Do Newspapers' Presidential Endorsements Still Matter?

US President Barack Obama casts his early ballot on October 25, 2012 at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Chicago Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It’s that point in the election cycle when the editorial boards of major newspapers offer readers their attempt at a measured assessment of which candidate is better qualified to be president. President Obama is the favorite so far. In the past week he has received the endorsement of the New York Times, the L.A. Times, even the Salt Lake Tribune—the newspaper of Mitt Romney’s home state of Utah.

According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara, which tracks endorsements of the top 100 major newspapers based on daily circulation, 33 newspapers with a total circulation of 8,785,527 have endorsed Obama. The 27 newspapers that have endorsed Romney have a circulation of 4,902,794.

For the candidates, these endorsements are a big deal. They brandish the endorsements in television ads and brag about them in campaign stops. They are a big deal for the media as well. Despite Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times’ endorsement of Obama, on Saturday, was still the most-clicked item on the paper’s website on Sunday night.

Beyond that, it’s hard to tell how much endorsements matter. Shortly after the Columbus Dispatch, in central Ohio, endorsed Mitt Romney, NPR correspondent David Folkenflik surveyed locals to see if the paper’s endorsement would have an impact on their vote.

One newspaper reader, a restaurant manager and Romney supporter named Mark Piscionari, told NPR: “Honestly, it doesn’t influence me at all. There’s definitely an underlying mistrust in the media from my perspective.”

Another said: “My opinion is as valid as the editor of the newspaper. ”

In other words, as public confidence in the media continues to decline and voters become increasingly accustomed to hyperpartisan media, the very idea that readers would trust some editorial board to come to a balanced, authoritative conclusion about a candidate’s record can seem an anachronism. Says Diana Owen, Georgetown University political science professor, via email: “People’s faith in the media has been low for a long time now, and that has made media endorsements less relevant for many voters. For newspaper endorsements, the low level of trust is compounded by a declining number of people who rely on newspapers for their campaign information or who find newspapers helpful in making their voting decisions,” she said. “The endorsement of a high-profile, well-established newspaper will be noted by political sophisticates, but it is not likely to influence the general public.”

Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State who has tracked elections for decades, agrees. Endorsements matter “at the margins at best,” he says, adding that in recent years, newspapers have been dropping the tradition of endorsing, or not opting for it (Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg View do not endorse). “There’s been a trend with newspapers probably worrying more about alienating their audience,” Beck explains. As newspapers struggle to hang on economically, he says, they may be more concerned about losing readers because they are perceived as biased. Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, pointed out in Sunday’s paper that many readers do not understand that the editorial side of newspapers operates independent from the news side.

Part of the reason endorsements matter less than they once did is because the media itself matters less. According to Pew, voters are increasingly getting news about the candidates from the campaigns themselves, rather than from journalists.

Another, more mundane reason is that endorsements are predictable. Readers would be utterly shocked if the New York Times endorsed Mitt Romney. Which is why the Salt Lake Tribune’s bold endorsement of Obama caught some eyeballs. “When the Salt Lake Tribune endorses Obama over a Mormon,” Beck says, “that gets attention.”

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