Every election cycle in Durham, the INDY, along with the city’s three major PACs—the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the People’s Alliance, and Friends of Durham—offers endorsements in the city council and mayoral races. And every year, candidates aggressively seek out these endorsements—whether they like our coverage or not—in the belief that, without them, their goose is cooked.
With the new city council having been sworn in, all five council members and the mayor will have the endorsement of this newspaper: Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson in the at-large seats, whom we endorsed in 2015; DeDreana Freeman, Mark-Anthony Middleton, and Vernetta Alston in the ward elections this year; and Steve Schewel for mayor. We did similarly well in this year’s Raleigh elections. Every candidate we endorsed won, including newcomers Nicole Stewart (at-large) and Stef Mendell (District E), who defeated a long-tenured incumbent in something of an upset.
But, as much as I’d like to think of us as kingmakers, it’s never been clear to me how much our endorsements—or, frankly, any endorsements—really matter, if at all. Did candidates win because we picked them? Or did we just happen to pick candidates who were going to win in any event? Does a newspaper endorsement matter more or less that one from, say, the People’s Alliance or the Durham Committee? Are most voters even aware of these endorsements when they head to the polls?
Last year, a UNC assistant professor of political science named Andrea Benjamin reached out to me. She was conducting a study on this very subject, and she wanted to chat about the INDY’s endorsement process.
(This is Benjamin’s description of our endorsement process: “The process for the Independent Weekly endorsement follows a format that combines aspects of the organizations’ processes. After the candidates submit a questionnaire, the reporters on staff are tasked with researching the candidates and the campaign. The writer covering the campaign makes a suggestion for which candidates to endorse, then the whole staff discusses the endorsement. The whole staff has to agree on the endorsements. They publish their endorsements a couple of weeks before the election, but they are also aware of the other endorsements the candidates receive.”)
In a new article for the journal Urban Affairs Review, Benjamin and graduate student Alexis Miller sought to answer questions about the role endorsements played in the 2015 Durham at-large council primary elections. They conducted an exit poll of 343 voters, asking them not only whom they voted for but also how endorsements affected their vote. And they found that “awareness of endorsements explains vote choice better than issues.”
“Although we are unable to provide evidence of the causal effects of endorsements in this article,” they write, “we provide evidence of an important precondition for such a causal effect: voter awareness of endorsements. We argue that for endorsements to matter in real-world elections, voters must be aware of these endorsements.”
Indeed, their analysis showed that knowledge of one of Steve Schewel’s endorsements translated to a twenty-percentage-point increase in support; for Johnson, twenty-five points; for Charlie Reece, twenty-four points.
Also, some endorsements matter more than others in this town, the study found. Between 2009 and 2015, fifty-nine candidates ran for Durham City Council, and twenty-nine of them made it to the general election. In the primaries, the PA endorsed all eight winners; the DCABP endorsed five winners and two losers; and the Friends of Durham endorsed four winners and two losers. The INDY—which, the study notes, offers its endorsements after the PACs release theirs—endorsed five winners and no losers. In the general, the same story played out: the PA endorsed ten winners and one loser; the DCABP and Friends of Durham had more mixed records; and the INDY went six for six.
“In particular,” the authors write, “endorsements from the People’s Alliance and the Independent Weekly translated into wins for this election.” ‘
Read the entire study here.