For voters seeking the ballot recommendations of Seattle media, but unwilling to sift through the many political and neighborhood blogs, there are but two options: The Seattle Times and the Stranger. With such a small sample of endorsements, each pick is closer to a boulder splash than the sprinkling of pebbles it used to be.
The two papers' editorial boards may not quite act like Seattle's de facto political parties, but they at least serve a totemic role, giving a sense of identity to how one votes. The Stranger has positioned itself on the left, appealing to the young urbanists who live on Capitol Hill and Ballard and never missing an opportunity to insult the Seattle Times. The Times, meanwhile, continues to hold its ground as the voice of moderates — “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” according to the editor of the Seattle Times editorial page, Kate Riley.
From the outside, it looks like something of an arms race between the two — with the papers both buying advertising space for elections-related Google searches.
While the Seattle Times editorial staff maintains that its goal is mostly to inform, hugging objectivity as closely as it can, The Stranger happily rams its endorsements down your throat.
This newspaper binary is a long way from the stone throwing days of the late-'90s Stranger. “It’s funny because back in my day of the Stranger it was still seen as a semi-outlaw tabloid — kooky gay pranksters prancing around in gold lamé jumpsuits,” says former Stranger reporter turned political consultant Sandeep Kaushik. “There was a lot of that dismissive attitude and condescension toward the Stranger.”
Now, from the perspective of page analytics, candidates and political consultants, it appears the newspaper's stream of conscious approach is as powerful as ever. Even the most backhanded endorsement from the Stranger — the paper recently described one of its favorite City Council candidates as having a "serial killer vibe" — is arguably a major win for a campaign, especially one challenging the status quo.
While the situation started to change about 10 years ago, says Kaushik, it really took off with the decline of traditional media and the rise of the Internet. It used to be that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Times were the binary – progressive readers turning to the P-I for its picks, moderates and conservatives looking to the Times. Meanwhile, the Stranger and the Seattle Weekly complicated that divide as the rabble-rousers on the outside.
The Weekly and the P-I (now an online-only shadow of its former self) have stopped endorsing candidates. In the meantime, we've seen a growing generational divide, says Kaushik. “Younger voters don’t get their information in the way older voters do,” he says. “Older voters watch TV and read the Times. Younger voters are getting their information online from Slog (the Stranger’s blog), etc. We have seen in recent election cycles in Seattle that divide is significant.”
How do these endorsements translate to votes? It’s impossible to come to any broad conclusion. But for Kaushik’s money, the Stranger endorsement is the most important in town. And that’s coming from a man who, despite his Stranger past, often finds himself working for mainstream liberal campaigns facing direct opposition from the newspaper.
Web traffic analytics help tell some of the story about the Stranger's political influence. Stranger Publisher Tim Keck provided Crosscut with a snapshot of readership for The Stranger’s 2015 primary endorsement guide and its “cheat sheet” — a list of the newspaper’s picks — from the time it was published in July to Election Day in August. The numbers do not include print readers or readers of Slog.
When the endorsements first came out in July, readership was about 8,000 views on the first day. That number dropped pretty quickly the next day and bottomed out around 1,000 views a day for the next couple weeks. But in the day before and day of the election, readership boomed to about 10,000 views a day as people scrambled to fill in their ballots. That was for an election with remarkably low voter turnout.
The average time spent on the endorsement page was close to six minutes -- and eternity in Internet time. (By comparison, The Stranger’s overall average is less than two minutes, according to Keck.) Granted, the endorsement story is a lot longer than a lot of what The Stranger publishes, but it says people are clearly reading the endorsements closely, perhaps even filling out their ballot as they go.
Even more telling: When the “cheat sheet” check list of Stranger recommendations was first published in late July, readership was almost zero. But on Election Day, it saw an enormous spike, according to Keck.
The Seattle Times declined to provide analytics — Riley calls them “proprietary” and says she doubts Crosscut would provide analytics to another publication either. (Crosscut’s editors say they might.) But by using Google AdWords, Crosscut found that Google searches for “Seattle Times endorsements” and “Stranger endorsements” were roughly the same in July and August, although that doesn’t necessarily connote overall readership and does not include the Times’ much broader reach through its print paper (the Stranger does not do home deliveries).
According to Riley, online traffic to the general election endorsements started slowly, likely because the Times rolls them out one at a time. But the paper recently made its own online version of a cheat sheet, compiling all of its picks into one posting, and has seen an increase in traffic over the past week. Riley expects a larger uptick this weekend — when lots of people vote.
