Sifting through presidential endorsements

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(AP Photo/David Goldman)

It’s that time of the Presidential election cycle in which the endorsements from newspapers start piling up for both candidates. Several endorsements – some from key swing states – have come down that are worth noticing for different reasons with some favoring the sitting president, Barack Obama. But Mitt Romney has also picked up endorsements from papers in key states, meaning, well, neither has an edge, exactly. But with the final debate between the two candidates going down tonight, these endorsements will start meaning more to swing voters in key states. Here, we’ll look at what endorsements are key and how they may affect the race.

Just yesterday, two of Ohio’s main papers issued their endorsements. First, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the state’s largest paper, published theirs in favor of President Obama just as they did in 2008. Setting a tone seen in many pro-Obama endorsements, the Plain Dealer has plenty of criticism of Obama, but still find plenty to choose him over Romney: “Obama has shown that he favors engagement over bluster, and practical solutions over easy bromides. That’s what the country needs.” The Akron Beacon Journal also published their endorsement for Obama yesterday as well, citing Obama’s saving of the auto industry as a primary reason of support: “Ohioans should know the makeover of General Motors and Chrysler avoided what would have been calamitous, liquidation, no less, the ripple effect upending lives far removed from automakers and their suppliers.” While acknowledging that Obama’s first term has been far from smooth, the ABJ notes:

What is telling about a presidency is its tilt, its direction, spirit and priorities. Thus, to those who argue the president lacks a plan for a second term: Look at the foundation that has been set. He has used the levers of government to bolster the economy, investing in education, innovation and health care, understanding the essential role of the public sector in competitiveness. Those tasks are not complete. They would continue.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Dispatch chose to endorse Romney, having also endorsed Republican candidate John McCain in 2008. The Dispatch’s endorsement is primarily a scathing indictment of Obama’s fiscal policies:

As a career businessman and former governor, Romney brings a wealth of executive experience in the private sector and the public sector that dwarfs that of Obama. From working both sides of the government/private-sector equation, he understands how that relationship can aid or impede prosperity. His election would be an immediate signal to the private sector that someone who knows what he is doing is managing the nation’s economic policy. The effect on business confidence would be dramatic and immediate, and business confidence is the vital ingredient needed to spur investment and hiring, the two things that the United States so desperately needs.

The Denver Post, the largest paper in Colorado, published a full, if somewhat tepid, endorsement of Obama on Friday; the Post also endorsed Obama in 2008. The state, which has nine electoral votes, isn’t as essential a swing state as, say, Ohio, but the state is considered a toss-up and one both candidates hope to pocket in an election this close. Noting the blame both parties share for the country’s current state of affairs, the Post calls Romney a “capable problem-solver” but then use his infamous “47 percent” speech to finally settle on Obama.

His comments on the 47 percent of Americans who refuse to take personal responsibility and care for their lives were a telling insight into his views and a low point of the campaign. Obama, on the other hand, has shown throughout his term that he is a steady leader who keeps the interests of a broad array of Americans in mind. We urge Coloradans to re-elect him to a second term.

Meanwhile, two smaller papers in Colorado – The Durango Herald and Boulder’s Daily Camera – have selected to endorse Obama while three – The Colorado Springs Gazette, Pueblo Chieftain, and Longmont Times-Call – have endorsed Romney.

The Post endorsement may have more of an impact for the Obama campaign which leads us to the question as to whether newspaper endorsements even matter. Feelings on that are about as evenly split as voters are on the candidates this year. The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell says they do, Nate Silver, citing a very small scale example, says meh. In a later post with a wider scope, Silver noted an interesting trend of editorial endorsements shifting from Republicans to Democrats.

Indeed, Utah’s largest paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, seems to have broken from Utah’s staunch pro-Romney stance to endorse Obama. Though Romney is associated most often with his former gubernatorial state of Massachusetts and his home of Michigan, Utah has adopted Romney due to his Mormon faith and his role in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. For the state’s largest paper to go against this favoritism – Romney’s chances of winning Utah by a landslide are assured – is noteworthy even if, as far as Utah’s chances go, it means very little.

Editor & Publisher, which has a handy endorsement-tracking tool, has been tracking those endorsements for years but there’s not much to glean from those. Of the past 10 elections, three have been won by candidates that didn’t win the most endorsements, most notably Jimmy Carter in 1976 as his opponent Gerald Ford secured an overwhelming number of endorsements (411-80).

So the bottom line to be taken away is that the endorsements do matter, but only to a point. A 2008 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research [PDF] revealed that, yes, endorsements mattered but the credibility of the publication making the endorsement plays a weighty role with voters. This despite the fact that voters currently lack confidence in the media and see the media as biased. According to a survey cited in the report:

That plays into the credibility and perceived bias of the publication making the endorsement. In other words, voters are more likely to seriously consider the endorsement of a liberal candidate by a predominantly conservative news source and vice-versa. When the traditionally conservative Chicago Tribune endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, it was an endorsement many noted – even if the Tribune was an Obama “home town” paper – because it was the first time the paper had ever endorsed a Democrat for president.

