Do Newspaper Endorsements Matter?

Yes. Kind of.

Saturday evening, October 27, 2012, I sat at my desk at the Obama re-election headquarters in Chicago, frantically hitting the refresh button on the home page of the Des Moines Register website.

The Iowa paper, which enjoys oversized influence every four years, was posting its presidential endorsement that night and I had a bad feeling.

For weeks, during our effort to win their support, the Register’s publisher, its editors and even the beat reporter covering our campaign had signaled a, well, disinterest in President Obama.

I continued to hit refresh, a knot in my stomach and beads of sweat on my brow. Then suddenly the homepage changed and a banner headline appeared. Register’s endorsement: Romney offers fresh economic vision.

Shit.

I had been unhealthily obsessed with securing this endorsement for a while and now, seeing them support Romney, loudly voiced my unhappiness. I was angry. Enraged is probably a better descriptor. (Note: I’d offer a link to the endorsement, but it doesn’t seem to exist on the Des Moines Register site)

I cared so much because it was my job. During the 2012 re-election I was charged with overseeing all of the local and regional media coverage for the Obama campaign.

In the eyes of the press and the pundits, the news wasn’t that Romney had won the backing of the paper, it was that President Obama didn’t. The paper had endorsed Obama in the general election in 2008 and it hadn’t endorsed a Republican since Nixon.

Ten days later, Obama went on to carry Iowa, wining 51.99% to 46.18% over Romney.

Political observers have long argued the value of editorials. Do undecided voters really care what a bunch of newspaper editors say about a candidate? Has any citizen entered a voting booth and cast a ballot based on an endorsement?

As of today Hillary Clinton has garnered more than 150 endorsements while Donald Trump has convinced four editorial boards, whose total combined circulation is 248,080, that he is the best choice to serve as the leader of the free world. The largest and most recent came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a paper owned by Sheldon Adelson, a mega-donor to the GOP who once promised Trump’s campaign $100 million in contributions. This tally does not include the nine publications like USA Today, which broke with its long tradition of staying out of presidential endorsements when it stated Trump is “unfit for the presidency.” Another “not Trump” endorsement came from the Deseret News, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The news outlet has not endorsed a candidate in 80 years, but wrote that Donald Trump should drop out of the race.

The New York Times wrote its first endorsement on Oct. 11, 1860 backing Abraham Lincoln and they have been a staple of politics ever since.

But do they matter?

The answer is yes, kind of. In some cases, they can underscore a prevailing narrative or demonstrate momentum. When earned, they can be used as fodder to show strength and support. As in the case of the Des Moines Register in 2012, they can also hurt a candidate who was expected to earn a paper’s backing but didn’t. Almost every major news outlet wrote about President Obama failing to win the endorsement, leading to an unpleasant, though inevitably inconsequential, 24 hours of negative media coverage for us.

Endorsements don’t just happen. For key publications at both the national and regional level, entire strategies are developed to court and persuade the people that decide on who to support. Candidates often times sit for long, broad panel interviews to detail their vision, plans and policies. Surrogates, like former Cabinet secretaries or Members of Congress, are dispatched to make the case on behalf of the candidate. Follow up calls are made.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but where the holdover tradition of endorsements carries oversized weight is in local and regional outlets, not national publications. One reason is trust. The other is age.

According to a recent Pew study, 82 percent of survey respondents trusted local media outlets either “a lot” or “some.” Compare that to 76 percent for national outlets. That same trust factor plummets to 34 percent among adults who get their news from social media.

Not surprising, the audience that prefers local news as their primary source skews older, and that’s good for campaigns. Older voters are reliable. They turn out. They require less effort to coax to the voting booth or send in absentee ballots.

At the end of the day newspaper endorsements aren’t going away and will remain a tried and true institution in politics. Whether they matter to voters remains an open question. But if I was choosing, I’d rather be Clinton with more than 150 endorsements, than Trump with four.