Politics & Policy

The Power and The Promise

Editorial endorsements in a multimedia age.

The Lone Star Iconoclast, George W. Bush’s hometown paper, is backing John Kerry this year. That’s a change from 2000 when the weekly endorsed the hometown boy. It’s impossible to know how much influence the Crawford, Texas, weekly’s endorsement will have on its 425 subscribers, but no one expects the state of Texas to end up in the Democratic column next month. John Kerry’s hometown paper the Lowell Sun, a larger daily, recently endorsed George W. Bush. It’s safe to say that Massachusetts won’t go Republican.

Newspaper editorial endorsements still are sought after, but at a presidential level, they do not have the power they once had.

During the Democratic primary contest earlier this year, a surprise endorsement by the Des Moines Register-Tribune helped John Edwards win a strong second place in Iowa and in Oklahoma. Gen. Wesley Clark won his only victory with the help of the Lawton Constitution and the Norman Transcript endorsements. Editorials can have an effect on primaries where the candidates are less known.

Nationally, the number of newspapers making editorial endorsements in the final weeks of campaigns has been declining. A quarter century ago, virtually all the nation’s newspapers made them. This year, 30 percent of America’s newspapers may make no presidential endorsement.

My new survey of large and small newspapers reveals that most editors and publishers believe the presidential endorsement editorials define the soul of their newspapers and, thus, still are very important.

Tony Ridder, CEO of Knight Ridder Newspapers, spoke for many of his peers when he said that endorsement editorials “provide an important statement of the politics of the newspaper. Just as we do on other issues, we have an obligation to tell our readers what we think. Too many voters’ decisions are made without debate…. We do a service when we cause a voter to think about issues.”

Ridder shares the view of many newspaper leaders, however, when he says that endorsements have “little influence on how people vote.”

Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, put this sentiment succinctly when asked about the power of presidential endorsements. “Zip,” he says, even though his paper will probably make one this year.

Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, believes that his paper’s endorsement in primary elections, before voters have solidified their views, may have more influence than what the newspaper says in the general election.

Those surveyed agreed that declines in newspaper circulation and the wide disbursement of information sources create an atmosphere where most readers are more likely to make up their own minds regardless of the position taken by their newspaper.

“TV ads swamp the scene,” says Jack Rosenthal, veteran New York Times editorial-page editor who now heads the paper’s foundation. Newspaper endorsements are still more influential than radio or TV. Radio talk shows have increased their impact, but most studies show that their power is with those seeking confirmation of their own views.

Although the power of presidential endorsements has been diluted over the years, a recognition of their lingering importance probably explains why the Bush and Kerry campaigns are actively seeking them.

John Kerry, who has met with several editorial boards and has a program in which surrogates call on other newspapers, appears to be placing emphasis on them. And his efforts seem to be paying off. Editor and Publisher reported that Kerry has won the backing of five dailies with a total circulation of 881,012 compared to George Bush’s four papers with a circulation of 323,743. And just this weekend the New York Times weighed in with an endorsement of John Kerry.

Bush has met with regional groups of news people and with the editorial board of the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. He has depended more on his vice president, Dick Cheney, to make other personal editorial-board calls. Allison Dobson, a spokesperson for the Kerry campaign is right when she says, “Everything is important in swing states.”

Both campaigns believe early endorsements are most important. The early ones reach the increasing numbers of absentee ballot voters, and they can be used in direct mail or TV ads to increase momentum.

The newspaper endorsements with the biggest power punch are those discussing state and local issues and local candidates. They change elections.

This year, however, there may be some exceptions nationally. In closely contested presidential battleground states, strongly persuasive editorials may move undecided voters.

Editorial endorsements still have the power to provoke. In 2000, several papers including the Seattle Times, the Portland Oregonian, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, unexpectedly endorsed George Bush, prompting readers to decry an “October Surprise.” According to Editor and Publisher, the Seattle Times endorsement brought more than 1,000 telephone calls, e-mails, and letters four years ago. With this year’s divided electorate, it’s a safe bet that editorial endorsements, where they are made, will provoke, but perhaps not persuade.

Herb Klein, an American Enterprise Institute National Fellow, was White House communications director from 1969 to 1973. He retired in 2003 as vice president and editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers.

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