Could newspaper endorsements make the difference in New Hampshire?

Mitt Romney attended a chamber of commerce breakfast in Nashau, New Hampshire, the day before the state's primary.

Story highlights

  • New Hampshire Union Leader has endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
  • Boston Globe has endorsed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
  • Boston Herald has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
  • Professor: Paper endorsements are more likely to influence undecided primary voters

"The quirkiest of Republican presidential primary seasons is about to become serious -- deadly serious . . . "

That's how the Boston Herald began its December 28, 2011, editorial endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The editorial went on to refer to the "clown car nature" of the GOP presidential field and to the "deeply flawed candidacies of Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and finally Newt Gingrich."

"It has been an entertaining several months," the editorial observed before pivoting to ask, "but really now, does anyone see even the remotest possibility of any of those folks taking the oath of office on the Capitol steps Jan. 20, 2013?"

Boston Herald backs Romney in 'clown car' field

Strong words from the conservative Boston paper but will they make a difference in a Republican primary race that has been characterized by nothing if not its extreme volatility, a rotating cast of front-runners and national polling numbers for Romney that suggest he has had trouble winning over more than roughly 25% of Republicans?

In the newspaper endorsement wars leading up to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman won the backing of the more liberal Boston Globe. "[W]hile Romney proceeds cautiously, strategically, trying to appease enough constituencies to get himself the nomination, Huntsman has been bold," the Globe opined, comparing the two Mormon, ex-governors who possess more moderate records than the rest of the GOP field.

Boston Globe backs Huntsman

Having garnered the backing of the staunchly conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may have hit the newspaper endorsement jackpot. New Hampshire's largest newspaper told its readers, "Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running. In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich."

NH paper: Gingrich bolder than Romney
NH paper: Gingrich bolder than Romney


    NH paper: Gingrich bolder than Romney


NH paper: Gingrich bolder than Romney 02:39
Huntsman: Something's happening in NH
Huntsman: Something's happening in NH


    Huntsman: Something's happening in NH


Huntsman: Something's happening in NH 00:50
Mitt Romney: In his own words
Mitt Romney: In his own words


    Mitt Romney: In his own words


Mitt Romney: In his own words 02:48

N.H. Union Leader backs Gingrich

And a Union Leader endorsement has been a gift that has kept on giving for Gingrich who has been leading an increasingly embattled effort to win the GOP nod after his front-runner momentum stalled in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses a week ago. The Union Leader has a history of publishing several follow-up editorials that either sing the praises of its chosen candidate or focus on the flaws of the opponents of the paper's pick.

Union Leader publisher sends voters a reminder

NH paper rips Paul and his supporters

Editorial hits Romney during campaign blitz

"In the context of this campaign, the Union Leader has some influence among conservatives in New Hampshire," explained Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a phone interview with CNN. "The Boston Globe, much less so," Brown added.

Brown also said that Republicans tend to be more critical of the mainstream media "and, therefore, as a group, are probably more likely to be skeptical about agreeing with newspaper endorsements."

But when a paper is known to have a conservative editorial page like the Union Leader has, it can be influential in a Republican primary.

"The Union Leader endorsement in New Hampshire is a valuable thing," said Brown.

Why Gingrich's N.H. endorsement is a bigger deal than it seems

Brown University economics professor Brian Knight has studied the influence of newspaper endorsements on voter decision-making in the 2000 and 2004 general election contests for president. Brown found a paper's endorsement can have a positive effect on a voter's choice for president but the effect "was relatively small in most cases," Knight told CNN in a phone interview. Digging a bit deeper, Knight found that the endorsements that mattered most were those that were surprising -- when a liberal editorial page endorsed a Republican or when a conservative editorial page endorsed a Democrat.

Tellingly, Knight also found that the impact of newspaper endorsements was greater on voters who self-identified as independents.

"These voters could have gone either way," Knight said, "And they rely more on other sources of information and less on their own ideology since their own ideology is not a strong predictor of which way they're going to vote."

Extrapolating from his findings about general election races, Knight made two predictions about presidential primaries. "I would expect, if anything, that a [newspaper] endorsement would have a bigger impact in a primary because there are many voters who could go either way because oftentimes the candidates are very close in terms of their ideology," Knight said, "So the voters are really looking for some specific cue on which to make their vote."

And Knight theorizes that undecided votes in a primary race are analogous to independents in a general election contest -- neither bloc is particularly attached to a specific candidate because of ideology. So Knight concludes that undecided voters in a primary race may be more influenced by a newspaper's endorsement than self-identified Republicans or Democrats voting in their own party's primaries.

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What does all of this mean? It might spell bad news for New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney who could win in the Granite State primary Tuesday but still lose the expectations game if a substantial number of undecided voters break late for other candidates.

The scenario isn't that farfetched. Four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama suffered a surprise loss in New Hampshire after emerging victorious a week earlier in Iowa. Obama was bested by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who benefited from a late surge of support in her favor in New Hampshire's Democratic primary.

Clinton narrowly takes New Hampshire

While a Suffolk University/7 News poll released Tuesday indicated that Romney has a commanding lead, surveys released in the days leading up to the vote also showed that many likely voters in Tuesday's GOP primary could change their mind.

In its editorial announcing its support for Gingrich, the New Hampshire Union Leader seemed well aware of the influence it might hold.

"We sympathize with the many people we have heard from, both here and across the country, who remain unsure of their choice this close to the primary," the editorial says, "It is understandable."