NEW YORK -- The Des Moines Register endorsed President Barack Obama in the 2008 election and, given the paper's left-leaning editorial board, could be expected to do the same this time around.
Nevertheless, Mitt Romney met Tuesday with The Register. The Republican presidential nominee arrived early and took questions for 45 minutes from editors and reporters, seated around folding tables in a Quonset hut, before delivering a campaign speech on farm policy in the rural Iowa setting.
Picking up the paper's endorsement on Oct. 28 would be a surprise for the Romney campaign. But it's not out of the question.
Randy Evans, editorial page editor for The Register, told The Huffington Post that just as it shouldn't be taken for granted that Obama will win Iowa's electoral votes, like he did in 2008, it's not "automatic" the paper will endorse the president again.
The following day, Romney gave a 34-minute interview to another battleground state newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch. The Ohio paper, however, is more likely to endorse Romney given that it supported John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004.
Time is precious as candidates race toward the finish line. So Romney's decision to meet with two newspaper editorial boards on consecutive days suggests the campaign sees value in such engagement, which offers both front page exposure and a better chance of landing an endorsement before Nov. 6.
While Romney's campaign provided the names of the editorial boards the nominee met with, it did not provide comment about strategy regarding the meetings.
In the coming weeks, hundreds of newspapers, large and small, will shower endorsements on Republican and Democratic candidates. Sure, it's easy to write off the value of an endorsement, given the newspaper industry's woes and abundant opinion available online and through social media. These editorials may also seem like a relic of an earlier era when politicians worried only about those publishers who bought ink by the barrel.
But campaigns still want endorsements and are quick to blast out links to reporters, with arguments of support from local editors now reaching far past state borders. Although newspaper endorsements alone are unlikely to sway large swaths of voters in battleground states, they can reinforce voters' views. And looked at more broadly, endorsements can provide a telling snapshot of the electorate in an election's final weeks.
Greg Mitchell, a writer for The Nation who tracked endorsements during the past two elections while editor of the magazine Editor & Publisher, said he believes that they still matter.
Mitchell told The Huffington Post that while "no one would argue they're the key factor in the race," endorsements have signaled which way the election will tip during the previous two cycles. In 2008, Mitchell predicted which candidates would win 13 "toss-up" states based solely on newspaper endorsements, and he got 12 correct. Four years earlier, Mitchell was 14 for 15.
If Romney and Obama can squeeze in editorial board sit-downs in the coming weeks, it's likely the meetings will be with papers in "toss-up" states, where campaigns are now fighting for a sliver of undecided voters and trying to drive their respective bases to the polls.
Evans, whose board met with Romney in late 2011 before endorsing him in the Republican primary, gave the candidate credit for doing an interview with a paper that wouldn't be expected to offer support. Evans said it took several months to land Romney, who may have decided to accept the offer given "the closeness of Iowa."
The Romney campaign, perhaps fearing an on-screen stumble that would excite cable news producers -– see: Herman Cain -- only permitted The Register to use audio of the full interview.
Evans doesn't think that a single endorsement, even his own paper's, is necessarily a game-changer. "I doubt that there are many people sitting there, drumming their fingers, saying, 'I wish they'd hurry up. I have my absentee ballot and would like to have them tell me who to vote for,'" he said.
However, Evans added that it will be interesting to watch papers like the Chicago Tribune -- with a historically conservative board that endorsed Obama in 2008 -- to see if they stick with the president. "Four years ago, Obama getting endorsements out of publications that weren't seem as Democrat slam dunks symbolized something," he said. "It signified a strength there that you might not have thought about."
Obama overwhelmingly won the newspaper endorsement battle against McCain in 2008, but it remains to be seen if the tally returns to 2004 levels, when Kerry topped Bush by just eight endorsements. (So far, there haven't been any major upsets).
Obama has given more time to local than national media in 2012, but the campaign's strategy has been to engage more with local TV affiliates and sports radio hosts than newspaper editorial boards. While Obama recently met with the Cleveland Plain Dealer –- and similarly requested the interview to be audio-only -- it's the only meeting he's had with an editorial board during this election season. Romney, on the other hand, made numerous stops while vying for the Republican nomination.
During the primary race, Romney met with several papers in the early primary states of Iowa (Register, Quad City Times), New Hampshire (Union Leader, Fosters Daily Democrat, Laconia Citizens, Eagle Tribune, Derry News, Portsmouth Herald, Nashua Telegraph, Wiers Times), and South Carolina (The State, Charleston Post and Courier, Spartanburg Herald Journal). Romney also met with the Boston Herald, Las Vegas Review Journal, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Grand Rapids Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Wall Street Journal, according to the campaign.
When reached by email, an Obama campaign spokesman said the president is still deciding whether to meet with any more editorial boards.
Given Romney's recent visit, Evans he'd "be very surprised if they don't find a way to hook us up with [Obama]" -- even if by video conference rather than in-person. "The calendar is going to run out," he said.
The Columbus Dispatch noted in this week's Romney interview that "Obama has turned down numerous entreaties to meet with The Dispatch’s editorial board and/or reporters covering the presidential campaign."
Glenn Sheller, editorial page editor of The Dispatch, said in an email that the paper keeps the business of board meetings confidential, but noted that "our endorsement editorials generally are eagerly anticipated and much-commented upon -- pro and con -- once they are published."
"How much they move the needle in elections," he added, "I have no way to gauge."
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