Sunday, October 10, 2004

Star Tribune, Endorsements, and Bias

Scott Johnson and John Hinderaker of Powerline have written extensively on problems with the Minneapolis Star Tribune poll data. In fact, one of Scott's articles in Minnesota Law and Politics was part of a group that won an award from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. The Minnesota News Council recently held a forum on the topic of problems with the poll. The topic of Star Tribune endorsements receives less discussion. The Star Tribune is careful to point out that its news division is separate from the editorial board, but to the extent one can make generalizations about print media, cable news, and talk radio, it is possible to discuss a general bias at the Star Tribune.

In a Spring 2002 article on judicial campaign speech, Plymouth Nelson, a former editor of William Mitchell Law Review, wrote a footnote about Star Tribune endorsements in Minnesota:

For example, a review of the editorial endorsements of the Minneapolis
Star Tribune from election years 1988 through 2000 reveals the tilt
these endorsements have taken. The following results are listed in order of
Democrat, Republican, and Independent (if present) candidate percentages
taken as a whole from that 12 year time period: U.S. President, 100-0; U.S
House, 73-25-2; U.S. Senate, 75-25; Governor, 33-67; Minnesota Legislature,
70-29-1. The results are on file with author. The extremely partisan
commentary within these endorsements is typified with remarks such as those
against the Republican challenger of Kathleen Sekhon, the Star Tribune’s
endorsee. “Those ideas – cutting taxes, restricting abortion, relaxing laws
against carrying concealed weapons – won’t contribute much to bettering life
in Minnesota.” Editorial, MPLS. STAR TRIB., Oct. 27, 1998, at A13.

Plymouth has since graduated and is currently serving his country as a JAG officer in the U.S. Army. He generously shared his research with me on the Star Tribune endorsements from 1988-2000. With the assistance of political analyst Orlando Ochoada, I took another look at the figures.

In addition to endorsing Democrats more frequently than Republicans, the Strib rarely endorses a Republican in a close race. Looking at U.S. House endorsements, almost all of the Republican endorsements are in safe Republican or safe Democrat districts. When considering endorsement in, say, the Third District, the Republican candidate is going to win anyway, so it is safe to endorse him. In districts safe for Democrats, an endorsement of a Republican here or there gives the appearance of being even-handed without risking an effect on the outcome.

With one exception, the margin of victory in U.S. House districts where the Star Tribune endorsed a Republican ranged from 20,385 to 124,352 votes. In these races, either the Republican or Democrat won handily, so the endorsement probably did not affect the outcome. Of this group, the smallest margins were for Republican incumbents Vin Weber (35,623) and Arlan Stangeland (20,385), both in 1988. All of the rest were easily double-digit percentage margins of victory.

The lone exception to the only-endorse-Republicans-if-it-won’t-affect-the-outcome rule is the race for Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District in 1994. The incumbent Democrat won by only 5,400 votes against a Republican whom the Strib endorsed. The endorsement language gives a hint as to the reason:

IR challenger Bernie Omann tells of a time during this year's campaign when a
moderator got mixed up about which candidate was in which party. That's not
surprising. This race pits an incumbent Democrat who opposes abortion and
voted against President Clinton's budget bill and NAFTA against a Republican
who vigorously supports NAFTA and GATT and says it isn't in any American's
interest for the president to fail. Issues alone are not the reason to replace Collin
Peterson, however. His self-described cynicism about government, along with a
decided negativity and low energy level, combine to make one wonder why this
incumbent wants to go back.

Omann is young, enthusiastic and optimistic. His approach to social problems is
frequently nuanced and subtle. The question becomes: Why send a cynical man back to the fray he so dislikes when a bipartisan, energetic challenger is itching to go?

The Strib is willing to endorse a Republican in a close race if that Republican sounds more like a Democrat than his opponent. Whew! For a second there I was worried that the newspaper would undermine my argument about bias in its endorsements.

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