The Endorsement That Mattered in Iowa

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By: Joe Strupp

While the effect of newspaper endorsements on election outcomes is debatable, The Des Moines (Iowa) Register’s support of Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is seen as a major factor in his surprise second place finish in the Iowa Democratic caucuses Monday.

Noting that Edwards was polling well behind several candidates — including previous front-runners Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) — before the Register (Click for QuikCap) editorial backing him appeared Jan. 11, political watchers contend that the unexpected endorsement forced voters to give the young senator another look.

“I think it had a big effect,” said Steffen Schmidt, who hosts a weekly political talk show on WOI Iowa Public Radio. “I know a lot of people who used it after it came out. It came at the same time that he did well in a debate and ran some good ads.”

Edwards mentioned the endorsement prominently in every television ad following the supportive editorial, Schmidt added. “I have not seen a candidate in the past use an endorsement that way,” he said. “It was like a movie credit.”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a well-known political commentator and senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at The University of Southern California, said the endorsement allowed Edwards to rise from the pack. “It gave him credibility,” she said. “He’s an outsider and it gave him a hall pass to contest the Iowa caucuses.”

Richard Doak, the Register’s editorial page editor and one of seven editorial board members, agreed that most newspaper endorsements do not have the impact that Edwards got from this one. “I think this endorsement made a lot of Democrats take a second look and they liked what they saw,” Doak said.

Edwards benefited from receiving the endorsement at a time when many voters remained undecided and the field of candidates was larger than usual. Those factors forced voters to give the endorsement more attention, especially when it involved a surprise candidate like Edwards, who was not a local product, not a front-runner, and was a newcomer.

“I think the biggest help was letting people look at him in a different way,” said Paul Anger, Register Editor. “He grew on us.”

“It was a surprise that we picked an underdog — most would have expected us to pick Dean or another frontrunner,” Doak explained, saying the choice was unanimous among the board and included little discussion. “We had written him off as not experienced, but over time, watching him comport himself, we changed our minds.”

Doak said Edwards did well in the last debate and ran positive, thoughtful ads. “He seemed to articulate the fundamental Democratic argument best,” Doak said. “The need to redirect the resources of government into the service of working Americans.”

While the Register’s caucus record since it began such endorsements in 1988 is pretty impressive during contested races — with three endorsements going to eventual caucus winners and two to candidates who placed second — Doak said this outcome carried even more weight. “I think the timing was right for it to have the effect that it did,” he added.

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