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The Importance of Being Endorsed

Press releases touting candidate endorsement by newspapers are flooding The Fix's e-mail inbox these final days of campaign 2006.

The glut of announcements got us to thinking about the importance (if any) of being backed by newspapers. Does an endorsement amount to a potentially race-changing development or merely one of a myriad of developments in the last weeks that affects voters only at the very margins?

The answer, as usual in politics, is that it depends.

Take Connecticut's 4th District. In the race between Rep. Chris Shays (R) and Dianne Farrell (D), the New York Times decided to back the Democrat over the incumbent. It was the first time Shays has not won the endorsement of The Times in a contested reelection race since coming to Congress in 1986.

Contrast the language of the paper's 2004 endorsement of Shays with that of its 2006 endorsement of Farrell. In 2004, the N.Y. Times editors wrote, "Ms. Farrell is a strong candidate with a bright future, neither the district nor the nation can afford to lose Chris Shays." Fast forward two years: "Mr. Shays has been a good congressman, but not good enough to overcome the fact that his reelection would help empower a party that is long overdue for a shakeup."

Shays's district takes in much of southwestern Connecticut, including large swaths of New York City's outer suburbs. For many people in the district, The Times is their local paper and its endorsement carries real weight.

Shortly after the endorsement became official, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to spend more than $1 million on an ad in the New York City media market that attacks Shays and points out The Times's endorsement of Farrell.

In a hyper-affluent (median income $66,598), heavily educated district like Connecticut's 4th, the endorsement could make a difference. Polling has regularly shown Farrell and Shays running even,, so even the slightest boost of momentum could well tip the balance. In this case, the endorsement matters.

But the Shays-Farrell race is the exception. Only a few races come to mind where a newspaper endorsement could matter in a big way -- for example, the gubernatorial race in Maryland where The Washington Post endorsed Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich. Endorsements can also matter if they go unanimously to one candidate, as has happened in the Florida Senate race where every major newspaper in Florida -- all 22 of them -- endorsed Democrat Bill Nelson over Republican Katherine Harris.

In most races, endorsements are a nice line in a final television ad but are unlikely to move a measurable percentage of voters. At best, endorsements typically affirm preconceived notions about a candidate. If you were favorably inclined to back a candidate who won a newspaper endorsement, you are likely to feel even stronger in your decision. If, on the other hand, the candidate you were leaning toward did not win the endorsement of a major local newspaper, it's unlikely to change your vote -- barring other developments that might also raise questions.

So when candidates tout newspaper editorial support over the final week, read it in the proper perspective when it comes to predicting the final outcome of the 2006 midterm elections. It's almost always better to be the endorsed candidate, but the benefits are usually small and at the margins, not large and decisive.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 1, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Senate  
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