The Des Moines Register has endorsed Mitt Romney for president, a decision that has angered quite a few people I know.
To understand how critically important the Register’s endorsement is to Iowans, you should ask Presidents John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Bill Bradley or Hillary Clinton. They all got Register endorsements for Iowa caucuses or the general election but did not win in Iowa or nationally.
This is the first time since endorsing Richard Nixon in 1972 (not a particularly good call) that the Register has endorsed a Republican for president.
But here’s something you should know about the Des Moines Register’s endorsements in presidential races: A coin flip is about as good an indicator of how Iowans will vote.
In the last 10 presidential elections, only four times has the winner of the Register’s endorsement received a majority of Iowans’ votes: Iowa voters have gone with the Register-endorsed candidate six times: Nixon, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama. Two more candidates endorsed by the Register (Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000) won Iowa with less than 50 percent of Iowans’ votes.
The last Register-endorsed candidate to win the Iowa caucuses was George W. Bush in 2000. Bradley won the Register’s endorsement that year but lost the caucuses to Gore. Nate Silver did a more sophisticated analysis of the Register’s caucus endorsements, noting that some Register-backed losers did better than had been projected before the endorsements.
When I created the Iowa Caucus Game in 1983, the Register’s endorsement (not just in presidential races) was considered such a kiss of death that I placed a card in the deck penalizing players for receiving a Register endorsement.
Let’s face it: Editorial endorsements in presidential elections are pretty meaningless. Maybe in a local race, where voters don’t know the candidates that well, voters pay attention to endorsements. But we decide how to vote for president based on party loyalty, personal ideology, debates, convention speeches, campaign appearances, TV ads, media coverage, whim and at least a dozen other factors more important than newspapers’ endorsements.
Update: Frank Miller and Gordon Gammack are two of the biggest names in Register history. Julie Gammack, one of Gordon’s daughters, notes one impact of the endorsement in the Facebook post below (this might be bigger than the actual impact the endorsement will have on how Iowans vote).