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Just how much weight do newspaper endorsements carry with voters?

Nov 2, 2015

Before elections, newspaper editorial boards give their opinions on issues and candidates. Do those endorsements impact the outcome of elections?
Credit Creative Commons/Flickr/Denise Cross Photography

Newspapers around Colorado last month published endorsements for issues and candidates that voters will decide on Tuesday (11/3). The editorials explain complex issues and detail the paper's decision to support a certain candidate or ballot measure. But with smaller staffs and more media scrutiny, do the opinions of editorial boards matter as much as they once did? Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen explored the issue.

At the Denver Post this fall, members of the editorial board weighed in on the only statewide ballot issue: Proposition BB. It asks voters to give the state permission to hang onto $66 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales.

"That came out of the legislature," says Vincent Carroll.

He oversees the editorial pages at the Denver Post. Before editing the endorsement, he did interviews.

"I talked, for example, to Sen. Steadman who was the sponsor of that in the legislature and we spoke to some proponents this fall, before we editorialized."

The paper endorsed a “yes” vote, saying the money would do a lot of good if kept by the state. It would be spent on things like school construction and marijuana education and prevention.

The paper had a team of two working on Prop. BB. Higher profile races, like last year’s U.S. Senate contest between Cory Gardner and Mark Udall had the paper’s CEO, publisher and the editorial division weighing in. Carroll’s quick to point out those conversations happen outside of the newsroom.

"You don’t want folks to think that the point of view that is expressed in the editorial page is percolating into news stories, so there is that separation. I don’t know that the public perceives that difference. Some people do. A lot of people don’t."

The Post has historically weighed in on lots of races but Carroll says they’ve written less in recent years because of a smaller staff.

"Being in a newspaper and working for a newspaper, the people in that building are some of the most knowledgeable about some of these issues," says Curtis Wackerle, editor of the Aspen Daily News.

He says endorsements add to the community conversation.

"I think it’s something the community appreciates - they don’t always agree certainly, but I think it’s important to at least explain these issues and provide a little perspective."

Do endorsements sway votes and how big is their impact in the outcome of races? A 2014 study by researchers at MIT and Dartmouth shows newspaper endorsements have a small impact on candidate support. And, a voter whose ideology aligns with a certain newspaper will back whoever the publication endorses.

Earlier this year, the Aspen Times conducted a poll that asked readers “Do newspaper endorsements matter?” Out of 916 votes, the majority said “no.” John Straayer is a political science professor at Colorado State University.

"There’s a variety of factors that all flow together and determine how a person votes," he says. "Now, what do newspapers endorsements do? Well, that’s just another element in the stream of information.”

He says party affiliation, not an endorsement, is the top determinant of how someone will vote. Still, for some, it may help decide their vote.

"It may have a larger impact on the occasional voter - the person who’s not generally attentive to political matters and who may not be terribly well informed."

The power of endorsements, says Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post, is more about how campaigns use them. For example, the backers of Base 2 touted the Aspen Daily News endorsement in a full page ad five days before election day.

"That’s probably where they have their most impact and clout. Not in the publications themselves," says Carroll.

Former Aspen mayor turned political consultant Mick Ireland, says this year’s endorsements may only carry weight with issues people are less informed about - like tax questions for the school and hospital, for example. People have already decided on polarizing issues, like Base 2, he says.

"Neither side is going to make much headway out of those endorsements. I think that the Base 2 editorials were thorough in both papers and on both sides, so I can’t criticize the content. It’s just that you’re making arguments that have already been made."

He thinks the way elections are held also minimizes the impact of endorsements. With an all-mail ballot election, many people have already voted long before endorsements are even printed.