The polls show Republican voters in New Hampshire seem to prefer Mitt Romney in the presidential election, but earlier this month, the state’s largest paper issued a high-profile endorsement of his chief rival, Newt Gingrich. Halfway across the country, Iowa GOP voters were telling pollsters Mr. Gingrich or Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was their man, but that state’s biggest paper on Dec. 18 urged a vote for Mr. Romney.
As the candidates deliver their closing arguments before the voting begins, editorial boards will begin to announce their endorsements but it’s an open question whether they still have the power they once wielded to sway voters.
“I would think that newspaper endorsements played a greater role in the past when there were fewer information and opinion sources than there are now,” said Dennis J. Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. “Given the number of those sources nowadays, a newspaper endorsement, if it sort of registers on someone’s individual radar for political events at all, wouldn’t register as a major factor.”
Whatever the case, the Republican hopefuls lucky enough to land newspaper endorsements - no matter the circulation size - still tout them as proof that they are best fit to lead the party into battle against President Obama and Democrats in the 2012 election.
After winning the backing of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Gingrich team blasted out a press release that was riddled with exclamation points.
“The New Hampshire Union-Leader was among the first to champion Ronald Reagan and has a history of endorsing eventual New Hampshire primary winners!” it read. “This is just further evidence that Speaker Gingrich is the conservative frontrunner to be the Republican nominee for president!”
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign used the endorsement as an opportunity to remind people that he’s received the support of the Sioux City Journal “and the fiscally conservative editorial board of New Hampshire’s Foster’s Daily Democrat & Sunday Citizen.” Mr. Romney’s camp noted that its boss also has received the support of the Washington Examiner, Portsmouth Herald and the Oklahoman, which claimed “Mitt Romney is the man the only man who can beat Barack Obama.”
Mr. Goldford suggested the power of newspaper endorsements hinges on how well the editorial board is perceived by the electorate. The odds are, he said, that the Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Mr. Romney won’t be a game-changer for the state’s conservative voters attending the caucuses Jan. 3.
“Republicans and conservatives consider the Des Moines Register to be a liberal newspaper,” Mr. Goldford said. “So they certainly tend not to take their guidance from what the Des Moines Register says. It not that the Register’s endorsement would be a kiss of death necessarily for a candidate, but Republicans would not be disposed to pay a lot of attention to what the Register said anyway.”
Republicans in New Hampshire tend to have a different view of the Union Leader and its publisher, Joseph W. McQuaid, who has built a reputation for being a political kingmaker in conservative circles. While he has backed failed bids from Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes in the past, his decision to endorse John McCain helped propel the Arizona senator’s once lagging campaign to a critical victory over Mr. Romney four years ago.
“Generally speaking, I would say newspaper endorsements are not particularly helpful - with the exception of the Union Leader - especially in this Republican primary where the Union Leader is the conservative paper and conservative voice of the state of New Hampshire,” said Michael Dennehy, a Republican veteran in state politics. “It’s perceived much different than the other daily papers.”
Nate Silver found in a recent analysis on the New York Times political blog FiveThirtyEight that Union Leader-endorsed candidates received a significant boost, scoring 11 percentage points above their standing in the polls when the endorsement was published. The comparable figure for the Des Moines Register was just a 3 percentage point increase.
Mr. Gingrich used both the Union Leader’s endorsement and the Register’s rejection during a recent appearance Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to try to allay fears from some conservative leaders about his constancy to the cause.
“I’m actually delighted because the Manchester Union Leader, which is a reliably conservative newspaper, endorsed me,” Mr. Gingrich said.” The Des Moines Register, which is a solidly liberal newspaper, did not endorse me. I think that indicates who the conservative in the race is.”