The last time the Cincinnati Enquirer endorsed a Democrat for president, the paper picked Woodrow Wilson as its choice in the 1916 presidential election. It’s been a long time.
Now Donald Trump has broken the streak. The Enquirer is joining other very conservative editorial pages in endorsing Hillary Clinton, calling Trump “a clear and present danger to our country.”
And while other typically conservative editorial boards have made clear that they’re holding their noses in endorsing Clinton as the only realistic alternative to Trump, the Enquirer’s endorsement is slightly more positive, describing her as a clearheaded pragmatist who can build coalitions and govern effectively. The board’s views on Trump are scathing:
Trump brands himself as an outsider untainted by special interests, but we see a man utterly corrupted by self-interest. His narcissistic bid for the presidency is more about making himself great than America. Trump tears our country and many of its people down with his words so that he can build himself up. What else are we left to believe about a man who tells the American public that he alone can fix what ails us?
Even more surprising than the Enquirer breaking its streak, though, is that it actually might make a difference. Research has found that when newspapers break with tradition, readers take it seriously. And unlike the other two solidly Republican newspapers that have refused to endorse Trump so far — the Dallas Morning News and the New Hampshire Union Leader — the Enquirer is in a swing state.
Surprising newspaper endorsements get results
According to a study published in 2011, unusual endorsements like this might matter precisely because it’s not what readers expected to hear. Newspaper endorsements change the most minds when they break with the usual pattern to endorse a candidate of the other party.
Two political scientists, Chun-Fang Chiang of National Taiwan University and Brian Knight of Brown University, studied the effect of newspaper endorsements in 2000 and 2004, using a survey that asked voters in the days leading up to the election about which newspapers they read and which candidates they preferred.
The researchers sorted newspapers on a spectrum based on how likely they were to endorse Democrats for president. They found that when Democratic-leaning newspapers endorsed Republicans for president, or vice versa, readers were slightly more likely to support the candidate the newspaper endorsed.
If newspapers endorsed the candidates that typically lined up with the editorial page’s ideology, though, they didn’t really convince anyone. The effects were greatest among people who had seen the endorsement, as you might expect, and among older readers, who were more likely to read the editorial page.
The study’s findings might not be as true today. Newspaper circulation has fallen 20 percent since 2004, the last election the researchers studied, and more and more Americans are getting their news online or in other ways. Pew found that 81 percent of the public gets at least some of its news online. Meanwhile, the American public has become even more polarized.
But so far, not a single major daily newspaper has endorsed Trump — not even those, like the Enquirer, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Daily News, that have picked Republicans in the past. Even if it’s only around the margin, surprises like this in swing states could make a difference.