The Weight of Ink: Newspaper Endorsements in the 2016 Presidential Election

A presidential endorsement from the New York Times or the Washington Post carried national weight in elections past. And, historically, a local paper’s endorsement had the power to possibly help an undecided voter make a choice in the tough swing states.

Now, journalism has changed, and so are the weight and influence of newspaper endorsements.This election cycle, newspapers are endorsing earlier and changing their ways.

“The endorsements are indicators of broader political and social support for the candidate,” said John Brehm, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “Of course, this year’s election is so peculiar that the endorsements may matter less than in other years.”

The effects of a newspaper endorsement are up for debate in the political community, but journalists agree: they are not as important as they used to be.

“Few people get their news from one outlet, a print outlet no less,”  said Professor Robert S. Erikson of Columbia University. “At one time when I researched this I said an endorsement of a monopoly readership (the only paper in town) would be worth about 5 points.”

In the past, newspapers were the primary source of information for the majority of people and thus their endorsements had some clout, according to Jonathan Ebinger, a former editor at ABC and ESPN, and current adjunct professor at The George Washington University.

“I don’t see them carrying the weight in this day and age that they used to and I certainly don’t see them carrying the weight in this election that they might have in the past,” Ebinger continued.

Washington Post contributor and George Washington professor Danny Hayes agrees endorsement matters very little, if at all.

“Something like an endorsement probably won’t change their mind,” said Hayes. “That said, some studies find that endorsements can matter, at least at the margins.”

The endorsements that make a marginal difference are those that surprise the public. Hayes makes this argument in a 2014 article for the Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

“For example, a left-leaning editorial page’s endorsement of Republican George W. Bush was more influential than one by a conservative paper,” writes Hayes.

Erikson calls this a “man-bites-dog” endorsement and agrees that it can the most influential type of endorsement.

In this election, the Houston Chronicle’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton is key. The Chronicle has a history of endorsing conservative candidates, and of putting out their endorsement out later in the election cycle.

“We make an exception in the 2016 presidential race, because the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not merely political,” wrote the Chronicle’s Editorial Board in their endorsement. “It is something much more basic than party preference.”

The Chronicle’s endorsement gained traction, but only in breaking with long-held traditions.

While newspaper endorsements may not be as important as they have been in elections past, they are still are useful for educating the general public on government issues at every level, according to Myron Belkind, George Washington adjunct professor and former Associated Press editor.

“I think newspapers see the endorsements as an important aspect of newspapers fulfilling their role in society which is […] to inform their readers of facts in news stories and also to offer guidance on how to make decisions on behalf of the local community, the local state and the country at large,” said Belkind.

Ebinger agrees saying that editorials are intended to educate the public, thus making them continually necessary despite his questioning their importance.

“The purpose ostensibly is to educate the public and educate the readership of the newspaper,” said Ebinger.

Donald Trump has been endorsed by three New York City-based publications and one from California, all of which tout him as a champion of the working class. In addition, the papers blamed Trump’s downfalls on the media. The New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, stated “The media tried very hard to construct excuses and rationales for his success.”

The Observer also compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, referenced several successful projects and dismissed his failed ventures. The overall essence of these endorsements can be best stated by the New York Post:

“Trump has electrified the public, drawing millions of new voters to the polls and inspiring people who’d given up on ever again having a candidate who’d fight for them.”

While not always enthusiastically, 86 publications from 33 states have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, some deeming her as the lesser of two evils. But others endorsed her with more zest, portraying her as an advocate for women, minorities and middle class families. The papers also reference her past work:

“She knows the gritty specifics of health care policy, and she gained extensive foreign policy experience as secretary of state,” said the Tampa Bay Times.  General consensus of endorsing editorial boards holds that she has been training for this job for the three decades she has been in political spheres.

Clinton is currently polling an average of seven points higher than Trump and, according to Hayes, that public preference is reflected in the endorsements she has received.

“I think this reflects much of what public opinion polling shows — that many Americans have significant concerns about Trump’s fitness for office,” Hayes said. “Of course, Trump could win more endorsements the next couple of months. But the endorsement advantage for Clinton looks a lot like her advantage in the polls, as well as among political elites.”

Endorsements may not carry the weight they once did, but for now, Clinton will take hers, along with her polling advantage, into what promises to be a raucous and unpredictable fall.

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