Ultimately, the effect of either paper's endorsement depends on the race. When it comes to any race outside of Seattle, the Times undoubtedly wields more sway; the Stranger simply doesn't get the same readership outside of the city. Within Seattle, though, the Stranger is more willing than the Times to endorse long-shot or even fringe candidates -- and when it does, the effect is tangible.
Political consultant and Crosscut contributor Ben Anderstone picks out a few examples of where this ripple is most obvious. In 2012, The Stranger endorsed perennial candidate James Robert Deal for Lieutenant Governor, not because of Deal but out of the newspaper’s distaste for incumbent Brad Owen. (In its endorsement of Deal, who ran on an anti-fluoridation platform, the Stranger called him “batshit.”)
Deal never really stood a chance. He was as close to starting from zero as you can get. But while he pulled in a measly 4 percent statewide, he ended up with 11 percent in Seattle, buoyed by 26 percent in Capitol Hill and 30 percent in Georgetown, neighborhoods with younger, Stranger-friendly populations. The votes were nearly enough to lead the primary contest in those areas.
“That's The Stranger's sway when it's encouraging ironic voting,” says Anderstone. “When it gets serious, it has even more influence.”
After Deal lost in the primary, The Stranger, in a rare vote of support for a Republican, gave its endorsement to Bill Finkbeiner in the general election -- and not at all ironically. “He's the sort of uncommon, socially progressive Republican who is pro-choice, supports gay marriage, and even says he'd support a tax increase to fund education,” read the endorsement. Finkbeiner — a Republican, in case you'd forgotten— won three precincts in Capitol Hill and actually performed 3 percent better there than in greater King County. In the same election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney performed 81 percent worse in Capitol Hill than in broader King County.
In next Tuesday’s election, we’ll almost certainly see The Stranger Effect pretty concretely in the District 2 race. The Stranger endorsed incumbent Bruce Harrell in the primary where he walloped the competition. Tammy Morales came in second with 24 percent to Harrell’s 62. But the newspaper jumped ship on Harrell, switching its general election endorsement to Morales. “I hate to give one outlet such power,” says Morales, “but I did have people on the doors ask me, ‘What happened in the primary? We usually use The Stranger as a guide.' ”
Since she bagged the newspaper’s endorsement, she says, “It really turned the race around. It triggered this wave of momentum. Fundraising is up, support on the doors is up. It’s a weird thing to say.” Morales may remain a long shot, but with The Stranger's endorsement she seems certain to at least come much closer to Harrell than she did in the primary.
The Stranger’s publisher, Tim Keck, downplays the paid advertisements for the endorsements, saying simply that the newspaper pays to promote its content from time to time on Facebook, or as a way to short-circuit Google's search algorithm: When readers search for endorsements, he says, they are often directed to old pages because Google is slow to pick up the new ones. "We figure it's worth the 30 bucks to move faster than the search engine," he says.
For Kaushik, though, The Stranger's actively promoting its endorsements would fit in with the tradition of the Cheat Sheet, which was originally designed for voters to cut out of the paper and bring into the ballot box with them. “For all the joking,” he says, “The Stranger takes its endorsements really seriously. The paper’s vision of itself is that it’s a big player in the political sphere.”
Despite the paper’s obvious power, its endorsement isn’t a free pass to office. While it has an outsize effect on races like that for superior court judge (“I make my living off politics and I don’t even know about these candidates,” says Kaushik.) among more highly publicized races, a Stranger approval isn’t enough by itself. “No endorsement will seal the deal by itself,” says Kaushik.
In a two-endorsement town, there is one formula to almost guarantee a win: approval from both the Stranger and the Times. In advance of the primary, Debora Juarez was hardly a name at all. But after getting both papers’ support, she won District 5 handily. At-large candidate Lorena Gonzalez had more name recognition going in than Juarez, but her dual endorsement earned her more votes than all of her competition combined.
From its roots as a band of jumpsuit pranksters, has the jester become the tyrant? At some point, does the Stranger have so much power that it no longer deserves its "alternative" status?
"They have the power that the voters feed them," says Kaushik. "I don’t think they have too much power." Kaushik would know: In 2013 he worked to elect now-Mayor Ed Murray. The Stranger fought for former Mayor Mike McGinn. "They really hammered us," he says. "It didn’t work."
Correction, Oct. 30: Upon Mr. Kaushik's request, we have added "gold lamé" before "jumpsuits." We regret any offense caused to Mr. Kaushik, the staff of The Stranger or the 1980s.