Hillary Clinton Woos Des Moines Register in Hopes of Endorsement Repeat

Whether a nod from the newspaper pays actual dividends is debatable.

Hillary Clinton meets with Des Moines Register editorial board on Sept. 22, 2015.

Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg Politics

Hillary Clinton rarely spends close to two hours in one place answering questions from journalists. For the largest and most influential newspaper in Iowa—the Des Moines Register—she made an exception Tuesday evening.

“I think that's right,” the former secretary of state said when the newspaper's editorial page editor asked her whether this was her first such meeting of the 2016 campaign.

With eight Register employees, including the newspaper's publisher, seated around a U-shaped table that had Clinton at the center, the Democratic presidential candidate answered dozens of questions on everything from her views on foreign policy to financial regulation to the use of a private e-mail server that has caused her campaign endless headaches. Bloomberg Politics was present as the Register's polling and news partner.

If tradition holds, it won't be the last time Clinton spends with members of an editorial board between now and the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. Newspapers in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa in the nomination calendar, also enjoy such access.

In an increasingly digital world, newspaper endorsements don't carry as much weight as they once did, although they still provide fodder for television and other advertising during the final weeks of the campaign.

“We pinch ourselves every morning,” joked David Chivers, the Register's publisher, after Clinton left the room and he reflected on the newspaper's unusual access to presidential candidates.

Eight years ago, when Clinton last sought the paper's endorsement, she and her husband pulled out all the stops. They invited a few top editors, reporters, and a columnist to appetizers and drinks at an upscale Des Moines restaurant, and the former president visited the publisher's office to personally lobby on his wife's behalf.

“I would not be surprised to see her pull out the playbook of eight years ago and wanting to press her case on the session on Tuesday and afterwards in the days and weeks to come,” said Randy Evans, a recently retired Register editorial page editor. “With her standing in the polls eroding in Iowa, if she doesn't go after the Register endorsement—playing to win—I think that could just give her another dose of bad news and I think she's looking for some good news.”

In the fall of 2007, Clinton was in the midst of a bruising nomination fight with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. About two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton won the paper's endorsement before finishing third in the balloting, behind Obama and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

The editorial board meetings are no longer the closed-door sessions they were just two presidential election cycles ago. Candidate appearances are typically broadcast live on the Internet and community leaders and others are invited to attend and sometimes ask questions. 

After the formal questioning ended, Clinton lingered for about another 15 minutes, making small talk with Register reporters and editors and posing for photos with the roughly 40 community members who had been invited.

Presidential candidates, especially Democrats, have long appeared before the Register's often liberal-leaning editorial board, sometimes multiple times. How much the endorsement is worth in actual caucus votes is debatable.

“Register endorsements usually don’t move the needle much,” said David Yepsen, a longtime reporter and columnist at the paper who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “They create some psychological momentum and buzz in the political and media community for a day or two, but for the most part they just affirm decisions voters have already made.”

Hillary clinton talks with des moines register employees after her editorial board meeting on sept. 22, 2015.

Hillary Clinton talks with Des Moines Register employees after her editorial board meeting on Sept. 22, 2015.

Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg Politics

The one exception, Yepsen said, is in a close Democratic caucus fight, like the one potentially shaping up now between Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and perhaps a late entry from Vice President Joe Biden.

“The paper’s editorial writers have a left-of-center bent and as such they’ve got some credibility with voters on that end of the spectrum,” he said. “Their endorsement of Paul Simon made a difference and gave him a psychological boost near the end. In 2004, their endorsement of John Edwards moved some numbers.”

Edwards and Simon, a deceased former U.S. senator from neighboring Illinois who competed in the 1988 caucuses, each finished in second place in crowded fields.

A 2011 analysis by Nate Silver, then at the New York Times, found that Register endorsements have been a mixed bag when it comes to caucus results, although it's impossible to isolate for something like an endorsement as a single variable.

Of the eight caucus candidates the newspaper had endorsed since 1988, Silver found, up until that point, six later beat their polling projections, although often by a small margin.

Clinton's top current rival, Sanders, made his visit to the editorial board earlier this month. On the Republican side, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina are among those who have already stopped by.

Carol Hunter, a former editorial page editor who is now the newspaper's news director, said the decision to back Clinton in 2008 was made about a week before the actual editorial was published. She described an animated Saturday session of board members that lasted several hours, as factions backing Clinton debated those supporting Obama.

Prior to the Clinton endorsement, Hunter said she received a personal phone call from Edwards. The former senator wanted to make sure his position on the earned-income tax credit was fully understood.

“Until you are in it and experience it, it's almost hard to believe,” Hunter said of the personal lobbying that can take place on the part of candidates and their surrogates.

The hardest-core wooing of the editorial board tends to take place about a month before the endorsement is delivered, Hunter said. “These are competitive people and other than Election Day itself, this is another way to show their chops and make a case and win,” she said.

Just because Clinton has been endorsed as the Democratic caucus candidate once before, Hunter said she shouldn't count on that support again. After endorsing Edwards in 2004, the newspaper backed Clinton over him before the 2008 caucuses. Just two members of the board from 2007 remain today, Hunter said, so it's not like Clinton faced many who backed her in the past. “It's a clean slate,” she said.

One of those new to the six-member board is Lynn Hicks, a former business editor who is now opinion editor. Among his duties is communication with the various campaigns to try to get visits scheduled.

One candidate who may not make an appearance is billionaire Donald Trump. He's been at war with the newspaper in recent months after it published an editorial calling on him to exit the race, prompting him to deny event credentials to Register reporters who have tried to cover his Iowa appearances.

“We've invited him,” Hicks said. “Mr. Trump seems to enjoy a good fight, a good conversation and some good give-and-take, so I think he would have fun with it.”

Asked if Trump has any chance of getting the newspaper's endorsement without paying a visit, Hicks politely said no. “That would be very difficult to make that determination if someone didn't come in,” he said.

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