Newt and the Age Gap

What young reporters don't understand
March 1, 2012

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.

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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.

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.

Since the demographic make-up of the mostly male campaign press corps is unlikely to change, the only realistic remedy is self-awareness on the part of correspondents and TV pundits who were too young to vote in any election in which Bill Clinton was on the ballot. It is not enough to skim the history of prior presidential races before getting on a plane to Des Moines or Manchester; a smart, young campaign-trail reporter should take pains to understand the emotions and memories that 20th-century history arouses in caucus-goers and primary voters. The other remedy (and it is one that I fear is being eroded by the slavish obsession with polls) is to leave the candidates behind for a day or two and just talk to voters. Polls, especially short-question automated telephone surveys and brief exit-poll questionnaires, never fully capture the nuances of how voters make a decision.

As an older reporter, I will have to make my own adjustments for the fall campaign, when younger voters make up a larger slice of the electorate than in the GOP primaries. Rather than ignoring the cultural cues embedded in a campaign’s choice of music, for instance, I have to master them. At least I don’t have to worry about a cultural gap with the current GOP presidential contenders: Newt Gingrich campaigns in a suit on Saturdays; Mitt Romney courted his wife Ann by taking her to see The Sound of Music; and fashion-plate Rick Santorum wears the kind of sleeveless sweaters that you might encounter on a 1950s sitcom. As for any gap between Ron Paul and me, I can handle it. 

Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.