Whether you’re running a race for city council, state legislature, or a contested congressional seat, your campaign plan needs to include a detailed strategy for securing endorsements from newspaper editorial boards. In a tight race these endorsements can often provide the validation a campaign needs to effectively certain constituencies—all the more so in smaller contests where turnout is lower and the reach of local or regional newspapers is greater.
“I have never heard of a candidate who did not want the endorsement of their local newspapers, and in statewide races you’re looking for endorsements from as many newspapers as possible,” says John Kimball, the former chief marketing officer at the Newspaper Association of America.
Aside from the strategic implications of securing endorsements from certain newspapers, Kimball argues there’s a simpler reason candidates should be devoting serious time to an editorial board strategy: the data suggests that newspaper endorsements actually work when it comes to increasing support. A study conducted in 2012 by Kyle Dropp and Chris Warshaw, assistant professors at Dartmouth and MIT respectively, found that endorsements increased support for presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial candidates by two to four percentage points. The study looked at how 200 newspaper endorsements impacted elections between 2006 and 2012. If you’re looking to secure the party base in a primary, endorsements from partisan newspapers in congressional contests actually reinforced support among their readership the most, according to the study.
If step one is working an editorial board strategy into your campaign plan, step two is properly setting the expectations of both the candidate and the campaign team. You may have a charismatic and compelling candidate, but that doesn’t mean he or she can face a hostile editorial board and change their minds on policy.
“Unless the views of the candidate align somewhat with either the editorial position of the newspaper or its owner in smaller, community papers, there isn’t much a particular candidate can do to ensure they get a positive endorsement,” notes Kimball.
So how do you make the best impression? It starts with planning a strategic pitch and ensuring your candidate is well-prepared.
Making an impression
Whether a campaign is aiming to get an endorsement from a national or local paper, the main goal is to generate credibility for the campaign and help lock down base voters. If you’re really starting from square one on a local race, determine which publications either attract your campaign’s target group or have the cachet with local leaders or voters. Not all local newspapers will actually issue endorsements so you may need to determine which publications actually do, and more importantly figure out who will take part in the decision.
Jason Cabel Roe, a partner at the Republican consulting firm Revolvis, says that failing to engage editorial boards routinely is the biggest mistake he has seen campaigns make. Contact with a newspaper’s editorial board is not a one-way street, and if your campaign or candidate acts as though all they care about is doing enough to snag the endorsement, editorial board members may very well take that into account.
“The editorial page won’t dictate if you get an endorsement or not,” says Roe. “Reach out to the editorial board as much as you would a reporter. If you’re not sincere or honest with them, it’s going to be hard to engage them and win them over.”
At the same time, staffers should be building a relationship with the paper’s reporters. It’s their reporting that will help the editorial board frame the conversation with your candidate, and even inform many of the editorial board’s questions when it meets with the candidate.
How about buying local ads?
When dealing with papers in some locales, campaigns often find themselves debating whether buying newspaper ads will help their chances of securing an endorsement.
According to Alex Navarro-McKay, managing director at the New York-based public affairs firm Berlin Rosen, buying newspaper ads should really only depend on whether the target audience has a good chance of seeing the ad.
“Weeklies or local newspapers are considered more when it is understood that if a candidate pays for ad space, they are later going to be endorsed by the newspaper. But if you’re going to advertise, it should actually be a persuasive tool for voters,” he says.
It might feel unseemly, but Cabel Roe says he has seen instances where spending money advertising in a local newspaper can actually help in the effort for an endorsement, especially with smaller weeklies. But Kimball notes that smaller markets and community newspapers have decreased their attempts to endorse. He says many of them don’t particularly like seeing their endorsement turned into a TV ad or used in a direct mail piece.
Sealing the deal
Once your candidate gets in front of the editorial board, what’s next? If you’re facing an editorial board that’s more sympathetic to your candidate’s issue positions, focus on sealing the deal and not making mistakes. Ensure the candidate is able to cover a range of issues and topics. While you don’t want to volunteer too much or stray too far from the course, you also don’t want your candidate to seem overly-rehearsed or stiff.
“Chances are the editorial board has already made their decision on the major issues and they really want to look at them as people, how they perform under pressure, how conversant they are on the issues,” says David Yepsen, former political writer, columnist, and editor at the Des Moines Register. In other words, the goal is to make the candidate as comfortable as possible heading into the editorial board conversation. The campaign should spend a generous amount of time anticipating the questions the board is likely to ask.
“With our clients we usually prepare them for the editorial board meeting by conducting mock interviews. We anticipate the questions as best as possible,” Roe says. “What I usually make a candidate do is write out the answers to make sure they’re better prepared.”
It can also be an opportunity for the candidate to make some news.
“To have an item or something [the candidate] really want some coverage on is great to bring up, because these are news people who want something new and different and something out of the ordinary,” Yepsen says.
The strategy heading into an editorial board discussion is all the more important when you know the candidate will be at odds with the board when it comes to policy. In this case, it’s not a matter of trying to change the minds of board members—that likely won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing a candidate can do to potentially secure the paper’s endorsement.
“I’ve had candidates who were so good at articulating and thinking on their toes that they’ll win over a paper on the other side,” says Roe. “[The editorial board] may say they don’t agree with the candidate’s policies, but trust their leadership and commitment to the people.”
Candidates really get in trouble in front of editorial boards when they try to be all things to all people. Your candidate’s answers won’t always satisfy everyone, and that’s okay. When the candidate doesn’t know the answer to a question, make sure they don’t try to fake it, especially in front of an editorial board. Yepsen says the best thing for a candidate to do is admit when they don’t know the answer to a question because “it’s much better to do that than wing it and make a mistake.”
Lastly, don’t just bypass newspapers with editorial boards you think are hostile to your candidate.
“I think it’s important to ask for the endorsement of the paper,” says Yepsen. “That’s important, even if the paper looks like it’s hostile. I think the candidate gets some credit for showing up, facing the music, and it makes them a better candidate.”