local downballot. Today’s paper talked about between 50-59 individual screens of ballots this year. We have a ton of council members, school board, state board of education, local initiatives, district judges, municipal judges, etc. Most of whom should just be appointed but God forbid we change that system. I rely on the local newspaper to sort out the vanity candidates from those who have actual qualifications.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. al-Ameda says:

    @Tillman:
    T

    hey’d use the same reasoning al-Ameda did.

    Not sure whether you’re slamming me or not … whatever.

    Honestly, I’ve always considered my self to be well-informed on the issues. I read the NYT, WSJ, my local papers, I always read opinion columnists, and I watch many of the opinion shows on television – I take in a lot of information concerning candidates and ballot propositions and form my own opinion. I rarely bother to read a newspaper’s general editorial recommendations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  46. C. Clavin says:
  47. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Not sure whether you’re slamming me or not … whatever.

    Don’t worry. The important thing is he noticed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  48. Tillman says:

    @al-Ameda: Not slamming you, just have heard what you wrote said before by enough people (about two, maybe three) to generalize it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  49. LC says:

    For the top of the ticket, not directly, no. I’ve never needed any help with top-of-the-ticket offices (Pres/Senator/Rep) even when I’ve been way less than enthusiastic.

    But I often have doubts about down-ticket elections and propositions (an infestation in California politics way worse than bed bugs). I use the top-of-the-ticket recommendations as a way to guage the down-ticket recommendations.

    In other words, if the paper recommends the same top-of-the-ticket choices I have made, I am more likely to rely on them for those candidates and issues about which I’m not sure. Now, before you accuse me of group-think, let me emphasize that I may still vote differently but I give the paper’s down-ticket recommendations serious consideration when we agree on the top tier – and, conversely, pretty much ignore them otherwise.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0