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Do Endorsements Work? Mitt Romney and National Review

While the conservative publication's stamp of approval was obviously an achievement for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, did it do much for National Review itself? Probably not, says Richard Miniter.

by
Richard Miniter

Bio

December 18, 2007 - 1:00 am

So National Review decided to endorse Mitt Romney.

And so far pundits and bloggers have had one of two reactions: Why not Thompson? And, “well, this is not exactly a surprise.”

Romney had long wooed the National Review crowd. This very public courtship finally ended at the altar, with NR saying it for Romney. It is probably the closest the magazine has been to a presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater.

Everyone has missed the larger point: Is it wise for magazines (or newspapers) to endorse candidates at all? Is National Review hurting itself?

While nearly every newspaper from the Daily Cowhide to the Washington Post endorses candidates, there is no evidence that it actually persuades voters in national races. Endorsements do seem to have a slight effect on local races. For a certain kind of inattentive voter (attentive enough to vote and read the newspaper, but not enterprising to learn the names and views of local candidates), the endorsement of the local paper can be a godsend. Oh, so I should vote for Jones for Sewer Commission Advisory Board, and not Smith.

For everyone else, endorsements are either a curiosity or a clue about the publisher’s private interests. Jones has decided that the county should pay to pipe away the printing plant’s pollution, while Smith is insisting the paper pay for its own wastes.

Maybe Americans have gotten cynical about endorsements, like we have about advertising in general. We just ignore endorsements.

So why do publications bother with them?

Like churches, newspapers are incredibly reactionary in their resistance to changes in rituals. But we always endorse candidates, editors say. Some even trot out the public service argument. The bigger reason is simply that the prospect of an endorsement brings candidates in to meet with the paper’s editorial board. It is about the only time the editors (as opposed to the reporters) will get to meet and question the candidates. This makes editors feel important. The meeting is everything. You can’t ask us to endorse someone we haven’t even met, editors say. But really the editors of New Hampshire Bugle just want to spend five minutes with Sen. McCain and are too lazy to hang out in the diner that the great man is scheduled to visit.

As for the “tradition” of endorsing candidates, it springs from the mid-19th century. Back then, newspaper were, formally or informally, appendages of political parties. (Some vestiges of this remains in the names of newspapers: The Waterbury (Connecticut) Republican-American, Santa Rosa, California’s Press-Democrat, and so on.) Endorsements started as lists of “our boys” in the party organ. Some tradition.

Interestingly, none of these arguments apply to the National Review endorsement. Its highly capable editor Rich Lowry has unparalleled access to candidates as does his staff. NR doesn’t need to dangle a potential endorsement to get a meeting with Thompson or McCain. The magazine has no history of endorsing candidates for any office, although it came close with Goldwater.

As for the idea that endorsements don’t matter, in this particular case it might. Many conservatives are on the fence about Romney. The question, put most baldly, is: Is he a genuine conservative or a flip-flopping politician who will say anything to get elected? The National Review endorsement goes a long way to assuring conservatives that Romney is the real deal.

While the endorsement was a boon for Romney, was it good for National Review? Probably not.

With an endorsement, National Review has just tied itself the mast of the Romney campaign. From now on, any position of the Romney campaign, every alliance or compromise, reflects on National Review.They better hope their new captain doesn’t steer them into any strange currents.

National Review has been burned before by a conservative presidential campaign. In September 1963, William F. Buckley Jr., the-then editor of National Review, and Brent Bozell, another editor at the magazine, met with Goldwater and two top aides to discuss fundraising strategy. One of those aides was Bill Baroody, a senior staffer on the Goldwater campaign who was a wanted to be the resident conservative intellectual-and didn’t want competition from the editors of National Review. A few days later, the New York Times described the meeting as “secret” and published the now infamous sentence: “The Goldwater for President ship has just repelled a boarding party from the forces who supposedly occupy the narrow territory to the right of the Arizona Senator.” It is widely believed that Baroody leaked the story to the New York Times to strengthen his hand in the campaign. The story demolished Buckley, who soon distanced himself from the Goldwater campaign. Gilman Barndollar, writing in the Concord Review, described what happened next: “The loss of the Buckley and Bozell meant the loss of a formidable national magazine, skilled Republican strategists, and campaign funding…”

And Buckley’s (and National Review’s) reputation took an undeserved hit.

National Review’s editors might want to remind themselves that history does sometimes repeat itself.

The Romney endorsement will also call into question the magazine’s considerable reporting on the other presidential candidates. Readers and other campaigns may come to believe the conservative fortnightly is in the tank for Romney and dismiss its justifiable criticism of other campaigns. And, of course, the endorsement will make it less likely that other campaigns will trust the magazine with leaks or exclusives.

As an alternative, consider the example set by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which as a matter of policy does not endorse candidates. Robert Bartley, the editorial-page editor who stepped down in 2001, used to say that “the page is for principles, not people.” In other words, it is better to endorse political ideals (free trade, individual liberty, low taxes and so on), which endure, than politicians, who ultimately disappoint.

When politicians work to advance these ideals, they get praised. When they undermine the paper’s principles, they get criticized. Either way, the paper is committing journalism, not playing politics.

This policy spared the Journal a lot of grief over the years. Hopefully National Review doesn’t have to learn from Bartley’s wisdom the hard way.

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