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Newspaper Endorsements Still Count

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Do newspaper endorsements influence voters? I refer to the candidate picks printed on the biodegradable news products that digital and cable commentators dismiss as "old media" but talk about nothing but.

They do, according to Brown University economist Brian Knight, though some endorsements pack greater clout than others.

Readers are more swayed when a paper perceived to have a liberal bias backs a Republican, and conversely, when one seen as conservative chooses a Democrat.

This makes a lot of sense. Last week, for example, you saw the regulars on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" cackle over The New York Times' very unshocking endorsement of Barack Obama. The liberals at conservative Joe Scarborough's table shared equally in the laugh.

But there was reverential awe at the Chicago Tribune's decision to back Obama. This is the first endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate in that newspaper's 161-year history.

"In 2008, they are extreme examples of a surprising and unsurprising endorsement," Knight told me.

In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Knight and former graduate student Chun Fang Chiang derived a simple econometric model to track the relationship between media bias and media's influence on voting. They zeroed in on newspapers endorsements and the 2000 election.

The big-paper backing with the greatest impact came from The Denver Post and Chicago Sun-Times. The Denver Post had only a 35 percent probability of endorsing Democrat Al Gore but backed him nonetheless. The Chicago Sun-Times had a 58 percent probability of supporting Gore but went for Bush, instead.

You may wonder, as I did, how the economists determined "probability" in a newspaper's choice of candidate. The number was reached by crunching together information on newspaper ownership and reader support for a candidate. (The latter is tracked by a daily survey from University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Institute that asks people who they will vote for and which newspapers they read.) An alternative measure based on the newspaper's history of political endorsements produced similar results, according to Knight.

Editor & Publisher keeps a running tally of newspaper endorsements. The latest shows 222 dailies backing the Obama-Biden ticket versus only 93 for McCain-Palin. Notably, at least 43 papers that endorsed Republican George W. Bush in 2004 have switched over to the Democrat. And several that backed Bush have chosen to not endorse anyone this year, including the reliably Republican Indianapolis Star in the swing state of Indiana.

In 2004, E&P editor Greg Mitchell did an informal survey that suggested newspaper endorsements do change election outcomes. He looked at the 15 toss-up states and their newspaper endorsements. Weighing the picks for both the number and size of the papers in each state, he predicted which candidate would prevail. He was right in 14 of them. Florida was his only miss.

Readers who try to psychoanalyze newspaper editorial boards may develop more complicated ideas of what they're up to. Consider, for example, the Times' recent thumbs-up to Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut.

Is this a high-credibility endorsement because Shays is a Republican? Or is the Times just combing the landscape for acceptable Republicans so as to seem less in the bag for Democrats? After all, Shays' Democratic foe, investment banker Jim Himes, is a very plausible candidate.

For newspapers, there's something gratifying about these studies and surveys and even the arrows shot their way by bloggers and cable partisans. Go ahead and "diss" the print journalists as pterodactyls of the "Mainstream Media" (even though they have more readers than ever through their papers' Websites). People still get hopped up over what they think. Who ever cared about, much less was surprised by, a blogger's endorsement?

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