Political campaigns and the resulting cottage industry of analysis rely on tradition to a surprising degree. Even in the age of Facebook friendships, Twitter mentions, and Pinterest pinups, most of the metrics of elections from 40 years ago — or more — continue to gain a lot of traction today. Nowhere does that seem more anachronistic than in the attention paid to newspaper endorsements.
Of course, newspapers have the biggest incentives to promote the idea of the importance of their editorial-board endorsements. They can argue that their perspective does not just convince voters, but also forces candidates to mold their approach to their influence. That sells newspapers, or at least it used to sell newspapers, back in the days before newspapers faced stark declines in circulation.
It's not just the newspapers themselves, though. The candidates court editorial boards with almost as much vigor as big-ticket donors and bundlers. They pitch themselves to newspapers, usually sitting down for lengthy interviews and answering tough questions from the editors on a wide range of topics, some of which they'd normally avoid in a televised debate or a live interview.
Newspaper endorsements are at best meaningless anachronisms, and at worst damaging to the newspapers themselves.
When they win endorsements, the campaigns trumpet them with press releases. When they lose endorsements, the sour grapes come out in a bountiful harvest. Take, for instance, Obama campaign deputy communication director Stephanie Cutter's attack on the Des Moines Register on the morning of their endorsement of Mitt Romney. "It was a little surprising to read that editorial," Cutter said on ABC's This Week, "because it didn't seem to be based at all in reality, not just in the president's record, but in Mitt Romney's record." Cutter then asserted that the Register's description of Romney's record in Massachusetts as bipartisan was "the exact opposite of what he did in Massachusetts," despite that bipartisan record being precisely the big hurdle Romney faced in getting conservatives to support him after winning the nomination earlier this year.
The attack on the Register by Team Obama is strange, but not entirely surprising, considering the lead-up to the newspaper's decision. In a widely-read blog post before the Register's endorsement, editor Rick Green described how President Obama insisted on considering his call to the editors to discuss the endorsement "personal" — and entirely off the record. Romney had sat down with the editors for over a half-hour on the record, agreeing to allow the Register to record the audio of the interview and publish it online. Obama refused to even allow the editors to describe his responses to their questions, at least until after Green published his account of the negotiations over the interview. The White House produced a transcript of the interview a few hours later, but the damage was done.
Under those circumstances, it's not surprising that the Register chose to endorse Romney over Obama, even though the paper had endorsed Obama in 2008. It's less clear, though, why either campaign cares about these endorsements at all, or why the media (other than the newspapers themselves) bother to keep track. For the most part, the endorsements turn into dog-bites-man stories. For instance, was anyone all that surprised when The Washington Post endorsed Obama? Did anyone pay that much attention to the Columbus Dispatch when they followed their 2008 endorsement of John McCain with their 2012 pick of Mitt Romney? Of course not.
We live in a far different political and intellectual environment than we did 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, when the daily newspaper on the front doorstep was the sign of an informed household. Even further gone are the days in most metropolitan areas when which newspaper sat on a stoop indicated the political and social leaning of the household. The newspaper no longer has that kind of cachet; most people get their news a la carte online, from a variety of sources and perspectives, especially when it comes to national and international news. News consumers consider themselves more informed than their local editorial board, and their own perspective as more valuable, especially as they progress from formerly low-information voters to sophisticated followers of current events.
It's not even clear why newspapers would want to endorse candidates, especially for national office. Instead of influencing their readership in the election, these endorsements tend to serve as little more than red flags to those readers who disagree with them — and undermine their credibility thereafter. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reached that very conclusion last week, choosing not to endorse any candidate for president or Senate after receiving a deluge of criticism for its endorsement of Scott Walker in the recall election. Editorial page editor David Haynes explained, "[T]his idea of independence also is a critical piece of our thinking on this matter. … It makes little sense to put our independence at risk during the election season." While a case could be made for the importance of editorial endorsements in local races, where even the most well-informed voter on national issues might have little insight, the endorsements at the national level would negate the effectiveness of local endorsements by alienating a significant part of their readership.
The Des Moines Register endorsement kerfuffle demonstrated another danger for editorial boards. The day after going public with the fight over whether Obama's remarks should be on the record, the paper's front page featured both candidates presented in remarkably different ways. Romney's picture showed him smiling and shaking hands with an enthusiastic crowd, with a headline underneath remarking on his optimism. Next to that, Obama was pictured scowling over his shoulder in a crowd that appeared decidedly less enthusiastic, with a headline that focused on his negative campaigning from the stump. While the Register might have run that page regardless of the dispute with the president, it nonetheless had the distinct flavor of payback — and arguably undermined their decision to switch from their 2008 endorsement of Obama to Romney in 2012.
Perhaps the time has come for everyone to admit the obvious: Newspaper endorsements are at best meaningless anachronisms, and at worst damaging to the newspapers themselves. Maybe they'd be better to stick with reporting, and let voters figure it out for themselves.