Tom Horner's newspaper endorsements: The ghost in the machine

Categories: Elections

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There may be more to Horner's newspaper endorsements than his qualifications.
​​With the election only days away, Tom Horner's chance at moving into the Governor's Mansion are looking pretty slim. After all, leading political statistician Nate Silver gives Democrat Mark Dayton an 85% chance of victory, and Horner has consistently trailed the field in statewide polls.

But that hasn't prevented him from picking up endorsements from newspapers around the state. With a pair of exceptions, he's won support from each and every one.

His policies may not be the only reason behind the sweep.

Both of the state's largest papers are backing Horner, each citing his budget plan as a major deciding factor. According to the Pioneer Press, Horner's plan to fix the budget deficit is the most responsible:

In our view, Horner's plan is the strongest. We think it offers the best chance of restoring the state's fiscal stability without weakening our advantages in such areas as higher education and infrastructure.

The Star Tribune concurs, stating that Horner is the best positioned of all the candidates to make good on his pledges to redesign government.

But Horner seems best-suited to deliver on those promises. He makes a convincing case that he's committed to making public systems work better, neither coddling nor disrespecting public servants.

One could cynically suggest that both papers backed a candidate with little choice of winning in order to create an example of why they shouldn't be smeared with the familiar "liberal media" tag. Regardless, its the network of smaller papers around the state that seem to suffer from a thumb on the scale. Groups of them ultimately answer to the same authority.

North Dakota-based Forum Communications owns over 20 of Minnesota's local newspapers. Another 15 weeklies are owned by ECM Publishers.

ECM was founded by former governor Elmer L. Anderson, who, like Horner, drifted away from the Republican Party. In 2004, Anderson personally endorsed John Kerry for president, so it's not surprising that he and his papers would back the like-minded Horner.

After the Forum-owned Duluth News Tribune endorsed Republican challenger Chip Cravaack over Congressman Jim Oberstar, the incumbent Democrat singled out Forum as the reason the paper failed to back him for the first time in his career:

"The Fargo Forum owns the Duluth newspaper. They have dictated this outcome. It is one that fits their philosophy. It does not represent that of the Northland," he said.

Forum has been accused of leaning on its papers to push a conservative political angle before, but according to Duluth News Tribune editor Chuck Frederick, Forum did not contact the paper about which candidates it should endorse.

But clearly there is some communication between Forum and its papers on the subject: At least two of its papers ran exactly the same endorsement of Horner.

And in 2006, the Duluth News Tribune endorsed Mike Hatch in the Democratic primary. But after being purchased by Forum, the paper endorsed Pawlenty in the general election.

We were unable to reach Forum Communications for comment on whether or not it dictates endorsements to its papers. But MinnPost's David Brauer has shown that's exactly what they do.

Does any of this matter in the end? According to a 2008 study by Brown University, newspaper endorsements can influence voters, especially when they come from papers that aren't perceived as politically biased.

Of the two Minnesota papers that did not endorse Horner, the Mesabi Daily News backed Mark Dayton, while the Albert Lea Tribune endorsed... no one. Ouch.

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