The Manchester Union Leader's Influence in the 1996 New Hampshire Republican Primary

Article excerpt

In a media environment dominated by large corporations answerable to stockholders, newspapers and television news programs are often criticized for being bland and inoffensive as they try to protect the financial bottom line (Picard 1998; Sanford 1999). No one, however, would ever make such a claim against the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's astonishingly aggressive, independent newspaper. For decades, its front-page, fire-breathing editorials have attacked politicians and policies in the most strident of terms, hurling such insults as "Dopey" Dwight Eisenhower, Jerry "the Jerk" Ford, and Edmund "Moscow" Muskie (cf. Buell 2000; Veblen 1975; White 1970, 1973). When President Clinton visited the state after the impeachment controversy, the paper ran a front-page banner headline "Mr. President, you're a disgrace!" above the masthead (February 19, 1999).

Were it not for the New Hampshire primary, the Union Leader would be little more than a curiosity on the national stage, a museum piece offering the opinionated invective that American journalism largely outgrew a century or more ago (Moore 1987; Schudson 1978; White 1973). Both the Union Leader and its Sunday edition, the New Hampshire Sunday News, have circulations too small to convey much influence beyond the state (66,250 daily and 93,768 on Sunday for the year ended March 31, 1997, according to the Union Leader report to the Audit Bureau of Circulations). New Hampshire without its first primary likewise would not be expected to figure prominently in national politics, as the state is home to fewer than one out of every two hundred Americans.

But that primary changes everything for both the Granite State and the Union Leader. Every four years, and for much of the time in between, Republican presidential candidates woo the state's electorate and its dominant paper, long thought to help determine which Republicans leave New Hampshire as likely nominees and which ones leave as ex-presidential candidates (Buell 2000; Mayer 1987; Veblen 1975). Ronald Reagan received a major boost from the paper on his way to winning the 1980 contest, and commentator Pat Buchanan became a viable alternative to President Bush in 1992 thanks to the paper's aggressive support and a weakening economy. Of course, the paper's influence has its limitations. Not even the Union Leader could make a winner out of Pete DuPont, the paper's favored candidate in 1988, or Steve Forbes, backed by the paper in 2000 (Adams 1987; Brady and Johnston 1987; Ceaser and Busch 1993, 1997; Palmer 1997; Robinson 1978).

This study examines the relationship between Union Leader news and editorial coverage and candidate preferences by likely New Hampshire voters during the weeks before the state's 1996 Republican primary. This study uses a content analysis of the paper's news stories and published editorials and opinion columns conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan media research institute in Washington, DC. The content analysis, which looks at the dimensions of candidate horse-race standings as well as more substantive matters, is compared to daily tracking polls conducted by American Research Group Inc.

The New Hampshire Primary and the Union Leader

Many scholars and politicians complain about New Hampshire's privileged position atop the presidential primary calendar, but no one has been able to do much about it. New Hampshire keeps moving its primary earlier to stay ahead of other competing state contests, and candidates who propose that New Hampshire not go first are quickly dismissed by the state's electorate, as happened to presidential aspirant Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) in 1996 (Buell 2000; Ceaser and Busch 1997; Mayer 1997; Trent 1998).

While New Hampshire may be unrepresentative of the rest of America-the state's population is 98 percent white--both New Hampshire and equally unrepresentative Iowa have been able to retain their advantageous positions largely because would-be presidential candidates fear to offend such powerful electorates and because the other forty-eight states have been unable to agree on an alternative arrangement (Palmer 1997). …