The historic 2016 presidential campaign is making some newspapers do things they’ve historically never done.
On Sept. 30, USA TODAY’s editorial board broke a 34-year tradition of non-endorsements and made a full-page case of why Donald Trump is “unfit for the presidency.”
“He is erratic. … ill-equipped. … traffics in prejudice. … his business career is checkered. … he speaks recklessly. … has coarsened the national dialogue. … is a serial liar,” the national newspaper stated.
In its Sept. 28 edition, the Arizona Republic, which hasn’t backed a Democrat in its 126-year history, announced that it was endorsing Hillary Clinton. Ditto for The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Dallas Morning News, whose endorsements of a Democrat are as frequent as a Chicago Cubs appearance in the World Series. This must be the year for the seemingly improbable to become possible.
The Houston Chronicle, which has endorsed Democrats and Republicans since 1932 and normally waits closer to Election Day to make presidential endorsements, made the decision in July to back Clinton — well before the party conventions and the first debate.
“Any one of Trump’s less-than-sterling qualities — his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance — is enough to be disqualifying. … These are unsettling times … they require a steady hand. That’s not Donald Trump,” the newspaper said.
How much influence do newspaper endorsements really have on voters?
“While it’s interesting that USA TODAY and a few other newspapers have shifted policies, those decisions are not going to be at all consequential in a national election, even one as divisive and ugly as this one,” said W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University’s School of Communication. “Newspaper endorsements are just a small factor in a much larger mix by which people make up their minds.”
So far, Clinton appears to have the edge in editorial support. But history has shown that lopsided endorsements don’t always add up to victory. In 1940, business executive and GOP candidate Wendell Willkie received the backing of many more newspapers than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the incumbent. Willkie suffered a crushing defeat, winning only 10 of the 48 states. (Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states in 1959.)
The presidential election that closely parallels 2016 in bitterness and the overwhelming rejection of a candidate was in 1964 when newspaper endorsements turned against Sen. Barry Goldwater in large numbers. In elections before then, Campbell said, newspaper endorsements largely favored Republicans, and they swung back to Republicans after Goldwater’s defeat.
Campbell, author of six books including 2006’s “The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms,” pointed to 1897 as the year when the modest influence of newspapers on elections was on display. Most of the newspapers in New York City backed losing candidates in that year’s elections. In the aftermath, the trade journal The Journalist crudely noted: “What a hollow sham the boasted power of the press is.”