As Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle ahead of the March 4 primaries, no edge is too small to ignore — and both have been pursuing the endorsements of key newspapers.
Clinton developed ads playing off the endorsements of the New York Times and other papers in New Hampshire and Connecticut, while Obama pointed to support he received during the last debate from "editorial boards all across the country — the newspapers that have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in Texas."
But is there any correlation between big-paper endorsement and victory? Obama was backed in the primaries by the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe — but then he lost in California and Massachusetts.
Clinton got the endorsements of the Des Moines Register and the Hartford Courant, but she lost in Iowa and Connecticut.
In fact, NPR looked at the biggest newspapers that made endorsements in 25 states with contests — and found that their chosen candidate won only 14 times.
Four years ago, the Republican-leaning Columbus Dispatch endorsed President Bush in the general election, and he won the swing state of Ohio.
"We still get letters to the editor here from people complaining about our decision-making in 2004 and suggesting that had we gone a different way, that the country may have been spared a second George W. Bush term," says Mike Curtin, the paper's associate publisher emeritus. "Obviously, that's a huge stretch."
Actually, that's a tremendous stretch. Last fall, the Pew Research Centers found that only 14 percent of Americans say their local paper's endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate for public office. Of course, the group also found that 14 percent say they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate because of an endorsement. Although local races are affected, there seems to be little evidence of any palpable effect on the presidential level.
Joe Trippi argues otherwise. He was a senior adviser to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards this year and was also Howard Dean's campaign chairman in 2004 when Dean ran for president.
He says the Des Moines Register's decision to back Edwards in the Iowa caucuses was pivotal that year.
"You know, that paper's endorsement started the momentum for this, at the time, this very little-known Southern senator and catapulted him to 32 percent of the vote," Trippi said. Edwards ended up the Democrats' vice presidential nominee.
But Time magazine Managing Editor Rick Stengel wonders about all these editorial endorsements with the royal "we" — as in "We support senator so-and-so."
"An endorsement doesn't reflect the opinion of the people who work at the newspaper," Stengel says. "It reflects either the opinion of the editorial board — this small, elite group that thinks they know better than anybody — or the owner."
In a recent column in Time, Stengel argues that papers should stop making endorsements.
"I think it hurts newspapers to endorse candidates, because people feel like, 'Hey — if the newspaper is endorsing, say, Hillary Clinton, how can they be fair in how they cover Barack Obama?' " Stengel says.
There is a classic answer from old newspaper hands like Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Jim Newton.
"The group of people who make these endorsement decisions are separated off quite firmly from the news operations of the paper," Newton says. "This is a pure act of opinion journalism — not of news journalism."
The Los Angeles Times stopped making endorsements after 1972, when it supported President Nixon and then saw his career unravel during the Watergate scandal. The paper had fueled Nixon's rise so flagrantly that its staffers even wrote some of his early speeches — and then-publisher Otis Chandler wanted to make a clean break from its ties with the state Republican party.
After more than three decades, the Times is now back in the endorsement business.
Its counterparts in the March 4 primary states are giving the candidates bragging rights and symbolic momentum — but votes? That may be another matter.