With a week to go before judgment day, Hillary Clinton has racked up at least 186 endorsements from daily newspapers — about 31 times more than Donald Trump, who has received half a dozen. This does not, however, mean the media establishment is "with her."
Political endorsements don't make much of a splash when they align with readers' expectations and political leanings. But according to a study published in 2011, endorsements that diverge from a given publication's norm — say, a right-leaning newspaper supporting a Democrat for the first time since World War II — have a measurable impact on readers' choices. Voters' trust in media outlets increases when they perceive a lower degree of bias, and they perceive less bias when an outlet defies its own conventions, as so many have in 2016.
These endorsements are also drafting a narrative of how this election, which will likely result in the U.S.'s first female president taking office, came to pass. Clinton's successes have made her credible. She has served as first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state. In those roles, she has secured health care access for millions of American children and 9/11 first responders, demanded gender equality and worked to repair the country's diplomatic relations. But even when her accomplishments have been acknowledged in grudging endorsements, they are overshadowed by fearful anti-Trump rhetoric.
Reflecting the "Never Trump" contingent of the Republican Party, an impressive number of publications with a solid record of endorsing GOP candidates — the Dallas Morning News and Columbus Dispatch, for instance — have urged voters to elect Clinton. So, too, have outlets like the San Diego Union-Tribune and Arizona Republic, neither of which has endorsed a Democrat for president in the past century.
The Clinton endorsements from conservative outlets frame the choice in a familiar way: Their editorial boards maintain that she is the lesser of two evils, as well as the country's best hope for defeating a Republican candidate who would wreak havoc in office.
In other words, these endorsements don't offer an independent case for Hillary as much as detailed cases against her opponent. It makes sense that newspapers and magazines haven't presented compelling cases for electing Clinton: Polls have determined that she and Trump are the two most disliked presidential candidates in modern American history.
But while unexpected endorsements could contribute to the election of the United States' first female president, they also demonstrate why the country might not be ready for her to govern.
Clinton happens to be more qualified to serve as commander-in-chief than any of the 44 men who have had the job, a fact that often gets sidelined in endorsements from conservative publications. Publications like the Union-Tribune, which described Clinton as "the safe choice," or the Morning News, which called her "a known quantity," have presented her experience in public service almost as a consolation prize for voters who choose to do what it takes to beat Trump. The motivation isn't her promise; it's his menace. That Clinton happens to be so qualified makes for a nice and easy justification for supporting her.
When we look back on the partisan cases made for electing the first female president in 2016, what will they tell us about why we made the leap?
"The members [of the editorial board] do not feel Hillary Clinton is a good candidate, either," Chris Quinn, vice president of content for Cleveland.com, wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They are mostly aligned in their sentiment that Clinton has significant and well-known flaws. But, as either Clinton or Trump will be president as of next January, the board feels no choice but to endorse Clinton, fearing that a Trump presidency threatens our national security and basic civic values."
"Trump is a unique threat and in an election where supporting third party candidates splits a national vote, we see but one option," the editorial board of Alabama's AL.com, which caters to a red state readership, wrote in its endorsement of Clinton. "Clinton may be the second least popular major party candidate in 50 years but she is also one of the most qualified candidates in history. And ultimately, if it isn't her, it's him. And that would be a disaster for America and the world."
To devote the bulk of an editorial to slamming Trump when it's ostensibly meant to persuade readers to vote for Clinton is to diminish the strength of her candidacy and downplay her qualifications.
When we look back on the partisan cases made for electing the first female president in 2016, what will they tell us about why we made the leap? What will it say that this particular woman's long list of accomplishments and her demonstrated competence has, in many instances, been presented as a secondary reason to support her?
In editorial endorsements, it would be irresponsible not to point out how disastrous a Trump presidency could be, or to compare the candidates against each other. But as the U.S. inches toward an historic precipice, focusing on the potential fallout from electing Trump has meant downplaying Clinton's accomplishments.
There will be people who vote for Clinton because they would have been swayed by her experience no matter what, as well as people who have long prioritized seeing a woman sworn in next January. There will also be people who vote for her because they are scared of her opponent, and who have been influenced by cases against him that have been masked as endorsements. Maybe those editorials will help achieve their stated goal of getting people to support Hillary Clinton, and maybe that will be for the best — but it won't be all they'll do. They will also leave a record that says something along the lines of, "We elected the first female president because we had to."