In the next few weeks, newspaper editorial boards (or, in some cases, merely the publisher or owner) will decide which candidate to endorse in the red-hot 2008 race for the White House. Well, many of them will, anyway. More and more papers are opting out of the endorsement process entirely, or concentrating just on local races where, the cliché holds, they "might actually make a difference."
Only a handful have declared so far, among them The Seattle Times (for Obama) and New York Post (for you know who). The latest: The Canton Repository in swing state Ohio (for Obama) and Boston Herald (you can guess).
Stated or unstated, the common belief is that newspaper picks for president are meaningless; they influence no one, especially in an era when media approval ratings in polls rival the paltry numbers for lawyers. But actually, I beg to differ with those who say endorsements have no impact. Consider my amazingly accurate 11th hour predictions in 2004-- based solely on newspaper editorials.
My magazine, Editor & Publisher, has a decades-long tradition of logging endorsements for president. I don't know how it was done in a timely fashion before the Internet Age -- the mind boggles -- but in 2004, starting in mid-September of that year, we started checking the Web for any and all newspaper endorsements.
We kept a running total of who led in the number of endorsements, as well as the audience size of the supporting papers. The lead swung back and forth several times, and it was fascinating to chart a large number of papers that backed Bush in 2000 that now chose Kerry (the Iraq war was a big factor).
It became a popular daily feature in the final weeks of the campaign. In early November 2004, our final pre-election tally found Kerry edging Bush in endorsements by 211-197, but topping him rather easily in total circ, 20.8 million to 14.6 million. Since Bush won, barely, you might say, so much for newspapers swinging the election!
But hold on for a minute. I knew that endorsements in most states really did mean nothing, since the votes of their readers were barely being contested. The race actually would be decided in a dozen or more "toss-up" states, and in these tight contests, a newspaper endorsement -- I believed -- could be key, no matter how loudly others scoffed.
So, on election eve, I probed the endorsements in 15 battleground states and awarded electoral votes to one candidate or the other solely on that basis. When the votes were counted, I had accurately picked the winner in 14 of the states, from Hawaii to New Hampshire -- including the one that would count most, Ohio. I had observed that Bush earned the nod from The Columbus Dispatch (after some ownership intervention), got a no-decision from The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and dominated in Cincinnati, Canton, and Youngstown. I had closed my awarding of Ohio with: "A slight nod to Bush, at least until the court cases begin." Ouch!
My only blunder: Florida. But I did note that if Bush won there, he would take the whole ball of wax. This is what happened.
So, did newspapers decide the election? A big maybe. But don't scoff as endorsements pile up -- for Obama, I predict, given the trend in 2004 and some of the early indications this year. (That Canton paper, for Bush in 2004, just went for Obama.) Dean Singleton, the GOP-leaning chief of the major MediaNews chain admitted to us last week that most of his editorial boards were favoring Obama this time around.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His new book, his ninth, on Iraq and the media is titled "So Wrong for So Long."