The Orlando Sentinel has backed every Republican seeking the White House since Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Not this time.
"This president has utterly failed to fulfill our expectations," the Florida paper said in supporting John F. Kerry, prompting some angry calls and a few dozen cancellations.
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"A lot of people thought they could trust that the Sentinel would always go Republican, and when that didn't happen, they felt betrayed," said Jane Healy, the paper's editorial page editor.
The Sentinel is among 36 newspapers that endorsed President Bush four years ago and have flip-flopped, to coin a phrase, into Kerry's corner. These include the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Memphis Commercial Appeal, according to industry magazine Editor & Publisher. Bush has won over only six papers that backed Al Gore, including the Denver Post, which received 700 letters -- all of them protesting the move.
Nine more papers, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer yesterday, abandoned Bush after four years but did not support the Massachusetts senator. Instead, these papers -- the Detroit News, the Tampa Tribune and the New Orleans Times-Picayune among them -- threw up their collective hands and made no endorsement.
"We have decided not to add one more potentially polarizing voice to a poisoned debate," the Plain Dealer editorial said. Amid reports that Publisher Alex Machaskee, who chairs the editorial board, wanted to back Bush, the Ohio paper acknowledged that a majority of the board favored Kerry.
Even many editorial page editors say they do not believe their endorsements move many voters in an age of round-the-clock opinion-slinging on television and online. But the Bush defections may reflect a degree of disillusionment with the president, at least among opinion leaders, principally on Iraq but on domestic issues, as well.
"I've always argued that presidential endorsements, which may mean a lot to political activists and groupies, are the least important endorsements big-city newspapers make," said Brent Larkin, the Plain Dealer's editorial page editor, whose paper has backed a candidate in every election since at least World War II. "People make up their own minds and do not need our nickel's worth."
Nolan Finley, who runs the Detroit News editorial page, disagrees: "I've heard people speculate they don't mean as much anymore, but I think they're influential still, particularly in close races. Voters are looking for answers in an election like this one." The decision not to endorse was "an agonizing process," he said, noting that the News has backed every Republican seeking the White House since Ulysses S. Grant.
All told, Kerry leads Bush 142 to 123 in endorsements, and when measured by circulation, 17.5 million to 11.5 million, Editor & Publisher says. The Massachusetts senator has won the backing of the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Des Moines Register and both Seattle newspapers. The president has the support of the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Columbus Dispatch, the Dallas Morning News, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Washington Times and both Cincinnati newspapers.
Others that switched from Bush in 2000 to Kerry in 2004 include the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.; the Idaho Statesman in Boise; and the Bangor Daily News in Maine.
Kerry won over some editorial boards through personal campaigning. Earlier in the year, said the Sentinel's Healy, she believed that "Kerry was too liberal for us as a senator from Massachusetts." But through an hour-long interview with the board and the presidential debates, "we became convinced he would be moderate as president, and more moderate than President Bush in terms of fiscal responsibility and the war, in terms of bringing in international cooperation."
Kerry also spoke by phone with the Plain Dealer's Larkin and Machaskee.
In its no-one-to-endorse editorial, the Tampa Tribune put it this way: "We cannot support Bush because of his mishandling of the war in Iraq, record deficits pending, assault on open government and failed promise to be a 'uniter not a divider,' but what Kerry stands for is unclear."