Newspaper Endorsements Matter — If They're News

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Newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates do matter — if they defy readers' expectations.

Last week, the Chicago Tribuneendorsed Barack Obama for president, breaking a tradition of backing Republicans that can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln. While Illinois (unlike neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin) is not considered a battleground state, that’s the sort of endorsement that can make a difference in the race, according to a new study by two Brown University economists.

Faculty member Brian Knight and graduate student Chun-Fang Chiang used data on voting intentions and newspaper readership to examine the impact of endorsements on the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. They found that expected endorsements, such as the liberal-leaning New York Times announcing its support for Al Gore, had little impact, convincing fewer than 1 percent of readers to switch sides.

However, when the Chicago Sun-Times — which also has a liberal-leaning editorial page — made a surprise pick of George W. Bush in 2000, readers took notice. Knight and Chiang estimate that the endorsement convinced about 3 percent of the newspaper’s readers to change their vote from Gore to Bush.

The study will be welcome news to Sen. Barack Obama, who, according to the latest tally by Editor & Publisher magazine, has picked up the endorsement of 127 daily newspapers, compared with only 49 for Sen. John McCain. In 2004, the nation’s newspapers split almost evenly, with 213 for Sen. John Kerry and 205 recommending the re-election of President Bush.

That suggests a number of conservative-leaning papers are, this time around, advising their readers to vote for the Democrat. “We expect these Obama endorsements to be particularly influential, since they have more credibility than endorsements from newspapers that always support the Democrat,” said Knight, an associate professor of economics and public policy.

On the other hand, if the Daily Socialist comes out for McCain, all bets are off.