It’s long been apparent that newspaper endorsements for high political office are rarely decisive.
Back in 1897, when print made up the mass media, newspapers were shocked when their endorsements had little impact on the outcome of the New York City mayoral election.
The Tammany Hall candidate, an obscure judge named Robert A. Van Wyck, won the election decisively — without giving a speech and without receiving the editorial support of the city’s leading newspapers.
Nowadays, in a world of myriad digital options, many U.S. daily newspapers are but shells of their former selves. Few of them really presume to set an agenda for their communities and their endorsements for high political office are all but irrelevant. More than a handful of newspapers no longer endorse candidates for president.
Still, it is conceivable that newspaper endorsements could make a difference in close elections in a few places in tomorrow’s presidential election. Enough readers could take cues from newspaper endorsements to tip the outcome in very tight races — as perhaps in Iowa and Florida.
It’s speculative, but not implausible.
In Iowa and Florida, prominent newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 are backing Republican Mitt Romney this year. And the Obama-Romney race is close in both states. Polling data compiled and aggregated at RealClearPolitics indicate that Obama leads by three percentage points in Iowa and that Romney is narrowly ahead in Florida.
The largest-circulation newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, has endorsed Romney, citing his “strong record of achievement in both the private and public sectors.”
In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel have come out for Romney.
The Sentinel asserted in its editorial endorsement: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.”
And the Sun-Sentinel said: “When President Obama came into office in 2009, the economy was in freefall and though untested, he inspired us with his promise of hope and change. Now, four years later, we have little reason to believe he can turn things around.
“So while we endorsed Obama in 2008, we recommend voters choose Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.”
That those newspapers have turned away from Obama probably matters much only to a few readers. But editorial endorsements that sway even a few readers could make a difference if the statewide race is very close.
This point was made the other day by a leading political analyst and numbers-cruncher, Michael Barone. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Barone said the Des Moines Register’s endorsement “could make a significant difference” in the outcome in Iowa.
Some indirect evidence suggests that newspaper endorsements can signal the outcomes of close races.
Greg Mitchell, formerly editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in a recent commentary at the Nation that just before the presidential election in 2008, he “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.”
Mitchell said he “got them right, except for one.”
Based on newspaper endorsements in swing states this year, Mitchell has predicted that Obama will narrowly defeat Romney. Mitchell’s breakdown has five swing states for Obama, five for Romney, and one (Virginia) undecided, which seems more like a toss-up.
In any case, data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, show that 12 newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 are supporting Romney this year. They include the New York Daily News, the country’s fifth-largest newspaper, and Newsday of Long Island, the 13th largest daily.
Those endorsements aren’t likely to matter much, though, given that Obama is a sure bet to carry New York State.
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