11/02/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Iowa Paper's Romney Endorsement Sinks Like Stone: Countdown Day 4

WASHINGTON -- A week ago, The Des Moines Register surprised the political world by endorsing Mitt Romney for president, the first time the storied Iowa newspaper had endorsed a Republican since President Richard Nixon in 1972.

Having spent tons of time in Iowa over the years (I'm pretty sure I've spent more nights there than in any other place I haven't actually lived), I tweeted the news as a straw in the wind: an indicator in a key swing state that Romney, who had already received a boost from the first debate with President Barack Obama, may have developed a good chance of winning the election.

Well, sometimes a straw in the wind is just ... wind.

So far, at least, there is no indication that the endorsement has had a seismic effect -- or any effect at all -- in Iowa. And the larger national trends, before and after Hurricane Sandy, have shown no significant movement away from the president and toward his GOP challenger. In fact, there is just as much, if not more, evidence in the opposite direction.

There is always a chance for a surprise: It's a close race in Iowa and other key states. In the meantime, here is my Tweeta Culpa. It's not news that I got something wrong, but it is illuminating to consider why.

For one, newspaper endorsements (and most endorsements, for that matter) don't count anymore, except perhaps in the case of local, low-information races. Voters are inundated with advertising and "free media" coverage; they are skeptical of official and semi-official authority; and newspapers (and their websites) don't have the clout and reach they once did.

I thought that the Register, one of the few truly statewide newspapers left in the business in one of the nation's most well-read states, was still an exception. That was romanticism on my part -- I began my career at what was once another such paper, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

Such papers, and their leading roles, are all but gone. As for The Des Moines Register, the "statewide" moniker is misleading these days. Its Sunday all-Iowa circulation is down to a mere 213,000, half of what it was not long ago.

Then there is the old "rule" in campaigns that voters who wait to the last minute to decide overwhelmingly "break" against the incumbent. The reasoning was that if they were going to stick with the person already in office, they would not have such trouble deciding.

This notion remains an article of faith within the Romney camp, but it may no longer apply, if it ever did. (There is new scholarship that questions it.) As my brilliant colleague Mark Blumenthal explained recently (but too late to help me!), things have changed.

Incumbents don't just sit there and take it anymore; they counterattack preemptively. And with the electorate so divided and then locked in by early and aggressive campaigning, there aren't enough truly undecided voters left to make that big of a difference.

The dynamics of voter crowds are changing in the digital era. In fact, there aren't crowds anymore in the old-fashioned sense. Voters are identified and appealed to one by one, issue by issue, and demographic by demographic. Everyone is listening to his or her own Pied Piper.

One famous campaign manager I knew used to talk about "The Churn" -- what he regarded as mystical mass swings at the end of a campaign, when a kind of follow-the-leader momentum would gather strength. This is no longer that world, or at least not in this year's election.

Aside from the process reasons, there is another explanation for why the Des Moines Register endorsement wasn't the stone that caused big ripples in the pond.

It's the man they endorsed and the way he has run his campaign. The Register endorsement itself was grudging. And Romney -- for whatever reason -- has been unable to convey enough of a sense that he understands the lives and trials of the people who will vote next week.

Most voters aren't eager to give President Obama another four-year contract. But they aren't going to abandon him in sufficient numbers unless Romney gives them more positive and tangible evidence that he cares. He's "likeable" enough now: On that measure, he is the president's equal. But people still say by large percentages that they doubt he understands them.

Meanwhile, the president has had day after day to show the victims of Hurricane Sandy -- and the rest of the country -- that he urgently cares about their problems.

Romney has three days left to somehow overcome that, but the Register won't be of much help.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.

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