Newspaper presidential endorsements 2016: A big break with tradition

Newspaper presidential endorsements 2016: USA Today broke a tradition of keeping silent on presidential endorsements to denounce Donald Trump on Friday, the latest newspaper to buck its history during the 2016 campaigns. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visits the Kent County Republican Party headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sept. 30, 2016.

In 34 years, USA Today has never endorsed a presidential candidate. However, that changed on Friday, when the editorial board broke from precedent: not to endorse Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, however, or a third party candidate, but to denounce Donald Trump.

"This year, the choice isn’t between two capable major party nominees who happen to have significant ideological differences. This year, one of the candidates – Republican nominee Donald Trump – is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the presidency," the board writes, citing habits such as "traffic[king] in prejudice," a "checkered" business career, recklessness, and dishonesty.

The editorial, while perhaps unlikely to influence many individuals' choice on election day, speaks to how uniquely challenging this election cycle has been, particularly for Republicans. 

"We are fairly early on for anyone to come out and endorse one candidate. Editorials pop up in the last 10 days of October, historically," Charles Fountain, an associate professor at Northeastern University's School of Journalism, told the Monitor. "But there have been an awful lot of early editorials, and I think that is reflective of the reservations that so many institutions have about Donald Trump."

Although USA Today has so far been the only newspaper to publish a denouncement of a candidate, except as part of another endorsement, it is a just the latest in a string of newspapers that have broken from their endorsement traditions this election.

The Arizona Republic, which has never once endorsed a Democrat in its 126-year history, endorsed Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday, with the editorial board writing that Trump does not represent the conservative ideals and principles that they stand by. Among other publications breaking from long-held conservative traditions to endorse Clinton are The Dallas Morning News, which has not endorsed a Democrat for the White House since before World War II, and The Houston Chronicle, which, before endorsing President Obama in 2008, had not broken from the GOP since 1964.

Others, meanwhile, have thrown support behind Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, including the Chicago Tribune and New Hampshire's Union Leader. 

In a typical election, the two major party candidates would have a roughly equal number of significant newspaper endorsements, but 2016 is far from an ordinary election cycle.

"You don't have that this year," Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, tells the Monitor. "Only three newspapers have endorsed Trump, and one of them is the National Enquirer. Gary Johnson actually has more newspaper endorsements than Donald Trump, so what is significant this year is that those kind of endorsements may make more of a difference because it is so inequitable."

Throughout US history, newspapers have endorsed presidential candidates. And even 100 years ago, when a newspaper's stamp of approval was much more influential than it is now, papers tended to endorse along party lines.

"[Newspapers] were political instruments, but even after they became independent, in so far as their news was concerned, they were pretty reliable in making predictable endorsements in every election," Mr. Fountain tells the Monitor. "What is different about the here-and-now is the impact that those editorials have. Those editorials would have had a profound influence on voting habits 100 years ago, maybe even 50 or 60 years ago, but today they move the needle very little in so far as influencing any particular voters."

Any ripples an editorial does make will likely be because of its shock value, rather than its arguments against Trump, most of which are familiar: the denouncement cites problems like a lack of honesty, having "coarsened the national dialogue," and fraud allegations stemming from Trump University, for example. 

"There are cases where the news media can be powerful agents, but that tends to be overstated, and I think that is the case in a hotly contested national election," W. Joseph Campbell, a professor in the School of Communications at American University in Washington, D.C., tells the Monitor. "There are other factors upon which people make their decisions about voting and newspaper endorsements and newspaper coverage is a very small component."

The USA Today editorial made a point of saying their denouncement of Trump did not equal an endorsement of Clinton, nor "unqualified support." But if the editorial does make a difference, it will be in giving third-party voters and truly undecided moderates some pause about the way they cast their ballots, Dr. Bystrom believes – and maybe push them toward Clinton. 

"It could help make up the minds of Republicans who just don't want to vote top of the ticket," Bystrom says. "I don't think they are going to post about it, but when they get to the privacy of the voting booth they'll say 'Listen, I can't sit this one out, it is too important.' "

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