Readers to editorial boards: We don’t care!

As voters roundly ignore the suggestions of America's top papers, are editorial pages still politically relevant?

Published October 2, 2013 7:41PM (EDT)


Once upon a time, political campaigns cared a lot about landing newspaper endorsements. Strategy memos were hatched, fake editorial board meetings functioning as candidates' dress-rehearsals were conducted, and policy papers unveiled – all with the seemingly consequential goal of landing these editorial nods.

Politicians thought voters cared what the top papers thought. That may not be the case any longer.

In New York, the city’s three largest papers – which each happen to also be among the nation’s top 10 in circulation – suffered huge collective whiffs in recent weeks. For the office of mayor, the entire trifecta of the New York Times, Daily News and Post, all endorsed Christine Quinn in the Democratic primary over Bill de Blasio. This was notable because the papers rarely agree on much (though all supported Michael Bloomberg). And the editorial consensus was viewed as a significant, possible turning point in the campaign for Quinn.

In reality, of course, the papers’ candidate was trounced, failing to make it into a runoff and trailing the winning primary candidate, Bill de Blasio, by nearly 25 points. One could argue that the margin might have been larger without their endorsements, which is hard to disprove. But polls at the time the papers weighed in showed Quinn with a fighter’s chance at squeezing into the primary. It just didn’t happen.

Fortunately for the editorial boards, there would be a second chance just weeks later. The primary for Public Advocate, the second-ranking office in the city, resulted in a runoff, leaving two candidates: Daniel Squadron and Letitia James.

As they did in the mayoral primary, all three papers of seemingly disparate ideological bents – the Times is generally seen as liberal, the Post conservative, and the News somewhere in between – went for Squadron. And last night when the runoff results came in, their chosen candidate …  was defeated by 20 points.

To understand the significance of this, consider that in the old days (of, say, 2010), simply landing one of these endorsements – the New York Times – would have been viewed as a big deal.

In a Democratic primary in New York City, the paper’s stamp of approval was seen as so helpful that campaigns I worked on (before my journalism days) would chart out explicit long-term plans to earn it. Relationships with editorial board members were developed and cherished. Supporters of the candidate who claimed to know the board members would be recruited to woo them (but not too hard, as that was supposedly frowned upon). Position papers on good government and other pet issues the board was said to favor would be developed. Statements about criminal justice reform were brandished.

So influential was seen the support of the Times that more than one smart reporter would obsessively chronicle the paper’s deliberations and their effect on elections.

But it wasn’t just the Times. In his 2008 general election campaign, after the Post endorsed John McCain early, President Obama’s team was very determined to nab the backing of the Daily News. As a communications adviser with New York experience, I was dispatched to draft a plan to win the endorsement. This entailed a lengthy memo, explaining to the campaign’s inner circle how to appeal to the paper’s owner Mort Zuckerman, and getting top aides to call him (that last part seemed to work well). The point: This was a coveted endorsement in a national race. Five years ago.

Today? It feels less likely that citywide, statewide or national candidates will pine for these endorsements with quite the same hunger. Sure, the endorsements will still be sought, particularly in local races. And it’s also worth noting that the papers together endorsed Scott Stringer for city comptroller, and he did eke out a win over Eliot Spitzer. But it’s hard to dispute that this past month, a message was sent.

Whether readers simply ignored the papers’ recommendations, actively disregarded them or felt indifferent is hard to say. But it’s clear that there’s a gap between the editorialists and the electorate.

In the cases of Quinn over de Blasio, and Squadron over James, the papers chose the candidates more successful with white moderate voters than those who won with voters of color, delivered liberal messages and relied on the support of unions. Two of the three papers specifically mentioned James’ association with the liberal, labor-backed Working Families Party (WFP) as a reason to defeat her. Voters did the opposite. (Bill Lipton, New York State Director of WFP, explains: "New Yorkers trust the WFP to tell the truth about which politicians are serious about tackling inequality and building an economy that works for everyone.")

There are many reasons why editorial “voices of God” may be more likely to be ignored -- or rendered impotent -- in today’s America. Voters have many more information and opinion sources in the Internet era, diluting the dominance of the once-hallowed editorial page, to name one obvious example.

But another cause may be the changing nature of the electorate. Like New York, the country is more diverse (and progressive) than it was just a decade ago. If editorial pages can't adapt to these demographic shifts and the subsequent new reality, they’ll have a serious relevancy problem.

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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