Slightly more than 70 percent of incumbent candidates win re-election, so one might guess that incumbents win the endorsement race too. But they don’t. Sitting presidents who run for re-election win support on average from just a fraction more than 50 percent of the newspapers that issue endorsements. In eight of 14 reelection campaigns, the incumbent wins fewer endorsements than his challenger.
The distribution of editorial support for presidential candidates varies dramatically by party. In 16 of the last 20 elections, a majority of American newspapers who endorse political candidates for president have preferred the Republican candidate. Democrats typically lose the endorsement race.
The historical pattern of greater editorial support for Republican Party candidates can be seen in both first races and re-election campaigns. Democratic incumbents earned the support of only 40 percent of America’s endorsing editorial boards during their initial victorious campaigns. In his 1976 victory over then-incumbent Gerald Ford, challenger Jimmy Carter earned the nod from only 16 percent of endorsing newspapers. Republican incumbents, in stark contrast, won their initial election with much more substantial support. On average, 74 percent were endorsed by America’s dailies. The weakest Republican candidate in modern times was George W. Bush, who won 59 percent of newspaper endorsements during his 2000 campaign.
The average incumbent president loses 5 percent of his endorsements when he runs for re-election. Of the 10 elected presidents who have stood for re-election since 1932, seven lost editorial support, while three gained additional endorsements. Support for the last three incumbents dropped substantially, by 10 to 25 percent each. The only other president to lose such a large percentage of his endorsing newspapers’ support was FDR in 1940. Roosevelt faced not so much concern about his policies, especially with war looming, but rather endured the complaint that standing for a third term was inappropriate, indeed “un-American.”
The only three presidents to gain editorial support for their re-election campaigns were Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and, surprisingly, Jimmy Carter. In 1972, Nixon — while hampered by national debate over the Vietnam War — faced a challenger in George McGovern who could not overcome his own campaign. McGovern’s call to “Come Home America” was echoed in the editorial reply “Come Home, George McGovern,” a plea to find a path closer to the political mainstream. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign likely benefited from challenger Walter Mondale’s unpopular call for higher taxes. Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign could hardly fall further from the support for his 1976 campaign. The few additional newspapers to climb on his bandwagon were not enough to sustain his re-election campaign.
Partisan differences in support of incumbent re-election campaigns are striking. Democratic incumbents are supported by 30 percent of all newspapers that take a position on the race. Republican incumbents have been supported by 70 percent of newspapers. Furthermore, of those presidents who have run for re-election, newspaper endorsements fall further for Democrats. Endorsements of Democratic incumbents fall on average 6 percent, while support for Republican incumbents drops about 3.5 percent.
So where do we stand in 2012? Republican challenger Mitt Romney is off to a fast start, winning more of the earliest endorsements than President Obama. That is not surprising. History suggests Obama will lose endorsements from some of his 2008 supporters.
Obama does have a long way to fall. In 2008, he received a greater proportion of newspaper endorsements (64 percent) than any other Democratic candidate in history. On the one hand, no elected Democratic incumbent has ever earned the support of more than 40 percent of America’s newspapers for his re-election campaign. On the other hand, if Obama’s endorsement percentage falls that far, he may be in the same position as George H. W. Bush who lost 25 percent of his support in 1992.
Expect Obama to lose the endorsement race, but it is another matter for him to lose the election. All previous Democratic incumbents who stood for re-election except Jimmy Carter were re-elected. The endorsements will have to swing dramatically against Obama. History is on his side unless he loses one third or more of his 2008 newspapers to his challenger. That shift in sentiment would be historic.
John McIver is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas department of government. He has presented his research on elections and endorsements in papers for the Western Political Science Association and the American Political Science Association.