In this topsy-turvy political year, Newt Gingrich has exhausted every resurrection metaphor from the world’s great religions and undoubtedly, at times, has felt akin to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funerals. This has been a campaign in which voters have needed surge protectors to safeguard themselves from the punditry surrounding ever-changing frontrunners. By the end of the first phase of the primary and caucus season in January, the press pack had few unexpressed thoughts, no matter how ephemeral. But despite all that, it is stunning how infrequently Gingrich was taken seriously before his temporary breakthrough victory in the South Carolina primary.
This Newt neglect might have been avoided if campaign reporters had paid attention to one of the most striking demographic characteristics of the GOP electorate in the early caucus and primary states: its age. According to exit polls, 78 percent of GOP voters in the Florida primary were 45 or older. This was not just a Florida phenomenon—not just retirees there flocking to the primary. In South Carolina, the site of Gingrich’s early triumph, 72 percent of voters were 45 or older, and more than half of them were old enough to remember the 1963 Kennedy assassination. The same pattern was visible in New Hampshire (69 percent of voters 45 or older) and the opening-gun Iowa caucuses (68 percent). The explanation is simple: Mature adults are disproportionately likely to vote in primaries, and none of the GOP candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) aroused any discernible passion among younger voters.
What makes this generation gap journalistically relevant is that most political reporters are younger than springtime. Campaign-trail reporting, as Yeats might have put it, is “no country for old men,” or older women either. While there are conspicuous exceptions (this boy on the bus is covering his ninth presidential race), most of the reporters that I encountered this cycle in press filing centers and at campaign events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were well under 40. Thanks to never-ending newspaper buyouts and cable TV’s crush on attractive young pundits, most of this season’s campaign press corps regard Ronald Reagan as an historical figure. Major web-based outlets, like Politico and The Huffington Post, depend heavily on aggressive young reporters to file maybe six stories a day. And the advent of Twitter makes it possible for fledging campaign reporters to quickly become influential, helping forge conventional wisdom at an age when they are still too young to serve in the Senate.
Please don’t misunderstand—this is not meant as an old fogey’s lament that things were better when reporters toted portable Olivettis. Drinking late at the Sheraton Wayfarer, once the epicenter of New Hampshire primary coverage, did not automatically produce dazzling political insights any more than booking a hotel room at the Algonquin is the key to literary greatness. So let’s can the nostalgia. I will take a modern tracking poll over the bourbon-soaked wisdom of a county chairman any day.
Still, the zigzag trajectory of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign started me thinking about how the age of political reporters can play a role in inadvertently shaping coverage. In three decades of covering presidential politics, I have noticed similar reverberations from a journalistic generation gap only once before. It was triggered by the draft controversy that (along with Gennifer Flowers) dogged Bill Clinton in the days leading up to the 1992 New Hampshire primary. At the time, as recollection has it, Clinton’s contemporaries in the press corps (like me) were more sensitive to the moral ambiguities surrounding Vietnam War service than more judgmental younger reporters, who were still struggling to keep within the lines of their nursery-school coloring books when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In his memoir, All’s Fair, James Carville said about the draft issue, “The generation gap was about a hundred miles wide.” Yet Clinton rallied to become the “Comeback Kid” after finishing a solid second in the New Hampshire primary.