Lest you think I am in any way a well-adjusted individual, last Sunday night—when I could’ve tuned in to the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—I found myself spending an hour with “The Weekly” on FX, in which the New York Times editorial board met with seven of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, one by one, as it decided which one to formally endorse. (Two others were interviewed but not included in the show.) In the end, the Times opted for a choose-your-own-adventure approach to field-winnowing, selecting both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as its preferred nominees, leaving it to readers to figure it out from there.
Given both the import and weirdness of the Times’ verdict, this would seem the ideal moment to reflect on the broader question of how much impact endorsements of office seekers actually have in this third decade of the 21st century: Whether the recommendations of media outlets—newspapers in particular—directly influence people’s votes and, if so, how many.
The premise is sound enough: While ordinary citizens may be too busy or ill-informed to fully understand weighty matters of state and determine which candidates for office are best-equipped to handle them, newspapermen and women devote their lives to exactly that and are presumably experts in their field. Like movie critics, their judgement is theoretically deeper and more informed than yours or mine, and their recommendations—while hardly etched in marble—can serve as a useful exercise in edifying those who wish to be edified.
As to whether this works in practice, the honest answer is that we’ll never know for sure. The act of voting is complicated—the result of a million small considerations congealing into a particular shape at a specific moment in time—and generally not attributable to any one thing. This is especially true for the country’s impressionable swing voters, whose ultimate decision at the ballot box may well be determined by the last TV ad they see or the last tweet they read. To the extent that endorsements play a major—or even ancillary—role in some cases, few voters will explicitly tell a pollster, “I voted for Amy Klobuchar because the New York Times told me to.”
Recalling my own voting history in high-stakes races—which, if you count primaries, include four votes for president, four for governor, five for senator, and two for mayor—I can identify exactly one instance in which a newspaper endorsement actually swayed me from one candidate to the other. It was during the Massachusetts gubernatorial race in 2014, when the Boston Globe—an otherwise left-wing outfit—sided with the Republican, Charlie Baker, over his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, on the grounds that Baker, a former healthcare CEO, had proved himself a competent and effective chief executive, while Coakley’s most notable accomplishment was to have lost a U.S. Senate race—in Massachusetts!—to a conservative Republican who wore denim jackets and drove a pick-up truck.
Liberal that I am, it would’ve been the default move to vote for Coakley anyway; her Senate loss notwithstanding, she had served two perfectly respectable terms as the state’s attorney general. However, once the Globe made its case for Baker, I felt as if I had been given permission—and cover—to cross the aisle in favor of the guy who I suspected was, in fact, the stronger choice of the two. Had the Globe gone with Coakley, I doubt I would’ve had the nerve.
Of course, this was all predicated on the aforementioned idea that editorial boards are these faceless, all-knowing philosopher kings, smarter and more dispassionate than us mere mortals, endowed with the wisdom of the ages and concerned solely with the well-being of the republic.
Deep down, we know this isn’t entirely true—indeed, one of the delights of “The Weekly” is to see the Times editorial writers in all their quirky, bumbling glory—and I would be remiss not to mention that only two of the 100 largest American newspapers endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and look how well that went. Undoubtedly, the influence of the op-ed section of major publications has been on the wane for quite some time, and the pattern is likely to continue as such.
Nonetheless, for those of us who still read the paper every morning and believe a free press is all that stands between the United States and tyranny, news publications will remain a beacon in the search for truth and justice in the world and a bulwark against the corruptions and obfuscations of public men. If their views on presidential candidates don’t come directly from God and no longer count as the proverbial last word on the matter—if, indeed, they ever did—they should nonetheless be taken seriously and with the deference owed to an institution whose core mission—guaranteed by the First Amendment—is to ensure the survival of liberty and freedom in our society, now more than ever.
In the future, though, it would perhaps be most prudent to endorse only one candidate at a time.