Do endorsements by papers matter?

by David Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. November 17, 2007

Are the Denver newspapers' endorsements of candidates credible? Do they matter? Last week, a reader complained to me that The Denver Post had endorsed candidates for Lakewood City Council without interviewing them. So I asked editorial page editors Dan Haley at the Post and Vincent Carroll at the Rocky Mountain News about how they gather information for endorsements.

Haley explained that for the Lakewood and Aurora races, deputy editorial page editor Bob Ewegen "either attended candidate forums or watched them on the city's Web sites. Also, if the candidates had Web sites, we reviewed the material. While at the debate, Bob usually talks to a lot of people beyond the candidates to get a good feel for the issues the city faces."

For the Denver School Board, the Post's Alicia Caldwell conducted phone interviews with all the candidates and studied their Web sites. Haley said that if the Post had been undecided after the phone interviews for candidates in a particular school board race, the candidates would have been invited for face-to-face interviews.

The Rocky generally tries to interview candidates by phone before making endorsements, and did so this year for the most of the candidates in the Denver School Board races. (The Rocky made no endorsements of Lakewood and Aurora candidates.)

As Haley and Carroll readily acknowledged, the Post had determined to endorse Lakewood supporters of City Manager Mike Rock, and the Rocky wanted to endorse the Denver School Board incumbent supporters of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet.

For state legislative races, there has been a big difference between the policies of the Post and the Rocky. The Post has relied on candidate questionnaires, with neither phone interviews nor meetings. The Rocky has usually conducted phone interviews before endorsements in any race.

Carroll noted some exceptions: for incumbents, an interview may not be necessary if the person's record and positions are already well known to editorial writers. Still, most incumbents are interviewed. Further, a candidate might not get an interview if he does not appear to be taking the campaign seriously - for example, not trying to raise money in a race where such funds are definitely needed, or not campaigning door-to-door in races where such campaigning is standard.

The more labor-intensive approach of the Rocky necessarily results in the Rocky being able to make endorsements in fewer races.

In the book Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You're Wrong, Kathleen Hall Jamieson explains that the effect of newspaper endorsements in races where the candidates are well-known is too small to be statistically discernable.

Instead, "Newspaper endorsements tend to count for lower offices and offices people don't know much about," argues Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the University of Southern California (American Journalism Review, October/November 2004).

After all, it's hard for voters to get in-depth information about candidates for smaller races, such as city councils. Highly motivated voters can attend debates, or watch debate replays on the local government television channels. But the vast majority of voters have little information about candidates. Accordingly, a newspaper endorsement may be able to sway a close race.

Thus, it would be fairer to candidates and to readers for newspapers to give every serious candidate at least a chance to make her case in a phone interview - especially in down-ticket races.

For partisan races, readers should understand that both papers, at least in the past two decades, have had strong partisan leanings, the Rocky Republican and the Post Democratic. Both papers tend to endorse their partisan favorites in most of the contested state legislative races. Then, each paper will throw in some endorsements for competent candidates of the other party who are running in safe districts. (For example, Democrats in most of Denver, Republicans on most of the Plains.)

What is unusual, and deserves special notice from voters, is when one of the papers crosses over in a close state legislative race. In 2006, the Rocky endorsed the Democrat Paula Noonan against Republican Mike Kopp, in a southwest suburbs state Senate race. Kopp had run a primary campaign which many Republicans, and the Rocky, felt had been too harsh.

In major statewide races, the Denver dailies are not so predictably partisan. The Rocky has endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor in five of the last seven elections. The Post endorsed Republicans Wayne Allard in 1996, and Bill Owens and Ben Nighthorse Campbell in 1998. And, to the great dismay of many staffers, George Bush in 2004.

Given how little endorsements matter in major races, the staff's anguish was probably unnecessary. Editorial board meetings about who to endorse for U.S. Senate can be exciting, but they matter less than making sure that a paper's endorsements for state Senate are as well-informed as possible.

Correction: Contrary to my last column, Channel 9News does have a mobile Web site, 9.news.com, which has short text stories.

 

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