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Political Newspaper Endorsements: History and Outcome

Newspaper editorial pages have been endorsing presidential candidates for well over a century. On Oct. 11, 1860, the New York Times editorial page threw its hat behind a “Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as ‘Old Abe,’ age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter.”

“Old Abe” would, of course, go on to become a fairly decent president. But did The Times’s endorsement help him gain the White House? More generally, do editorial page endorsements have any effect on election outcomes?

That is a question that will not be answered here today. But as a first step towards an answer, let’s take a look at how newspaper endorsements have been awarded over the past several elections.

Editor & Publisher magazine has, for many decades, surveyed newspapers about their presidential endorsements.

A couple of notes about the data: Editor & Publisher surveyed daily newspapers only. Also, it looks like E&P did not conduct its usual survey in 2000 (or else it’s just impossible to find). The figures for the 2000 election, therefore, come from a list of endorsements put together by George Washington University.

Below are the Republican and Democrat’s endorsements as a percentage of the total endorsements given out that cycle.

Until recently, newspaper editorial pages overwhelmingly favored Republican presidential candidates. Over the past three decades, however, the endorsement scales have been balancing out, eventually tipping towards the Democrats in the past two presidential elections.

From 1972 to 1988, Republicans carried 84 percent of editorial page endorsements. The 1972 election was the most lopsided. Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent running against then Senator George McGovern, was favored by more than 90 percent of editorial pages.

In our sample, not until 1992 did a Democrat, Bill Clinton, garner more editorial nods than a Republican. The Republican candidates won endorsement majorities in the next two cycles, 1996 and 2000, albeit by less crushing margins.

Senator John Kerry just barely edged George W. Bush in 2004, and President Obama won 64 percent of editorial page endorsements last election. Mr. Obama notched the largest Democratic share of endorsements Editor & Publisher has ever tallied, even including surveys prior to 1972. (Mr. Clinton’s margin ranks second; then comes the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson had the support of 440 dailies compared to 359 for Barry Goldwater. The 1964 election was the first cycle in which E&P found more Democratic endorsements than Republican since they began their survey in the 1940s.)

Of course, not all editorial page endorsements are created equal. So E&P also kept track of the circulation of the endorsing papers.

(E&P’s 2008 and 2000 circulation figures were unavailable. The 2008 numbers come from Wikipedia, whose endorsement count 296-180 is close to E&P’s 287-159). For the most part, the pattern is the same. Democrats chipped away at the G.O.P. endorsement lead, eventually taking it themselves. Here’s each candidate’s share of the total number of readers subscribing to papers that endorsed a candidate each year:

Third-party candidates have garnered few newspaper endorsements and, accordingly, few readers of endorsing newspapers. Former Illinois Representative John B. Anderson did better than any other during his 1980 campaign, tallying 6 percent of the readers.

Interestingly, in every year, the Democratic share of circulation is larger than the Democratic share of endorsements – meaning papers with more readers are at least a tad more likely to support Democrats and papers with fewer readers are at least a tad more likely to support Republicans. The difference is not huge, but remarkably durable.

Newspaper endorsements, however, do not guarantee endorsements from electoral college voters. The winner of the most editorial approvals has lost the election three times since 1972 — in 1976, 1996 and 2004. The endorsement leader has matched the election winner in the seven other elections, but that may be because before 1992 it always favored the G.O.P., and those years happened to see a string of Republican presidents.

Meanwhile, can Mr. Obama count on the same level of editorial-page support heading into 2012? His press coverage has almost certainly been less favorable than it was in 2008. If nothing else, 2012 may make clearer whether the partisanship of newspaper endorsements has really shifted to the left or whether it has merely taken a detour from its traditionally rightward route.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.