What's the Point? Few Voters Are Swayed by Newspaper Endorsements of Presidential Candidates. So Why Do Editorial Pages Keep Publishing Them?

By Porter, Tim | American Journalism Review, October-November 2004 | Go to article overview

What's the Point? Few Voters Are Swayed by Newspaper Endorsements of Presidential Candidates. So Why Do Editorial Pages Keep Publishing Them?


Porter, Tim, American Journalism Review


TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS after Sen. John Edwards snagged second place in the Iowa caucuses--propelled, many say, by an unexpected endorsement from the Des Moines Register--CNN anchor Lou Dobbs interviewed Linda Honold, head of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, where a primary would be held the following day.

Dobbs asked Honold four questions, one about polls, another about issues, a third about jobs and this final one:

Dobbs: The biggest newspaper in your state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, endorsing John Edwards, will that have a significant effect on the outcome tomorrow?

Honold: I'm suspect it will have some effect. I'm not sure how much. Sometimes, an endorsement by a newspaper has exactly the opposite effect here in our state. So I don't know. It will have some effect. It's a question of which way.

Honold, in her crab-stepping nonresponse to Dobbs, encapsulates the entire dialectic about the worth of newspaper editorial endorsements: They have some value to some people some of the time in some circumstances, but no one can say how much to whom and when--for sure.

Unperturbed by--or perhaps accustomed to--such equivocation, editorial writers make nuanced arguments in favor of endorsements (especially for local candidates) and an ardent defense of newspapers as a haven of credibility among the froth of unfettered opinion; critics give an (almost) sneering rebuttal of same.

First some numbers.

Research on the electoral influence of newspaper endorsements is scarcer than a liberal at a Wall Street Journal editorial board meeting. Most of the data was compiled before the burgeoning Internet and the cacophony of cable TV further dulled whatever edge a newspaper endorsement gave one candidate over another.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about newspaper endorsements in her 2000 book, "Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You're Wrong."

"The direct effect of editorials does not appear to be significant enough to find," Jamieson said in an interview. "The effect of newspaper endorsements is largely created through advertising about them that is sponsored by the candidate."

Even then, Jamieson and others interviewed for this article agree, the impact of endorsements on national or even regional elections--contests in which candidates are well-known among voters--is negligible.

"Many Americans in 1996 had no idea which presidential candidate their newspaper supported; many more had the wrong idea," Jamieson writes of an Annenberg study of that year's election. "To judge from the responses, many people were guessing." The findings included:

* Among readers of papers that had endorsed President Clinton, "three-quarters reported that fact; 11 percent reported their paper had endorsed Bob Dole; and 14 percent reported their paper had endorsed no one."

* Among readers of papers that had endorsed Dole, "less than one-half" knew that, while one-third thought their paper had endorsed Clinton.

* Of those who knew their newspaper's endorsement, 1 percent said it played a "great deal" and 10 percent said it played "somewhat" of a role in their voting decision. "Of that 11 percent, about a quarter had the endorsement wrong."

More recently, a Pew Center for the People & the Press study released in January, which measured media influences on voters during the 2004 presidential campaign, concluded that "newspaper endorsements are also less influential than four years ago, and dissuade as many Americans as they persuade."

This drip, drip, drip of voter disinterest in the counsel of our nation's newspapers might cause editorial writers discomfort were it not for the near-universal belief among them that presidential endorsements are, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

"I don't think anybody who has a job like mine," says Gail Collins, editorial page editor of the New York Times, "is deluded that many people change their opinion about who they're going to vote for for president when they see the Times editorial. …

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