CAN AN ENDORSEMENT TURN AN ELECTION? | A caller’s theory
How much do endorsements – specifically newspaper editorial board endorsements – mean to candidates for elected office?
It’s fun to speculate about that, and I have a theory about how impactful The Herald’s endorsements have been over the years.
More about that in a minute.
I started thinking about this today when I got a call from a nice lady who read my “Just Mad About Mark” blog posting, and said she knew the answer to my question.
What question would that be?
“Why Mrs. Gurtis won when you did not endorse her and lost when you did,” she said.
I took the bait.
“A lot of people,” she said, “wait until your endorsements come out and then they vote for whoever it is you don’t endorse.”
Really? A lot of people? Like…how many?
“A lot,” she said.
I told the nice lady that the numbers didn’t support her premise. Over the years it’s been fairly consistent that at least 80 percent of the candidates we endorse in local races win, I said. I told her that I remembered a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer a few years ago thanking them for summarizing their political endorsements in a single editorial just before each Election Day because it made voting easy – the writer said he simply clipped out the editorial and voted against whomever the N&O endorsed. (The N&O at that time endorsed about one Republican a year, and always in a judge race.) As far as The Herald goes, I remembered one candidate telling us specifically he didn’t want our endorsement, but I never had anyone tell me before that they always voted against whomever we endorsed.
If that what she said were true, I told her, our “picks” would only win about 20 percent of the time instead of 80. In fact, if you factored Ruth Gurtis out of the equation, our percentage would probably jump to 85 or so. (The former school board member won all but one of her races when we endorsed other candidates over her, then lost the one time we did endorse her. This year’s endorsements, which included a “for” vote on the sales tax issue, were slightly off our trend: we hit on three out of five “picks,” a 60 percent mark…of course, I didn’t know that at the time she called.)
I asked her if she wanted to “see the statistics” on our endorsements.
“No,” she said. “I’ll take your word for it.”
I asked, “And what’s your name, ma’am?”
She hung up without telling me.
Full disclosure here: it’s a good thing she didn’t take me up on the “see the statistics” offer. I don’t have any. Nothing formal, anyway. We don’t keep a running count of how our endorsements fair, but I do know that in almost every election since we starting doing endorsements in 1999 our usual “batting average” is about .800. Some years slightly better, some years, like 2008’s primary, slightly worse. If she wanted proof, I would have provided it for her, and it would have supported my 80 percent claim…
But I also would have told her my theory about political endorsements: that they probably don’t influence many political races at all.
Here’s my thinking: most people who take time to read our endorsements each political season are probably fairly politically savvy…meaning they’ve probably also taken the time to find out about the candidates and the issues (hopefully from reading our stories and profiles on our news pages). I think there’s a strong likelihood, therefore, that most editorial readers already know by the time our editorials are published (usually in the 10 days leading up to the election) how they’ll vote.
The reason most people are curious about the editorials is because they want to see if we “got it right” this year or if we blew it. (See Billy Liggett’s blog posting here to read his take on a similar subject.)
The actual number of “undecided” voters who read a newspaper’s endorsement and decide based on the newspaper’s pick is probably, in most cases, pretty small. Think about it: how often have you gone to the polls undecided about a local race? At any time, did you base your decision singularly on someone’s endorsement, newspaper or otherwise?
OK. So if that’s true, then why is there such a strong correlation between The Herald’s “picks” over the years and winners in the polls? Does our 80+ percent “success” rate make us geniuses?
Uh, not necessarily.
Could it be that most of us – editorial boards and voters alike – have something in common? Perhaps that we make the right choices most of the time?
I think that’s it.
Our editorial board is usually unanimous in its decisions during election season. Four of us vote, and we had our very first 2-2 “tie” vote was last November – and it happened to be in the Linwood Mann/Earl Barker city council race that turned out to be decided by just a few votes among hundreds of voters. When it comes to making our endorsement, we’re almost always all on the same page – and it happens, about 80 percent of the time, to coincide with voters’ picks.
So why make endorsements? They’re a lot of work for us (we devote dozens of collective hours to the process each election year) and sometimes it’s not a lot of fun. But there’s a good reason to do it: to make readers think.
Our goal is simply to help readers become firm in their convictions for a candidate (or an issue) and to make sure votes are based on a candidate’s credentials and ability to be effective, not just on personality or something superficial.
Occasionally, I think, an endorsement can play a factor in a close race. I think of the 2006 Lee County Sheriff’s race, for instance, which was extremely close. I get a lot of feedback on our political endorsements, but that year I got more “that helped me make up my mind” comments than in all other years combined.
But that’s why we vote. Hopefully that’s why you vote: because you believe.
Sometimes we’ll agree. Sometimes we won’t.
And just about every year – as with Ruth Gurtis and this year’s sales tax vote – we get to be baffled.
In those cases, we sweep up the confetti afterward and move on to the next thing.
Coming Wednesday: Election Recap