Why the Endorsement of One New Hampshire Newspaper (With a Losing Record) Matters

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Erik Kellar / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks during a town hall meeting at the Naples Hilton in Naples, Florida, Nov. 25, 2011.

As the old Granite State saying goes, Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks Presidents. So what about the most powerful newspaper in New Hampshire, the Union Leader? On Sunday, the editorial board endorsed Newt Gingrich for President, rocking the presidential race. Suddenly, Gingrich has a very real, very current conservative credential that he can take with him on the campaign trail. But there is no certainty that it will give him the nomination.

That’s because the Union Leader has a history of picking protest candidates, who never win the Republican nomination, let alone the Republican primary in New Hampshire. The paper was an early champion of Barry Goldwater (lost New Hampshire primary, won nomination in 1964) and Ronald Reagan (lost primary and nomination in 1976, won both in 1980). But the paper has more recently contented itself with picking stinkers: Pierre Du Pont in 1988 (ahh, to remember the days when the GOP welcomed francophone names), Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 and Steve Forbes in 2000. “We are not trying to attach our name to a winner,” explained Editorial Page Editor Drew Cline on Sunday to CNN’s Candy Crowley. “That is not really leading. That would do our readers a very big disservice. We are looking at who we would like to see as President.”

Precisely for this reason, the Union Leader endorsement is the most important in the Republican primary. It imbues Gingrich with a clear credential, and a measure of authenticity. To the extent that there is a conservative establishment within the Republican Party, Gingrich just got a clear win.

But the bigger import of this endorsement in this cycle may be about who loses. Mitt Romney has to win New Hampshire, and he probably has to do it by a significant margin. It is basically his home state, it shares a media market with the state where he was Governor, and it is the place where he has been networking nonstop since 2007. Other establishment candidates who have been shunned by the Union Leader–Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, George W. Bush in 2000–have not had the same spiritual and strategic attachment to the state. Now that the Union Leader has declared Romney less fit for the nomination, we will enter the final month of the campaign with both the right and the left firing fairly similar attacks at the frontrunner Romney. While this may not be enough to deny Romney the nomination, it will almost certainly weaken him for the general election.

“Romney’s a guy who wants to be liked,” Cline told CNN on Sunday. Compare that message with this new (and of course misleading*) ad from the Democratic National Committee.

*There is a lot to chew over in this spot, and I won’t be able to get into all of the specifics here. But suffice it to say, some of these supposed flips are more like half-turns. Romney did support federal stimulus in early 2007, but he never supported Obama’s stimulus plan, as he says. When Romney said Detroit should go bankrupt, he was proposing a government backed process that would allow the American auto-industry to clear out its debt. It differed in the details from Obama’s solution, but was similar in kind. Romney has argued consistently since 2007 that his Massachusetts health reform plan should not be adopted by the federal government, but rather by other states. He did change his view on the human role in global warming. He did change his view on abortion. Like many Republicans, he supported TARP, and then criticized the way it was carried out. He has both embraced and tried to distance himself from Ronald Reagan. Stay tuned for more on all of these. There is a good chance we will talking much about them in the weeks and months to come.