The Editorial Plea: How The New York Times Decides Who Wins and Loses Local Elections

sulzberger The Editorial Plea: How The New York Times Decides Who Wins and Loses Local ElectionsWith a few days to go before Election Day in 2010, State Senator Eric Schneiderman was locked in a tight Democratic primary for attorney general. So his campaign released a television ad as rudimentary as any broadcast that political season, featuring a number of prominent politicians—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, West Side Congressman Jerry Nadler, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer—carrying a folded copy of The New York Times, while reading from its endorsement of his candidacy. The paper’s masthead floated at the bottom of the screen.

That campaign, like most Democratic primaries in New York City and State, had been staked on getting the paper’s backing, and a few days after he got it, Mr. Schneiderman eked out a 2-point victory over Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice, even though Ms. Rice was tacitly backed by Andrew Cuomo and much of the Democratic Party establishment.

“Eric Schneiderman became the attorney general because of that endorsement. Period,” said one political operative involved in the campaign.

The Times’ coverage of local politics has shrunk in recent years with the closing of the Metro section, but the paper’s ability to make or break candidates has grown. In conversations with nearly two dozen political operatives, office holders and candidates, the consensus was that The Times remains the biggest single factor in deciding who gets elected in this town. The paper’s imprimatur carries more weight than even the biggest unions. Pollsters estimate that a Times endorsement can boost a candidate anywhere between 5 and 20 points. Politicos say that it is worth the equivalent of out-raising your opponent by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“In Manhattan, I have colleagues who obsess over it,” said one City Councilman. “There are people here who, everything they do in public life, they gauge how The New York Times will react.”

There are, to be sure, local races in African-American or immigrant neighborhoods where getting The Times’ nod doesn’t much matter. But because of its sway in the whiter and more affluent parts of the city, which have the highest concentration of voters, the paper’s backing ends up being the primary factor in who gets elected to citywide and most boroughwide offices. And because Democratic primaries in New York State are so dominated by those voters—plus those in the affluent suburbs where the signature blue plastic bag is the must-have driveway accessory, the endorsement is the biggest prize for statewide races, too. (The other dailies, it should be said, have their audiences too, but The Times is still seen as an unbiased arbiter, and one whose editorial page most matches the sensibility of its readership.)

But even among those whose job it is to get politicians elected, very little is known about what it actually takes to get the paper’s backing. The point person for such an endorsement is editorial board member Eleanor Randolph. A lifelong newspaper woman who grew up in northwest Florida, Ms. Randolph studied history at Emory University, then quickly worked her way up the newspaper hierarchy with jobs at the Pensacola News, The St. Petersburg Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. There, she did a stint in Russia just after the fall of communism—her husband was the Moscow bureau chief for the London Independent—which led to Waking the Tempests, a book about “ordinary life in New Russia.” The family eventually found its way back to New York, and Ms. Randolph joined the editorial board in 1998. In time her purview has come to focus more and more on city and state politics (she was the author of the “Fixing Albany” series of editorials several years back.)