Do newspaper endorsements for president still matter? Certainly not as much as they once did, but that doesn’t stop most newspapers (including this one) from exercising their 1st Amendment right to spout off about their choice of candidate, and it doesn’t stop the presidential campaigns from breathlessly reporting each and every endorsement as if it were handed down by the Oracle of Delphi.
So who’s winning the endorsement race?
That all depends on how you look at it.
According to Editor & Publisher, the longtime bible of the newspaper business, the tally as of Saturday was 112 for Republican Mitt Romney and 84 for President Obama. That list didn’t include papers from Sunday, when many delivered their endorsements, but it suggested a shift from 2008, when E&P;'s final tally showed daily newspapers -- which historically have skewed Republican -- endorsing Obama over Republican John McCain by a better than 3-2 margin, 296 to 180
The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara has also been tracking endorsements, but it limits its list to the 100 largest newspapers. On average, they tend to have more liberal editorial pages, presumably reflecting their locations in Democratic-leaning big cities. As of Sunday, the project showed 33 endorsements for Obama and 27 for Romney. (Although most newspapers have issued their endorsements by now, a significant number are apparently waiting for the final week of the campaign.)
The tally reflects some notable gains for the GOP, however. According to the American Presidency Project, nine of the 100 top newspapers have switched sides from Obama to Romney since 2008, whereas only one went the other direction.
Among those abandoning the president was his Arlington Heights, Il., Daily Herald in his home state, which cast its lot -- albeit a bit hesitantly-- with Romney on Sunday.
"We believe that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are good and decent men who care about the country,” the newspaper wrote. “We believe each possesses extraordinary skills and talent. But, philosophically, it is clear that one trusts government too much; the other appears to trust it too little.” The editorial went on to criticize “the tone of Obama’s relentless insinuations that wealthy Americans refuse to pay their fair share. That tone is divisive and damaging for the nation and for our economy. It creates villains and victims, and unfairly so.” That, it said, was, “ultimately, the point where we must break with him.”
The San Antonio Express-News was the only one of the big papers to go the other way. It had endorsed McCain in 2008. This year, it said that while Obama has “had his failings,” such as a failure to pursue immigration reform and to tackle the debt crisis, “These shortcomings … don’t justify a change in leadership, particularly when many of Mitt Romney’s proposals — such as an across-the-board 20 percent cut in taxes and the elimination of unspecified itemized deductions — invite skepticism.”
Concluded the Express-News: "No candidate has all the right policies — that includes Barack Obama. But having weathered the challenges of the last four years, we believe he is in a better position to guide the nation over the next four years — and has earned from voters the privilege to do so.”
It is probably in the nature of newspaper editorials to stop short of adulation and unbridled enthusiasm. That certainly is the case with virtually all the endorsements of Obama and Romney, very few of which are wholehearted.
The Chicago Tribune (owned by the Tribune Co., which also owns The Times) endorsed Obama, but its editorial page editors said, “On questions of economics and limited government, the Chicago Tribune has forged principles that put us closer to the challenger in this race, Republican Mitt Romney. We write with those principles clearly in our minds. Romney advocates less spending, less borrowing -- overall, a less costly and less intrusive role for government in the lives of the governed.” So why not just endorse Romney? The Trib concluded that he had been “astonishingly willing to bend his views to the politics of the moment: on abortion, on immigration, on gun laws and, most famously, on healthcare.”
And several newspapers that did endorse Romney expressed the hope that, if elected, he would turn out to be the moderate Romney, not the “severe” conservative he presented himself to be in the Republican primaries.
“Let us stipulate,” said the Houston Chronicle, the largest newspaper to switch from Obama in 2008 to Romney this year. “The Mitt Romney we are endorsing is the Massachusetts moderate who worked successfully alongside an 88 percent Democratic majority in the state Legislature to produce what the Obama administration says became its model for national healthcare reform.”
Not everyone was so equivocal. The New York Post, never known for mincing words, did not choose this occasion to begin.
“Four frustratingly long years ago, a war-weary and economically battered America took a flier on a savior,” the Post wrote.
Next paragraph, in full: “It didn’t work out.”
Some newspapers that endorsed candidates in 2008 decided not to pick anyone this year. The Oregonian, in Portland, supported Obama four years ago, during a campaign in which he held one of his largest rallies in that city. The paper sounded a bit miffed this year when it said it wasn’t endorsing anyone this time around because the candidates hadn’t campaigned in Oregon. “The access and close observation that inform our endorsements for state and local offices and Congress do not apply in a national race; our CNN-level view of the presidential race is similar to everyone else’s,” the paper said.
The New York Times was the largest of the nation’s newspapers to endorse a candidate. It concluded Saturday that Obama “has formed sensible budget policies that are not dedicated to protecting the powerful, and has worked to save the social safety net to protect the powerless.” Romney, it said, “has gotten this far with a guile that allows him to say whatever he thinks an audience wants to hear. But he has tied himself to the ultraconservative forces that control the Republican Party and embraced their policies, including reckless budget cuts and 30-year-old, discredited trickle-down ideas.”
The two largest newspapers in the country, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, do not usually issue formal endorsements, although the Journal has made no secret of its strong preference for Romney.
The Los Angels Times, for what it’s worth, endorsed Obama and followed up with an explanation from Editorial Page Editor Nick Goldberg of why the newspaper endorses anyone at all, given its mandate to be nonpartisan and unbiased in its news articles. The article contained one reminder of the historically less-than-awesome power wielded by newspaper endorsements: The Times’ first endorsement, in 1884, was for Republican James G. Blaine.