To that end, papers that supported John McCain in 2008 that have endorsed Obama in 2012 include the Lincoln Journal Star (Nebraska) and the Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina). The LJS endorsement comes from a paper in the middle of a very red state meaning the endorsement will mean very little for Obama. The W-SJ is notable both because it breaks the paper’s tradition of endorsing Republican candidates (the last Dem it endorsed was LBJ in 1964 with no endorsement in 2004) and because it comes in the swing state of North Carolina. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Observer, which endorsed Obama in 2008, re-upped their endorsement of him for this election. These endorsements come with a grain of salt, though, as current polls have Romney with a solid edge in the state. Still, these endorsements, as well as the endorsement from the Salt Lake Tribune, may manage to influence voters in other states who see these break-with-the-past moments as significant. In the Internet age, having access to endorsements even from out-of-state shouldn’t be completely discounted.

Meanwhile, papers that have switched from supporting Obama in 2008 to supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 include the Orlando Sentinel (Florida) and The Tennessean (Tennessee). The Sentinel has traditionally endorsed Republican candidates but had endorsed the Democratic candidate in the last two elections, John Kerry in 2004 and the aforementioned 2008 endorsement of Obama. And as for the Tennessean, this is the first time since 1972 that paper has endorsed a Republican.

While Tennessee is projected to easily go to Romney, the Sentinel endorsement might help even out the endorsement Obama nabbed from the Tampa Bay Times; while the Times has traditionally been considered a liberal-leaning paper, it serves a hub of Tampa key to Florida and, thus, the election as a whole. It will also help even out an effect of the Romney endorsement by the Tampa Tribune, a smaller paper that endorsed McCain in 2008.

What, if anything, can we glean from these endorsements and patterns? More can be gleaned from the papers that endorse Obama. These endorsements are not nearly as enthusiastic or feverishly supportive as they were four years ago and there are plenty of words spent on criticizing the drawbacks of Obama’s first term and the vagueness of a second term agenda. Yet they’re even harsher on Romney and usually critical of his inconsistent positions throughout his career. It’s an inconsistency that’s almost universally derided, best represented by this passage from the Plain Dealer:

But which Romney would they elect? The rather liberal one who ran for the Senate in 1994? The pragmatic governor? The sharply conservative candidate of this year’s GOP primaries? The reborn moderate of recent weeks? All politicians change positions over time — Obama in 2008 shifted his position on health care reform more to the center. But Romney’s frequent changes raise questions about his core principles and make his lack of policy details all the more troubling. They make you wonder if he would stand up to the more extreme elements in his own party, especially to the House Republicans who undercut Ohioan John Boehner’s attempts to negotiate a deficit and debt deal.

Even the Salt Lake Tribune has noticed this. As I mentioned above, it was a surprise to see the largest paper in such a pro-Romney state endorse Obama. But the SLT editorial board noted Romney’s inconsistency thusly:

Sadly, it is not the only Romney, as his campaign for the White House has made abundantly clear, first in his servile courtship of the tea party in order to win the nomination, and now as the party’s shape-shifting nominee. From his embrace of the party’s radical right wing, to subsequent portrayals of himself as a moderate champion of the middle class, Romney has raised the most frequently asked question of the campaign: Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe?

As for the pro-Romney endorsements, the predominant theme is one of missions left unaccomplished and an economy that’s still struggling to recover. The Columbus Dispatch endorsement begins: “After nearly four years of economic stagnation, massive unemployment, record-setting debt and government intrusions into the economy that have paralyzed the private sector, the United States needs a new direction.” And Manchester, New Hampshire’s Union Leader, which endorsed Romeny, said:

What Obama offers America is a fantasy. Sputtering economies are not sparked back to life by government-directed spending on industries hand-chosen by politicians. They are revived by unleashing the energy and creativity of the American people. The key difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is that Romney understands that crucial economic truth; Barack Obama does not.

This looks to be a year when endorsements will play a key roll. With an election this close – both in the popular vote and the electoral college – these endorsements will go a long way to shaping opinions in a race full of uncertainty, full of undecideds, yet a hotly contested one. Despite the skepticism with which so many view the media and any perceived bias, these editorials still play a role in pushing undecideds, especially in the swing states where, as I mentioned last week, any number of factors can switch a state’s leaning in an election. There are going to be tipping points for thousands of voters in these states over the next two weeks, when all the debates are behind them and all that’s left to do is make a choice. In times of indecision, people will always come back to the newspaper, to the news source they’ve depended on most of their lives, no matter how they may feel about any hidden political agenda. These endorsements will play a key roll, no matter on how small a scale, in this election, pushing those small tipping points one way or another which, in turn, will push those swing states in one direction or another and settling the election. In an election so tight, so, well, “spirited,” these endorsements will have an impact on undecided voters, giving a gentle shove, and playing a role in settling the presidency.

[Note: The Sun-Times won’t be endorsing either candidate per the paper’s announcement earlier this year.]

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