I was on the road yesterday, and so am late getting to the big news story: the decision by the New Hampshire Union Leader to endorse Newt Gingrich in the upcoming New Hampshire Republican primary. Make no mistake about it – this is a big news story which is why it led most of the major political talk shows yesterday. Coming just as Newt is beginning to surge in polls, and with only about 40 days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Republican primary, the timing of the endorsement could scarcely be more auspicious, not least because it is the second presidential election in a row in which the Union Leader failed to back local guy Mitt Romney.
Nonetheless, despite the media buzz, it’s hard to tell whether this is going to be as substantively important as pundits suggest. I, for one, am skeptical. Longtime readers will recall that I generally don’t put much stock in the power of endorsements, either by individuals or newspapers, to independently impact the outcome of presidential races. Now, it’s possible that this endorsement will have a marginally greater impact because it occurs in a highly visible primary race – the New Hampshire primary typically gets far more media coverage than almost any other nomination event – during a period when the outcome of the Republican fight is still in doubt. Given the fluidity of the race, one might argue that this endorsement is potentially different than, say, Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama in the closing days of the 2008 election, an event that in my view had zero impact on that race.
In fact, however, the Union Leader has only a mixed record in picking New Hampshire primary winners, as the following table shows (contested races only):
|Year and Endorsed Candidate||Win New Hampshire Primary?||Win Republican Nomination?|
|1976 – Ronald Reagan||No – finished 2nd||No|
|1980 – Ronald Reagan||Yes||Yes|
|1988 – Pierre Du Pont||No – finished 4rth||No|
|1992 – Patrick Buchanan||No – finished 2nd||No|
|1996 – Patrick Buchanan||Yes||No|
|2000 – Steve Forbes||No – finished 3rd||No|
|2008 – John McCain||Yes||Yes|
|2012 – Newt Gingrich||?||?|
Of course, we can’t be sure that the Union Leader’s endorsement didn’t help even in those years in which their preferred candidate didn’t win – maybe the newspaper’s backing made the race closer than it otherwise might have been? It’s true that if you look at the roster of their endorsees through the years, it is a who’s who of longshots and iconoclasts. I’m mean, Pierre Du Pont? Steve Forbes? Occasionally, as in 1996 when Pat Buchanan narrowly beat Bob Dole, one could argue that the newspaper’s endorsement made a difference. But even in the other years maybe a Forbes or Du Pont benefitted even though they didn’t win. I tend to think historically the Union Leader has been more interested in making a point of principle by backing underdogs that fit with the paper’s conservative ideology rather than embracing the candidates favored by the Republican Party establishment, but this doesn’t mean their endorsement doesn’t matter at all.
The problem becomes trying to assess the independent impact of the endorsement against all the other factors that are influencing Newt’s rise in the New Hampshire polls. Consider that Newt had already gained about 12%, on average, in New Hampshire polls in the period from Nov. 15 through yesterday, when the Union Leader endorsed him. You can see the trend here – Newt is in green, Romney in purple (source is RealPolitics poll aggregator).
If the current trend holds, Newt might gain an additional 20% in support by the time of the New Hampshire primary, putting him close to 40% overall, particularly if other candidates drop out. Now, if you ran a simple analysis in which you regressed Newt’s final share of vote (say 40%) against his polling average at a point just before the Union Leader endorsement (say, 18%), and included a measure for the Union Leader’s endorsement, and your regression includes all the other Republican candidates who did not get an endorsement, you might conclude that the Union Leader has a pretty big impact on Newt’s final vote tally since he’s likely to end up with more votes than his current poll status indicates. But you could also be wrong – the Union Leader might in fact have simply jumped on the Newt bandwagon without having any independent impact at all on the final vote, given that Newt’s surge predated the endorsement. Put another way, the Union Leader might just be very good at spotting candidates who are moving up already, or are poised to do so.
This is all a long way of saying that while it is certainly nice to get the endorsement of the state’s largest paper, that event by itself is probably not going to make Newt the winner in New Hampshire. Of course, as I’ve stated repeatedly, the nominating process is still in a very fluid state, one in which it is difficult to specify with any certainty what events matter, and by how much. So I could be wrong about this latest endorsement – maybe it will, by itself, push Newt to the top. Then again, a few weeks back everyone (but me) was trumpeting Chris Christie’s endorsement of Romney, one of the several dozen he’s tallied already. Mitt’s status in the polls, however, has remained relatively flat despite all those endorsements.
Bottom line: is this a big story? Yes. Does it help Newt in New Hampshire? Maybe. Is Newt now the favorite to win the first primary? No. (But it doesn’t mean he won’t!)