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

Ultimately, though, candidacies hinge on the endorsement interview. There, aspiring pols are often questioned by Ms. Randolph, with typically only one or two other board members present for local races—mayoral and gubernatorial races will often draw a much bigger crowd, but are ultimately said to be the prerogative of publisher Arthur Sulzberger (the page, for example, endorsed Mike Bloomberg twice for mayor, even though he withdrew from the city’s public financing system, a favorite hobbyhorse of the board and one of the exceptionally rare candidates to be afforded both advantages.)

Until recently, campaign aides and consultants were allowed to come in on the meeting, but that practice ended a few years ago when board members tired of consultants kicking their clients under the table for a gaffe—and after word got out that some consultants were bragging about their familiarity with the board.

Now, candidates go in alone for 45 minutes or so, and presentation counts for a lot.

“Superficial considerations count almost as much as any other kind of consideration—any one who denies that isn’t telling the truth,” said Michael Oliva, who is known as something of an expert at getting judicial candidates The Times’ nod. “People think of The New York Times as the old gray lady and a citadel of education and learning, but they are still human beings, and the humanity does factor in. You have to consider if the candidate is a Times kind of candidate—somebody who comes off as educated, well-spoken, physically put together, has a sense of humor.”

He has some other advice too: be a policy wonk, but don’t just regurgitate the paper’s own editorials back to them. Explain how you’re a good fit for the district. They will ask you about your opponent, he said, “But don’t let them draw you into that conversation.”

There are playbooks for this too. Consultants will drill their clients for weeks on how to handle the interview. Politicos say that Mr. Stringer is widely regarded as an expert on acing a Times interview after he scored their endorsement, now framed on his office wall, in his 2005 run for Manhattan borough president.

Invariably, the board will ask not just about your record and your ideas, but your campaign. Thus campaigns devote so much energy to rolling out policy papers, though few media outlets or voters bother to read them. Currying favor with the county machines is seen as a negative, and challenging your opponents’ signatures will almost certainly lose you the nod. Be in favor of good government and the environment, but anti-development absolutists should run for community board president. Ideas for closing the income gap are encouraged, but so is responsible budgeting. Going wobbly on abortion rights or gay rights is a disqualifier.

“You get the sense that for the single mother who makes $29,000 a year, they care a lot more about her right to an abortion than her right to a decent health care from her union,” said one political operative.

Back in the day, campaign staffers used to camp out at a newsstand across from the Times Building, or at another on Christopher Street where the first editions were plopped down at midnight. Today, the news comes via Google News alert on campaign blackberries, leading to virtual midnight celebrations.

But even still, the endorsement remains a vestige of an earlier era.

“When I was going to elementary school I was taught that if you don’t know who is running, you bring The New York Times into the voting booth with you and you vote that way,” said George Arzt, a local consultant also thought to carry great sway with the board. “There are a lot less publications than there were then, but they are still dominant.”

dfreedlander@observer.com

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