Don’t Conanize campaigns

The big NBC mess involving Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien has some angles that political strategists should be paying attention to. Satirist P.J. O’Rourke captured my thoughts in the title of his 1995 book of essays, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut. Are you listening, Conan? And are you strategists who constantly dote on the “youth vote” paying attention? Cool Conan just got punked by an aging Leno, working tag team with even older Dave Letterman.

We don’t have access to all the relevant research. There are lots of secreted audience surveys. But consensus is held about several points. First, older viewers abandoned “The Tonight Show” under Conan’s reign. Within months, the median age of viewers declined by a decade, from the mid-50s to the mid-40s. Second, many baby boomers were switching from “The Tonight Show” to Letterman’s late-night show on CBS. Normally, the NBC’s Hollywood-based biggies would have been ecstatic about Conan’s younger audience. Advertisers obsess over the 18-to-49-year-old market. Conan was reaching them. The problem was that his younger audience was smaller, much smaller. And that’s where the trouble began.

I should acknowledge that Leno had problems, too. His primetime show was not earning numbers the network needed. So some analysts will say that Leno’s age and guile weren’t responsible for his giving Conan a haircut. Without all the data we can never know, but the one thing that’s for certain is that the people who have seen all the numbers reinserted Leno after the local news as they shoved Conan to a seat farther back in the bus. Youth was not served, at least not symbolically. But this is just a skirmish in a bigger war. Conan and his younger cohorts have seemingly won the long-term war at NBC, only losing this one battle.

The relevant question for pols is whether political campaigns, like the networks, are being well-served by similarly focusing so much time and attention on 18- to 49-year-olds. Honestly, it’s hard to tamp down youth-vote obsession in Republican campaigns, so I can imagine it’s several times tougher in Democrat campaigns, because of the Democrat bent of many youth. Some youth-chasing campaign strategists in both parties seem too ready to Conan-ize politics, and they may get their own bad haircuts soon.

To understand the error of over-emphasizing the youth vote, and why we shouldn’t duplicate NBC’s sins, we first have to understand why so many advertisers covet young audiences. It’s not that there are more young people. There aren’t. The aging baby boomer cohort, born between 1946 and 1964, dwarfs all subsequent age waves. And it’s not necessarily that young people spend more. Yes, they buy more beer and cosmetics, but older adults are more affluent and spend considerably more, shopping for three generations — themselves, their parents and their children. The real reason advertisers want younger audiences in that they are harder to reach. They watch less TV than the older folks, so anything attracting young eyes is desirable. Also, advertisers go after young audiences for cultural reasons that have nothing to do with making money. Narcissistic young and hip ad agencies and network programmers want audiences much like themselves.

Here’s where the link to political campaigns comes in. The people who run most campaigns are below the median age. They cannot always relate to their parents’ generation. Yet their parents vote every time and their apolitical friends hardly ever vote. Nevertheless, they are too ready to divert excessive campaign resources to chase youth. To cite a typical choice, they’d much rather Twitter than spin the Wheel of Fortune on early fringe TV. If they don’t get it right soon, some will be sitting farther back in the bus with Conan after November.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.