Why the NY Times Dual Endorsement Might Matter in Iowa

January 21, 2020

What Would Happen in the Caucuses if the Vote Were Held Today?

By Al Giordano

(Note: This is an excerpt from Issue #101 of Al Giordano’s América, sent to subscribers on Monday, January 20. Not yet a subscriber? You can do it via this link.)

It’s tempting to dismiss last night’s New York Times double presidential endorsement for all the easy reasons: The ‘reality show’ process was more entertainment than news. It was designed mainly to drive ratings and traffic in a dying newspaper industry. The Times’ record of endorsements is sketchy (and on matters like, say, its support for the Iraq War 17 years ago, worse). People don’t vote based on endorsements. Donald Trump received zero newspaper endorsements but he’s president today.

All of that is true and yet this has already become the most talked about newspaper endorsement in history. By running it like a reality show, America’s Got Political Talent!, produced and aired that way on the FX network, emphasizing the camera angles on the editorial board judges’ reactions as much as the participation by the candidates, deploying creative tension in the buildup to the verdict, the Times succeeded to get much of social media buzzing about the endorsement before its results were known.

Not having had a track record of figuring out why the NY Times does things or what it will do next, I refrained from commenting publicly about it in advance. About 24 hours prior to the endorsement I did post this thought on a private social media page where I sometimes think out loud to a select group of friends:

As one social media commenter that goes by @abyss_gazer on Twitter wrote, presumably tongue-in-cheek: “I have no idea who the NYT endorsed. I don’t know. You have no idea how much I don’t care. I think I shall spend the day telling how much I don’t care about the NYT endorsement, not that I have ANY idea who they endorsed, because that’s how much I don’t care.”

In other words: If you’re tweeting prior to an endorsement that “endorsements don’t matter,” or otherwise trying to discredit an endorsement whose result is not yet known in advance, you’ve just confessed that indeed it matters to you more than you let on.

When weeks from now we look back upon the buildup toward the February 3 Iowa caucuses and the early primary contests that follow, we may come to view the Times’ dual endorsement of the two women US Senators in the contest as having been more influential than many presume right now.

Having been a regular and vocal critic of the New York Times’ journalism in my own work since the 1990s – and at times, including in court, at loggerheads with the drab institution known as “the Grey Lady” – it’s a paradox that I now conclude that the newspaper just did something that, gasp, might turn out to matter for the Iowa caucus results. But that’s life if you live long enough: Learning to appreciate the absurdity in the mystery of the enigmas one creates for him and herself.

A Contest Shaped by Media Events

It’s 1,100 miles from the George M. Cohan statue in Times Square to the Buffalo Head Drinking Fountain in front of the Iowa State Capitol building, but they are only seconds away from each other online and so are the rest of us. A media event on one end is consumed at the other, and vice versa, immediately. And the NY Times endorsement was more media event than pamphleteer opinion text.

What the Times Editorial Board sought to do, far more than influence a presidential campaign, was to make itself relevant in ways it perhaps once was but had ceased to be over the years. Going the ‘reality TV’ route may turn out to have achieved that goal for the once-paper-of-record. Even if we dislike the NY Times, we can admire its craftiness in how it produced the dual endorsement. Like what Jabba the Hut said to Boushh, the bounty hunter (an undercover Princess Leia) in the second Star Wars movie when she pulled the pin on a futuristic grenade: “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum,” Jabba laughed. “Fearless and inventive.”

It was a bold move for the Times to dismiss the tired 2016 narrative of “progressive vs. centrist” and put an alternative dialectic of “skilled vs. opinionated” as the real divide between Democratic candidates.

By endorsing both Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, the editorial board punted the left vs. center divide downfield for the voters to sort out and instead singled out the two remaining candidates who have the better talents and abilities to make real change as their respective and different tendencies define it.

Meanwhile, Back in Iowa

A big reason the leader in Iowa polls keeps changing – during the past year four different candidates have led in different surveys there – is that once one is perceived as atop the pack the others work to drag him or her down.  She or he become targeted enough to plant doubts in the minds of those who for a while preferred that one. Since everyone is worried about “electability,” but few have sufficient experience winning elections to understand how that works, changes in perceptions of “who can win the nomination” and “who can beat Trump” keep knocking the frontrunner-for-a-month down again.

What is also clear is that the “house effects” of competing pollsters’ methodologies have contributed to the lack of polling consensus. Some pollsters routinely have the same candidate doing better in their poll than in everyone else’s polls. Some of that is due to methodology (landlines v cell phones, demographic weights, how questions are phrased) and some of it, sadly, suggests bias and partisan gaming at play (see Rasmussen or Mark Penn or Doug Schoen for some of the worst examples of that).

That’s why I put more weight in polls from organizations whose track record over time I have come to trust more than others. The gold standard for Iowa Democratic caucus polling is Iowa’s own Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register. She’ll have one final poll out shortly before the February 3 caucus.

The one in the field I next most look to is David Binder, who was the Obama presidential campaign pollster in 2008 and 2012, and who is polling Iowa this cycle for the Focus on Rural America organization. Binder released that new Iowa poll today.

Binder’s latest snapshot – two weeks out from the caucus voting – has Biden with 24 percent, Warren with 18 percent, Buttigieg with 16 percent, Sanders with 11 percent and Klobuchar with 11 percent.

(Another ten percent goes to the also rans in this order: Steyer 4 percent, Yang 3 percent, Bennet, Bloomberg and Gabbard each with just one percent: that leaves 7 percent who have no declared first choice still.)

Binder then looked only at supporters of candidates who did not make the 15 percent threshold overall: those of Sanders, Klobuchar and the also-rans. Three out of four of those do express a second choice and say that if in their precinct their candidate doesn’t reach 15 percent, they will then caucus for a different specific candidate.

The second choices of that universe are: Biden with 24 percent, Buttigieg with 20, Warren with 16, Klobuchar with 7 and Sanders with 6.

Taking that data, if we then extrapolate those second-choice preferences we come up with a photo of what the vote might well look like if the caucuses were held tonight:

Biden: 32 percent

Warren: 24 percent

Buttigieg: 22 percent

Sanders 16 percent *

Klobuchar 13 percent *

These estimates (this is not a projection: I’ll send you mine the day before the caucus) are for the final count (the order of finish could be different in the initial vote counts before nonviable candidacies, below the 15 percent threshold to be counted, are eliminated at the precinct level.

There will also be an initial count of how many voters each campaign walks in with prior to the elimination round. Although campaigns that place better in that preliminary round will peddle it potentially as a “win,” pay that no mind: Associated Press and other news agencies have made clear that they will base their reporting of who wins, places and shows in Iowa based on the final number at the end of the night. That is the number, after all, that will determine how many Democratic National Convention delegates each eventually wins. Be on guard against those who spread confusion about preliminary tallies while the final tallies are still ongoing.

The asterixis I’ve placed on Sanders and Klobuchar are there because each of them treads water so close to that do-or-die 15-percent line that even the slightest momentum, up or down, could plunge one or both outside of contention or one or both back into viability.

Whether one or both of them survive will also impact which of the three Iowa frontrunners in Binder’s survey gain more ground or slip. If the Binder survey is accurate, and factoring other variables and barring any further game changing moments in the next two weeks, we would be looking at possible ranges along these lines…

(To be able to log-in and read the entire story, plus gain full access to all the content here at Organize & Win, subscribe to the newsletter via this link.)

You must be logged in to view this content. If you are not a member, register here!