11/02/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

In Praise of Newspaper Endorsements

As of today, 63 of the nation's 100 largest newspapers have endorsed either Romney or Obama. Nine more decided not to endorse a candidate. A few more will endorse in the days ahead.

These data are a small part of the massive American Presidency Project (APP), at UCSB. The APP has consolidated, coded, and organized presidential data into a single searchable database. My colleague Gerhard Peters and I established the project in 1999.

The current "smart" view of editorial endorsements is that they are an ineffectual relic of a bygone era. But I believe we should welcome and promote newspapers' editorial endorsements.

I see two main benefits:

First, most newspaper endorsements model how to weigh complex evidence carefully and explicitly. In short, they show us how to deliberate.

Second, taken as a group, endorsement editorials help to clarify a president's mandate.

What priorities could a new president claim were backed by thoughtful, informed voters?

Not a horserace. Alas, the APP box-score promotes a horserace view of endorsements. So, as of now, there are 35 editorials for Obama, 28 for Romney, and nine not endorsing. Moreover, 10 papers endorsed Obama in 2008 but have chosen to endorse Romney in 2012.

That's all interesting, but those facts distract from the substance and meaning of the election. This election is a large fight between priorities and programs -- about the economy, the deficit, the debt, healthcare, gender equity, foreign policy, the Supreme Court, and so forth. It's a big deal.

Remarkably, nearly every endorsement editorial I have seen reflects thoughtfully on the meaning of the election. Of course, editorial boards weight the issues differently. But from the smallest paper to the largest, they identify priority issues and say what they think the evidence shows. It is helpful even for a political junkie.

The largest paper endorsing Obama, the New York Times, also backed him in 2008. The Times compares the candidates in five broad issue areas. They start with health care, not the economy. Their statement is impressive and will resonate with almost any liberal. But the Times is critical of the Obama record on many points.

The largest paper endorsing Romney, the New York Post, backed McCain in 2008. The Post discusses two issues, the economy and America's standing in the world. The Post argues that Obama's failures in both areas have been large. Romney performed well in the debates and has a record of working with Democrats in Massachusetts. Even in the more hyperbolic language of the Post, the focus is on facts as they relate to big issues. It's a basis for a discussion.

The mandate. These editorials give a clear sense of priorities, and whoever wins should pay attention. Let's focus on the "switchers," the papers that changed from one party in 2008 to another in 2012 (10 of 11 have gone from Obama to Romney). These papers almost unanimously hope for flexible, bipartisan solutions to our deficit and debt problems. They worry about the future of Medicare and Social Security.

They do not want what the Nashville Tennessean called "tea-vangelical" social policy. The Orlando Sentinel wrote, "[W]e've been turned off by [Romney's] appeals to social conservatives and immigration extremists." The Houston Chronicle endorsed "the Massachusetts moderate who worked successfully along side an 88 percent Democratic majority in the state Legislature to produce what the Obama administration says became its model for national health care reform."

Statements like these help clarify what a Romney mandate might be.

Social scientists tell us that editorial endorsements don't matter because it is hard to demonstrate that they sway votes. Journalists fret that the views of the editorial page may seem to impart a bias to the paper's news reporting. With so much information available to ordinary voters these days, isn't it somehow arrogant for an editorial board to write as if they have special information or wisdom? Ironically, several papers have said that only if they could interview candidates personally would they have sufficient basis for writing an endorsement editorial.

I think these observations miss the point. We need more, not fewer, examples of calm reasoned argument. A good editorial may contribute to more informed and thoughtful voting even if it does not change a single mind. That's beneficial. A focus on doing whatever it takes to sway votes has gotten us the ugly politics we now endure.

We get useful information from the way newspaper editors, as opinion leaders, evaluate a common set of circumstances -- even in the age of Twitter and Google.

Dropping presidential endorsements will have little or no effect on readers who fear editorial bias may infect news reporting. Readers may have ample reason to suspect bias without ever seeing an endorsement of a candidate. The Wall Street Journal makes no political endorsements, but I have no doubts about the stance of the editorial page. Thus, I need to assess whether the reporting seems biased in any case. Most papers that have dropped presidential endorsements continue to make a vast array of other political endorsements.

So, hurray for endorsements! I encourage you to actually read the endorsements, not just our APP tallies. At the APP, you can link directly to the editorials to benefit from their analysis.

John T. Woolley is professor of political science at UCSB and co-director of the American Presidency Project