November 29, 2015
The New Hampshire Union Leader has endorsed Chris Christie for president. Do we care? Will New Hampshire voters follow?
Once upon a time, newspaper endorsements really mattered. In the days where voters got the majority of their information from the local paper, they had an outsized influence. Beyond a formal nod, their editorial coverage often provided a prism to view a campaign through.
The young Richard Nixon was in many ways a creation of the Los Angeles Times and political editor Kyle Palmer. He received endorsements and favorable coverage in his 1946 upset of Congressman Jerry Voorhis and 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon took this boost and ran with it. The rest is history.
Back in New Hampshire, the virulent opposition of Union Leader publisher William Loeb and his editorial pen (sometimes from the front page) was credited with helping to submarine Democratic front runner Edmund Muskie in 1972.
Somewhat more recently, the Union Leader endorsed Pat Buchanan in both 1992 and 1996. The first round of support presaged the problems incumbent president George H.W. Bush would have holding his coalition together. Buchanan’s surprisingly strong second place finish wound up being both predictive and damaging.
Four years later, Buchanan narrowly defeated establishment favorite and eventual nominee Bob Dole. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the endorsement was the difference in a tight race.
In late 2007, with John McCain still trailing Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani in New Hampshire, his comeback still in progress, the Arizona senator won the Union Leader endorsement, perhaps indicating he was on his way to a full recovery.
The Union Leader doesn’t always pick the winner. In 1988 they chose Pete DuPont. He took 11% of the vote. The year 2000 featured a duel between eventual insurgent winner McCain and favorite (and eventual nominee) George W. Bush. The paper chose Steve Forbes.
Four years ago, Nate Silver analyzed the past several Union Leader endorsements. Each of the six GOP candidates to win an endorsement (from 1980-forward) saw their actual result increase from pre-endorsement polling. On average, the jump was more than 50%.
While they only chose the winner half the time, there was clear evidence the endorsement helped. The effect was consistent over time. If a 1980 pick was more valuable than 2008 due to changing influence of newspapers, it didn’t show in the data.
Silver did his analysis immediately after the Union Leader tabbed Newt Gingrich for 2012. As luck would have it, the effect did not carry forward. Not only did Newt finish far off the pace, but his primary vote was less than half of his polling support at the time of endorsement.
So the endorsement not only does not guarantee victory, but it no longer conveys automatic improvement. However, it is still very much relevant. Here is how and why:
While Newt did worse in New Hampshire than any other endorsee, he did win South Carolina. The Union Leader picked him just as his national and New Hampshire polls were surging. Had they chosen him a week or ten days sooner, his final result would have at least matched the earlier polls.
Still, it didn’t really move the needle in New Hampshire. The most you can say is the paper ratified the idea Gingrich would be relevant in the campaign. At this point, Christie would probably take that.
The establishment field in New Hampshire remains divided between Rubio and the governors, and then further sectioned within those executives. Whether viewing combined governor support or those three plus Rubio, the Granite State is more friendly than almost anywhere else.
If any of the four want to post an early win, something very helpful for Rubio and almost imperative for the others, this is likely the place. While the Union Leader may not move tons of voters by themselves, they do help to frame the debate. While the paper has less influence inside New Hampshire than 20 years ago, their decisions get more national play now.
The Union Leader never endorsed a Bush for nomination, despite having that option repeatedly. They never picked Bob Dole in three chances or Mitt Romney in two opportunities. With that background, the choice of Christie is a bit more interesting. This is not the house organ of the GOP establishment.
The editorial specified the requirement of service as a governor while choosing Christie, saying electing another freshman senator would be a mistake after the past several years. A political novice was also rejected, interesting from a paper that once endorsed non-politician Forbes.
Leadership at the Union Leader has passed from the Loeb family. As Chuck Todd speculated today on Meet the Press, if the previous publisher were still around, Ted Cruz might find himself with an endorsement. Even Donald Trump could have happened in another time.
In explaining his choice, publisher Joseph McQuaid said Christie provided the bluster and strength of Trump while adding actual command of the issues. This is pretty much the argument the Christie campaign would make for their guy.
If you want a loud, tell-it-like-it-is candidate, but also require executive experience and deep issue knowledge, here’s your candidate. Having this debate over the next several days in a national basis and for a bit longer in New Hampshire is both obviously helpful to Christie and possibly harmful to the establishment wing of the party.
For Christie, still trailing Jeb Bush and John Kasich in the Real Clear Politics average in New Hampshire and relying on his Granite State numbers to get him on the main stage for the next debate, it’s a crucial lifeline.
While Kasich has struggled to find a tone that will play with the average national GOP primary voter and is going down a previously lethal road in directly attacking Trump, his Jon Huntsman 2.0 act does have supporters in New Hampshire, enough to block Christie.
Jeb still has more resources and is gradually staring to sound a bit better. It might be too late, but again, he’s still ahead of Christie. The endorsement is positive press, plus a reason for Kasich or Jeb supporters to give him another look.
The biggest impact is probably on Rubio. In order to win New Hampshire, he needs the governors’ share of the vote to shrink. In the states where he is close to the lead, the governors barely show up. Even on favorable ground, there just isn’t enough to divide by four, or even by two.
Rubio receives largely favorable press. He’s often viewed as the best chance to stop Trump with someone more user-friendly than Cruz. The last thing he needs is a continuing argument for picking a more experienced governor.
In 1988, Jack Kemp hoped a win in New Hampshire could propel him to the Republican nomination. He realized Bob Dole could beat incumbent VP Bush in Iowa, giving him the opportunity to beat Dole and finish off Bush by winning the Granite State.
Key to his hopes was a Union Leader endorsement, as Kemp was a long-time conservative favorite. Instead the paper chose DuPont, helping the underdog from Delaware split the not-Bush, not-Dole vote and knocking Kemp out of contention.
Christie may do just well enough to deny Rubio a chance to beat Trump, without being able to win himself. The four establishment-approved candidates are holding between 30 and 35 percent of New Hampshire voters right now. Unless that share dramatically increases, a winner will need a majority of that group.
While the Union Leader has boosted Christie, they may have inadvertently helped The Donald.