Chris Christie's N.H. coup: How endorsements shape voters' choices

The endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by New Hampshire's Union Leader could prompt voters to look at him differently.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie smiles after filing papers to be on the New Hampshire presidential primary ballot at the secretary of State's office in Concord, N.H., in early November.

The news came down Saturday night like a lightning bolt from Mount Olympus: New Hampshire’s premier newspaper, the Union Leader, had endorsed Chris Christie for president.

For the New Jersey governor, who has made the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary his do-or-die event, it was a lifeline. Governor Christie, once a highly sought GOP alternative to Mitt Romney early in the 2012 cycle, has struggled to gain traction in the crowded 2016 field and is languishing in single digits. His polling has been so low he didn’t even make the main stage in the last Republican debate.

Now Christie has an influential figure in his corner – Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid, who doesn’t just endorse and disappear. If the past is any guide, Mr. McQuaid will keep speaking out, and publishing praise-filled editorials, all the way to primary day, Feb. 9, 2016.

"If there's an insider who's an outsider, it's Christie," McQuaid said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” "He's a Jersey guy who shoots from the lip, but he knows what he's talking about. And I think people are going to buy that."

Not that voters are ready to fall in line behind a newspaper publisher – or a governor or congressman or anybody else trying to throw their political weight around. Voters get their information from a variety of sources – social media, friends, neighbors, TV, newspapers – and will often weigh their choices right up until the moment they walk into the voting booth.

But for a candidate, a major endorsement creates a news point that can be broadcast far and wide, creating or contributing to that elusive commodity called “buzz.” A big endorsement can help create a bandwagon effect. Voters like to back winners, and if they think someone has potential to win, they might be more inclined to support him or her. Any bit of positive news gives a campaign something to blast out on social media and use in fundraising pitches.

“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,’” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and author of a new history of the state’s primary, called “Granite Steps.” “That’s why it’s really helpful. It gives cover to others to come on board.”

Editorial endorsements also have the potential to hurt a candidate, for example, if someone doesn’t like the newspaper that’s doing the endorsing.

In Iowa, which holds the kickoff caucuses on Feb. 1, the Des Moines Register is perceived as liberal, “and if they endorsed someone who conservatives think is more in the liberal camp, it may backfire,” says Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames. “Newspaper endorsements have a muddy record. They can help sometimes, and hurt with others.”

In New Hampshire, the editorial page of the Union Leader has long been a conservative stalwart, and its endorsement, usually announced Thanksgiving weekend, a long-awaited milestone on the march to the state’s primary. In this year’s endorsement, McQuaid spoke to Christie’s background as a United States attorney and big-state governor, contrasting him with the freshman senators in the field and those with no experience in government. 

Going back to 1980, every endorsee except one – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 2012 cycle – has gone up in the polls after receiving the Union Leader’s endorsement, according to the FiveThirtyEight blog. Many, such as Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, and John McCain, have gone on to win the state’s primary.

The fact that Mr. Gingrich’s standing in the polls declined after his Union Leader endorsement may speak to a decline of the paper’s clout, as its circulation has declined.

“Voters can now receive their news from many sources,” writes Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight. “That means fewer Republican voters will read the Union Leader, let alone take the paper’s advice.”

Or, he adds, “maybe 2012 was a fluke and the Union Leader endorsement is a good sign for Christie,” whether it indicates a strain of thought already in the works among N.H. voters or will cause his numbers to rise, or both.

One thing is clear, says Mr. Cullen, who has not endorsed any candidate yet: “All the other candidates would have loved to have that endorsement. The Union Leader remains the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ for conservatives in New Hampshire.”

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