New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the Union Leader, endorsed Newt Gingrich today in a front-page editorial signed by publisher Joseph W. McQuaid. The paper’s contrarian conservatism — they rarely endorse frontrunners — has a history of shaping the New Hampshire Republican primary. The Union Leader endorsement helped propel Pat Buchanan to a surprisingly strong (given that he faced a sitting president) 40% of the vote in 1992, and to an upset victory over Bob Dole in 1996. Their endorsement of John McCain (a striking departure from the UL‘s hostility to McCain eight years earlier) was a key factor in his New Hampshire victory in 2008, a remarkable comeback given that for much of 2007 McCain’s campaign was left for dead by many observers.
On the other hand, Union Leader endorsements didn’t do much good for Pete Dupont in 1988 or Steve Forbes in 2000 (they finished fourth and third in New Hampshire, respectively). But those cycles were both characterized by emerging two-man races (George H.W. Bush vs. Dole in ’88, George W. Bush vs. McCain in ’00) that left the UL unhappy with the choices; their endorsements amounted to statements of protest. That’s not the case in this cycle, where we’ve seen a succession of Not-Romneys rising and falling one after another. Obviously other events in the coming weeks can swamp the effects of a newspaper endorsement, but if the Union Leader maintains a drumbeat of advocacy for their chosen candidate, as they sometimes do, it could help crystallize the race into a Romney vs. Gingrich contest.