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N.H. Union Leader picks Johnson over Trump. But will it matter?

In spite of its century-long record of endorsing Republican candidates, the Manchester-based daily newspaper has backed Libertarian Gary Johnson.

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    Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 3, 2016.
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Presidential candidate Gary Johnson has a prominent new advocate in his corner.

The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., endorsed the Libertarian – and denounced Republican candidate Donald Trump, as well as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – in an editorial published on Wednesday evening. The editorial, which continues the election year feud between Mr. Trump and Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid, ends the daily newspaper's century-long streak of Republican endorsements.

"Gary Johnson and Bill Weld are on the ballot in all 50 states," writes Mr. McQuaid. "Their records (as Republican governors in politically-divided states) speak well of them. They would be worth considering under many circumstances. In today's dark times, they are a bright light of hope and reason."

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In every presidential election of the past hundred years, the Union Leader has backed the Republican ticket – even when it didn't necessarily want to. In 1972, then-publisher William Loeb reluctantly asked voters to re-elect Richard Nixon. So it's a big deal, in the scope of the paper's history, that it has now declared support for the Libertarian candidate.

Mr. Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, commands 13 percent of votes in a late August poll from Quinnipiac University, compared with 41 percent for Mrs. Clinton, 39 percent for Mr. Trump, and 4 percent for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. He is making a final push to appear at the presidential debates, even taking out a full-page ad on Wednesday in The New York Times, asking to be included. 

"Put a third podium on stage for the debate scheduled on September 26th. Allow us to make our case to the American people," write Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. 

But will the Union Leader's support matter for Johnson?

New Hampshire, fluid and complex in its political landscape, will be hard-won for whichever candidate takes it. An endorsement won't immediately sway voters, most of whom also have access to innumerable other news sources. But endorsements can persuade them to take a closer look at a campaign.

When the Union Leader endorsed New Jersey governor Chris Christie for the Republican primaries in November, former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen told The Christian Science Monitor that people "aren't going to vote for Christie because the Union Leader endorsed him. But they will say, 'Boy, maybe I ought to take another look at this guy.' That's why it's really helpful. It gives cover to others to come on board."

Often, however, that's not enough. Despite the Union Leader's support, Governor Christie lost the Republican primary. It wasn't close, either – Trump won 11 delegates in the state, while Mr. Christie won none.

In politically precarious swing states, endorsements could even backfire, if support from a newspaper perceived to have a certain leaning turns off on-the-fence voters. 

"Newspaper endorsements have a muddy record," Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State University, told the Monitor's Linda Feldmann. "They can help sometimes, and hurt with others."

The Union Leader makes Johnson's third endorsement from a major paper, joining the Winston-Salem Journal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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