The Gingrich case is the first 21st century manifestation of this potential problem. From the moment that Gingrich entered the GOP race in mid-May 2011, the former House speaker was a figure of mockery in many accounts. A May 18 Politico news story was headlined, “Gingrich campaign fights for its life.” And the lede—prompted by the candidate expressing doubts about Paul Ryan’s slash-and-burn House budget plan—was equally apocalyptic: “Even his supporters predicted Newt Gingrich’s mouth might knock him out of the presidential race. But no one thought it would happen before his first real campaign trip to Iowa. Now, Gingrich is urgently struggling to convince the political class that his 2012 hopes aren’t dead.” After Politico reported his $500,000 credit line at Tiffany and his Greek cruise ostensibly prompted a mid-summer staff walkout, Gingrich was portrayed in the media as a Harold Stassen for the 21st century, a has-been cluttering the debate stage, solely to sell more books and tapes.
Then, in a rare political resurrection by an already well-known presidential candidate (Ronald Reagan in 1976 and John Kerry in 2004 are the only other examples that come to mind), Gingrich poll-vaulted to the top of both the Iowa and national standings. Unlike earlier over-hyped candidates—like Herman Cain, the Comet Kohoutek of 2012—Gingrich, the candidate with the most Washington governing experience, was a plausible GOP nominee. As a result, Mitt Romney and the Super PAC run by his supporters devoted December to a successful multimillion-dollar media barrage designed to pound Gingrich into Iowa corn meal. Late on the night of the New Hampshire primary, after Gingrich limped home a weak fourth (same as his showing in Iowa), New York Times polling guru Nate Silver wrote on his influential blog, “Mr. Romney is in an exceptionally strong position to win the nomination.” The next day (January 11), before any new polls from South Carolina were available, Silver played around with a “hypothetical model” that gave Romney an 87-percent chance of winning the first southern primary, which, in fact, turned out the other way.
What is relevant here is not the campaign rehash, but the reasons why Gingrich was so cavalierly dismissed by the political press corps. Admittedly, the former House speaker has many GOP critics who were eager to talk on the record to reporters, belittling his presidential prospects. But these harsh Washington judgments were accepted uncritically, with few reporters taking the next step to see if voters echoed these sentiments.
My theory is that most reporters covering the Iowa caucuses and pontificating about Gingrich’s prospects on cable TV were too young to ever have seen him at the height of his powers. Today’s 35-year-old reporter was in high school, possibly worrying about the senior prom, in 1994, when Gingrich electrified the GOP base by pulling off the impossible—winning the House for the first time in four decades. It was not only that as speaker Gingrich was third in line for the presidency, but also that he was without question the most important Republican of the 1990s.
While younger reporters intellectually know that backstory, they underestimate its emotional wallop. Imagine if reporters had only seen the Las Vegas Elvis without ever experiencing the sexual energy of the Tupelo Elvis, or the ’50s-are-dead potency of his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Few younger reporters understood that the thrice-married Gingrich, with his outsized ego and bombastic pronouncements, was also a conservative icon, and not just another over-the-hill candidate trying to extend his political shelf life.