Republicans in the early states often saw Gingrich in more nuanced terms. Remember: A 55-year-old primary voter in South Carolina would have been a mature adult, in his or her late thirties, when Gingrich became speaker. Voters like this would see the same Newtonian baggage (probably a matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage) that obsessed campaign-trail reporters, but they would be more likely to put it in context. Waiting to hear Gingrich speak in Warrenville a few days before the South Carolina primary, Vicki Rutland, a pharmacist who emphasized that she had been married for 31 years, said, “As a Christian, I don’t like that he’s on his third marriage and things like that….But while it gives me pause, it won’t influence my vote.” Similarly, in Salem, NH, I saw the nods of remembrance from the audience when Gingrich recalled Republican skepticism about his claims that the GOP would take over the House in 1994: “No Republican had won a majority in 40 years. So guess what? Most of my colleagues thought I was nuts.”
Still, it was hard for the press to abandon the story line that Gingrich was a ghost-of-Christmas-past candidate. A New York Times blog post just before the New Hampshire primary even faulted Gingrich for talking excessively about Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s, since “it is an open question how many voters under 50 appreciate the references.” It is fascinating that Thatcher, the subject of a new movie that earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination, is treated as part of ancient history. But put-downs like this also misunderstand political demographics: A majority of New Hampshire GOP primary voters were over 50, and presumably they do not appreciate references to the 1980s as if they were the time of the Punic Wars.
The exit polls from Florida, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa revealed an unambiguous trend: the older the voter, the higher the Gingrich vote. What that underscored is that the more vividly voters remember Newt as speaker, the more likely they are to vote for him. In South Carolina, for example, the former House speaker’s margin ranged from 28 percent among the youngest cohort of voters (18 to 29) to 47 percent among Republicans old enough to qualify for Medicare.
Let me stress: I am not trying to portray Gingrich, who is just four years older than Romney, as a martyr to age-ism in the press pack. But this case does illustrate a larger truth about modern political journalism.
Political reporters are constantly asked to theorize about how an attack line in a debate, a negative 30-second spot, or a campaign-trail gaffe is likely to resonate with voters. There is nothing wrong with this, since the alternatives for producing horse-race coverage are either stenography or an even more slavish dependence on fickle poll numbers. (Let’s save the debate over whether the public is served by this kind of breathless who’s-ahead-today journalism, popular though it may be, for another time.)
As a result, campaign reporters are constantly required to make intuitive leaps. When you have an hour (at best) to file after a GOP debate, it is impossible to conduct voter interviews, especially since the denizens of the nearby Spin Room are some of the most atypical Republicans on the planet.
At these deadline moments, too many reporters and pundits err in assuming that voters are just like them, shaped by the same life experiences and cultural forces. Campaign journalists, for the most part, are adept at factoring out ideological bias when it comes to assessing a presidential candidate’s prospects. And they realize that many primary voters only follow the broad strokes of the campaign coverage, rather than obsessing over every tweet about Bain Capital or whatever. But especially in the early presidential primaries, when voters skew older, this technique of trying to forge a Vulcan mind meld with hypothetical voters can lead the youngsters badly astray.