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Newspaper endorsement a ritual of the political season with the occasional surprise

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder (left), and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer (right).
Gov. Snyder's office, and Schauer campaign.

One of the rituals of the political campaign season is the newspaper endorsement. This past weekend, the liberal-leaning editorial page of The Detroit Free Press – also the state’s largest newspaper – caused some head-scratching and tongue-wagging with its endorsement in the governor’s race.

The Free Press editorial page had pretty much stuck with the Democratic ticket in this election cycle. That is until this past Sunday, when it endorsed Republican Governor Rick Snyder for reelection.

“Sometimes these choices are easy. This wasn’t one of those times,” the editorial read. “…But we’re convinced that Snyder, despite a sometimes a troubling record, is the better choice.”

It’s not the first time, certainly, that the Free Press has endorsed a Republican, or even a Republican for governor. What got a lot of political types talking was that the endorsement was so tepid, and downright indicting of Snyder at times.

“I think people probably were a bit surprised given the deep disagreements we’ve had with the governor over the past four years, some of them have been epic in scale and intensity,” says Stephen Henderson, the Free Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and opinion page editor. The paper has lobbed some pretty serious criticism the governor’s way, and said in its endorsement that Snyder has caved too easily to the more radical elements of the Republican Party and flat-out broke his word when it comes to transparency and open government.

"Among many liberals, I think, there was rage. I think others kind of saw the hand-writing on the wall."

“At the same time, endorsements are comparable analyses,” says Henderson. “They’re not about just one person, but the two choices.” 

And the roughly 2,000-word endorsement essay was not gentle on Mark Schauer. The editorial complained the Democratic nominee shared the paper’s values, but failed to articulate a plan for accomplishing his goals.

Neither the Snyder nor the Schauer campaigns was willing to provide someone to offer on-the-record comments for this story. (Although the Snyder campaign issued an announcement that mentioned the Free Press among a list of endorsements.)

“Among many liberals, I think, there was rage,” says Joe DiSano is a Democratic political consultant, who says progressives felt betrayed by the paper, especially in a race that is by many measures, quite close. “I think others kind of saw the hand-writing on the wall coming. Other people really just didn’t care – like myself. I’ve made the conclusion that newspaper endorsements really don’t matter.”

“By the time the endorsements appear, which is usually late in the campaign, the people who are most likely to vote have made up their mind,” says University of Michigan political science professor Michael Traugott , “and the people who could be influenced by an endorsement don’t usually participate in elections.”

And that’s even more true in a low-turnout election like this year’s mid-terms.

Bu that doesn’t mean endorsements don’t have influence, says Traugott, that even though, newspapers’ circulation have declined. He say the reasoning behind endorsements can give voters some things to think about. Especially, when a newspaper does something unexpected.  

"There's no none-of-the-above on the ballot."

Free Press editor Stephen Henderson says, despite his editorial board’s reservations about both candidates, not making an endorsement was never a serious option.

“There’s no none-of-the-above on the ballot,” he says.

But The Toledo Blade just did exactly that. The paper said neither Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, nor Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerlald deserves its endorsement, and declined to recommend either.

But Henderson says voters have to make a choice if they’re going to participate in the democratic process, and that’s what his editorial board did. But that doesn’t mean they had to like it. 

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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