The Fix: Newspapers wield waning power in opposition to Trump

Once upon a time, a newspaper endorsement for a political candidate was about as good as it got. In the era before the internet, newspaper editorial boards (not to be confused with the reporting arms, he added hastily) evaluated the pros and cons of the candidates and eventually offered down an endorsement that could make or break a candidacy. Big, important newspapers could shift the fortunes of people seeking the presidency.

Nowadays, that’s … less of the case.

The 2016 election has been an aberration in a lot of ways, including in the world of editorial endorsements. We’ve noted before how many newspapers are breaking with long-standing tradition to come out in opposition to Donald Trump or, for the first time in decades, to support a Democratic candidate for the presidency. This is a case in which it’s easier to show than to tell.

There’s a lot of red on that graphic, a reminder that even in less conservative places editorial boards often leaned Republican historically. But not this year. Twelve of the newspapers on that list endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 but aren’t backing Trump this year. For 11 of them, it’s the first time they haven’t backed the Republican since at least 1980 — and often for far longer.

The good people of Wikipedia have put together a running compilation of which newspapers have endorsed who, giving us a broader look at how editorial boards are lining up in 2016. Of the papers that have weighed in so far this year, 97 did so four years ago as well. Of those, 56 backed Barack Obama, 40 chose Mitt Romney and one picked Gary Johnson. This year, the split is very, very different.

Put simply: The overwhelming majority of newspapers, particularly in larger cities, have weighed in to oppose Donald Trump’s candidacy. It fits neatly into Trump’s overall campaign message: The establishment system wants to see him lose, and few things better encapsulate the stodgy establishment than newspaper editorial boards.

But it’s not 1950. The Washington Post is an important institution that is worthy of your subscription, but I think we can accept that the endorsement of our editorial board doesn’t carry the weight that it once may have. This, too, captures the moment well: Trump came along at a moment when traditional power systems were shifting or hobbled. Newspaper editorial boards aren’t the most powerful example of that, but they’re a good one. Like the stalwart graybeards of the Republican Party, it’s not clear that their warnings and advice make any difference to the voters powering Trump’s support.

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