Thirty years ago.
That was the last time Idaho had an election with drama throughout the ticket.
Sure, there have been some isolated good races along the way – most recently in the 1st Congressional District. And in the early 1990s, with Democrats earning a tie in the Senate, there was plenty of suspense with legislative races.
Since then, Idaho elections, especially congressional and statewide races, have had all the drama of those old communist Soviet Union ballots. Republicans always win, and incumbents almost always win.
That creates a problem for newspapers that endorse candidates, and especially for the Idaho Statesman, which two years ago limited its endorsements to statewide and congressional elections. The Statesman’s endorsements largely turned out to be an exercise of rubber-stamping incumbents, who had the on-the-job experience and were far better prepared than their challengers to address the issues.
During my days with the Statesman more than a decade ago, I was not a fan of editorial endorsements. Organization was a time eater; the interviews were stuffy, and the writing was mostly dull. I could only imagine how dreadful it was for readers somewhere around the 50th endorsements. And for what? Most of the time the nod went to incumbents and those in open races who came across better in a 30-minute interview. Moreover, the laborious process tended to take away from writing about other issues, and particularly issues that surface during a campaign. The Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase says it’s more productive for him to address issues as they occur, rather than put the newspaper’s name behind politicians – some of whom are not worthy of support to begin with.
In Idaho, three of the larger newspapers in the state – the Times-News (Twin Falls), the Idaho Press-Tribune (Nampa) and the Statesman -- endorse candidates (the Times-News and Press-Tribune also endorse in legislative races). Four others do not – the Lewiston Tribune, Coeur d’Alene Press, the Post Register (Idaho Falls) and Idaho State Journal (Pocatello).
There are good arguments on both sides.
“Most folks simply don’t have the time or interest to research all the candidates, and all the issues, ” says Matt Christensen, editor of the Times-News. “We do. And we believe it’s valuable to share with readers where we come out at the end of that process.”
Phil Bridges the opinion page editor of the Idaho Press-Tribune, says endorsements generate discussion “and get people talking.”
Robert Ehlert, opinion page editor of the Statesman, thinks that readers expect endorsements. “Our editorial board does not feel we are attempting to influence as much as we are hoping to inform with a number of tools. Endorsements are just one tool. If there is anything we want to influence people to do, it is to vote.”
On the flip side, Mike Patrick, editor of the Coeur d’Alene Press, gets a different read from his audience. “Many readers have expressed to me that they don’t care what a newspaper’s editorial board thinks about who’s most qualified for elected office. They say they want us to do our jobs as journalists and give them as much fact-based information as possible so they can make up their own minds.”
Patrick says his paper’s decision not to endorse is reflective of changing times with newspapers. “Once upon a time, editors and members of editorial boards seemed to have more time to research candidates individually. With less time for that and greater urgency in other critical areas, I found I wasn’t doing my homework very well.”
The Post Register goes one step further than the Coeur d’Alene Press, according to commentary editor Katie Stokes. The Idaho Falls paper doesn’t endorse candidates or publish letters to the editor endorsing candidates. Endorsement letters, she said in a recent column, become “less commentary and more commercial. There’s no place for it on the Post Register’s Commentary page, just as there is no place for advertising on the Commentary page.”
I question the relevance of editorial endorsements as popularity increases for early voting – which creates another dilemma for newspapers. As Ehlert correctly observes, “an endorsement too late in the race would have a diminishing impact. An endorsement too early might miss developments late in the race that could have changed who got endorsed.”
But the more that people vote early, the less reason they have for paying attention to editorial endorsements. That’s not a good thing as newspapers struggle to stay relevant in today’s world.