The Manchester Union Leader's influence in the 1996 New Hampshire Republican primary.

Author:Farnsworth, Stephen J.
 
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In a media environment dominated by large corporations answerable to stockholders, newspapers and television news programs are often criticized for being bland and inoffensive as they try to protect the financial bottom line (Picard 1998; Sanford 1999). No one, however, would ever make such a claim against the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's astonishingly aggressive, independent newspaper. For decades, its front-page, fire-breathing editorials have attacked politicians and policies in the most strident of terms, hurling such insults as "Dopey" Dwight Eisenhower, Jerry "the Jerk" Ford, and Edmund "Moscow" Muskie (cf. Buell 2000; Veblen 1975; White 1970, 1973). When President Clinton visited the state after the impeachment controversy, the paper ran a front-page banner headline "Mr. President, you're a disgrace!" above the masthead (February 19, 1999).

Were it not for the New Hampshire primary, the Union Leader would be little more than a curiosity on the national stage, a museum piece offering the opinionated invective that American journalism largely outgrew a century or more ago (Moore 1987; Schudson 1978; White 1973). Both the Union Leader and its Sunday edition, the New Hampshire Sunday News, have circulations too small to convey much influence beyond the state (66,250 daily and 93,768 on Sunday for the year ended March 31, 1997, according to the Union Leader report to the Audit Bureau of Circulations). New Hampshire without its first primary likewise would not be expected to figure prominently in national politics, as the state is home to fewer than one out of every two hundred Americans.

But that primary changes everything for both the Granite State and the Union Leader. Every four years, and for much of the time in between, Republican presidential candidates woo the state's electorate and its dominant paper, long thought to help determine which Republicans leave New Hampshire as likely nominees and which ones leave as ex-presidential candidates (Buell 2000; Mayer 1987; Veblen 1975). Ronald Reagan received a major boost from the paper on his way to winning the 1980 contest, and commentator Pat Buchanan became a viable alternative to President Bush in 1992 thanks to the paper's aggressive support and a weakening economy. Of course, the paper's influence has its limitations. Not even the Union Leader could make a winner out of Pete DuPont, the paper's favored candidate in 1988, or Steve Forbes, backed by the paper in 2000 (Adams 1987; Brady and Johnston 1987; Ceaser and Busch 1993, 1997; Palmer 1997; Robinson 1978).

This study examines the relationship between Union Leader news and editorial coverage and candidate preferences by likely New Hampshire voters during the weeks before the state's 1996 Republican primary. This study uses a content analysis of the paper's news stories and published editorials and opinion columns conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan media research institute in Washington, DC. The content analysis, which looks at the dimensions of candidate horse-race standings as well as more substantive matters, is compared to daily tracking polls conducted by American Research Group Inc.

The New Hampshire Primary and the Union Leader

Many scholars and politicians complain about New Hampshire's privileged position atop the presidential primary calendar, but no one has been able to do much about it. New Hampshire keeps moving its primary earlier to stay ahead of other competing state contests, and candidates who propose that New Hampshire not go first are quickly dismissed by the state's electorate, as happened to presidential aspirant Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) in 1996 (Buell 2000; Ceaser and Busch 1997; Mayer 1997; Trent 1998).

While New Hampshire may be unrepresentative of the rest of America-the state's population is 98 percent white--both New Hampshire and equally unrepresentative Iowa have been able to retain their advantageous positions largely because would-be presidential candidates fear to offend such powerful electorates and because the other forty-eight states have been unable to agree on an alternative arrangement (Palmer 1997). New Hampshire does not stay first in line because of some general sense of respect for its primary. Peirce and Hagstrom (1983, 205) are among those who have condemned the state's position in the nomination process in harsh terms, describing New Hampshire as "the state that permitted America's most bizarre and self-centered political environment to flourish."

Other researchers offer more positive assessments regarding the Granite State and its electorate, more of whom read the Union Leader than any other paper. Buell (2000) noted that the primary electorates in New Hampshire are actually quite close to the composition of both parties' primary electorates nationally. Buell (2000) and Brereton (1979, 1987) have observed that the state has a better record at picking the eventual nominees, particularly Republican ones, than many other states with later primaries.

New Hampshire's relatively small size and its political culture's intense focus on the primary offer some advantages for some candidates, as many voters can meet individual candidates face to face at coffees and town meetings or at least read about them extensively in the state's locally oriented publications (Brereton 1979, 1987; Duncan 1991; Sprague 1984; Rueter 1988; Palmer 1997). The existence of widespread retail politics in the Granite State gives dark-horse candidates greater opportunity to become competitive, if not to win the nomination. Poorly financed underdogs like Jimmy Carter--who won both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1976--could never have campaigned effectively if the first contest had been in a much larger and more expensive media environment like California or New York (Brereton 1979; Buell 1987; Robinson 1985).

But this perceived distinctiveness may be less true than it once was, and the media may explain why. Some researchers have suggested that the networks have begun to play a dominant role in the primary, making New Hampshire more like the rest of the country in terms of television-dominated campaigning than many of its supporters would like to admit (Brady and Johnston 1987; Farnsworth and Lichter 1999, 2002; Orren and Polsby 1987; Rosenstiel 1994).

The state's dominant and stridently conservative paper, the Union Leader, figures prominently into attacks on New Hampshire's leadoff position, particularly on the part of reporters and of candidates subjected to the paper's attacks (e.g., Peirce and Hagstrom 1983; White 1970, 1973). Academic researchers who have considered the paper's influence have reached conflicting conclusions. Moore (1987) concluded that the Union Leader had a powerful effect on the 1980 Republican primary, which was won by Ronald Reagan, but Palmer (1997) argued that George Bush's poor performance at a debate in Nashua had at least as much to do with Reagan's ultimate victory in the state as did the support Reagan received from the Union Leader. In the 1992 GOP contest, Buell (2000) argued generally in support of the Union Leader's influence, though he found in that contest that ideology was roughly as important to a voter's choice as whether that voter was a reader of the Union Leader. The paper's readers split 50-50 on Bush and Buchanan in the 1992 primary, while voters who did not read the paper favored Bush by a 63-36 margin.

The Union Leader's basic approach in influencing the state's primary voters is twofold according to past research: praise relentlessly the favored candidate and attack without mercy the candidate who poses the biggest threat to that favored candidate (Brereton 1987; Buell 2000; Moore 1987). Indeed, Moore (1987) suggested that the paper's greatest influence may be in deterring votes for the candidate the paper campaigns against rather than helping the paper's endorsed candidate.

Buell (2000) speculated that the Union Leader's influence may have declined somewhat following the death of William Loeb in 1981, the expanding influence of Manchester's WMUR-TV, and the fact that the Boston Globe and the Boston television stations are available throughout much of the state (cf. Palmer 1997). Even so, Buell found that the Union Leader's twice-endorsed candidate, Pat Buchanan, did better in towns where the paper's penetration was the greatest and did the worst in those communities where the paper's penetration was the least in both the 1992 and 1996 primary contests.

Some broad issues regarding general media influence are considered in this study of the Union Leader. Central among them is the "bandwagon effect," which suggests that positive media commentary boosts the candidates who receive such treatment (Bartels 1985; Patterson 1980, 1994). Along these same lines, Farnsworth and Lichter (1999) found that an "antibandwagon effect" was particularly powerful for a candidate (in this case Bill Clinton) who received overwhelmingly negative news coverage before the 1992 Democratic New Hampshire primary. The Union Leader approach of launching aggressive attacks on some candidates and offering aggressive support for others (Buell 2000; Moore 1987) creates the potential for both a powerful...

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