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Prehistoric Print Endorsements?

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It's newspaper endorsement season once more, and the rival Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune have cooked up different recipes for eager readers and recalcitrant voters. With the February 2 state primary in Illinois inching ever closer, these major dailies clearly feel obligated to weigh in on what to date has been a muddled field, but to what effect? In an era of declining readership and a politically disengaged populace, do newspaper endorsements reflect little more than the proverbial tree falling in a desolate forest?

I would suggest that there still is a place for newspaper endorsements, even if voters are unlikely to read them in print form, if at all. Research suggests that editorial endorsements do sway voters in political contests down the ballot. For example, the Tribune's endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election likely had little impact on his historic victory, but their picks for comptroller and treasurer this morning may push little known candidates S. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Robin Kelly, respectively, over the top.

Moreover, in a truncated primary season like this one, political information is at a premium, and the newspapers provide arguably the most objective, accessible, and thorough source. Ten-second soundbytes on local television emphasizing only the most visible races like governor tell us little about who should be his second-in-command. Given that Pat Quinn currently resides in the Governor's mansion even though he was twice elected to a lesser position, the importance of this office and others cannot be overstated.

On top of that, many of the primary fields are quite crowded with candidates assuming policy positions that are difficult to distinguish from one another. Editorial boards have the luxury of unencumbered face time with most of these office seekers, and separate the wheat from the chafe for those of us in search of shortcuts as we lead otherwise busy lives.

For example, the Sun-Times selected State Senator Kirk Dillard from a crowded Republican gubernatorial field, and Quinn in a competitive contest with Comptroller Dan Hynes. They centered on Dillard's vast Springfield experience and ability to work across the aisle, and Quinn's steady hand since assuming the reigns a year ago from the impeached Blagojevich.

The Tribune, on the other hand, offers up Andy McKenna on the Republican side and refuses to endorse either Quinn or Hynes for the Democrats. McKenna is elevated for his fiscal austerity and business background, while the Democrats are assailed for Quinn's failure to lead on political reform and budget balancing, and Hynes' refusal to take on entrenched interests and support pension reform.

Where does this leave Democratic voters, you might ask?

I would argue it exemplifies the role of editorial endorsements themselves. They are merely suggestive information pieces that voters can consult to shape their ballot box decisions. Surely they operate within a complicated matrix of other guideposts like political parties, peer networks, personal appeals, policy positions, social media outreach, and television, radio, direct mail, and Internet advertisements.

I might add that this voter in waiting is eagerly anticipating the newspapers' take on who should lead the Cook County Water Reclamation District.