A Trail of Unexpected Costs on the Campaign Trail

Price-gouging in the primary states

My first visit to New Hampshire in this election cycle came just days before the Iowa caucuses. With most political reporters in Iowa, finding an affordable hotel room in a small, rural, New England state in December was as easy as you would expect.

Returning the next week was quite different. When the national media descended on the Granite State, hotel operators jacked up their prices. Modest chain hotels in Manchester, such as the Courtyard Marriott, were around $300 per night, even in marginal locations. At the downtown Radisson, a decent but by no means extravagant hotel, rooms were over $400 per night. The same hotels I had stayed in the week before had raised their prices by roughly 50 percent. Want to visit New Hampshire now that the primaries are over? You could get a room Monday night on a day’s notice at the Radisson for as little as $114.30 and the Courtyard Marriott for $119.

This is not a big problem for reporters with big media corporations that will pay these exorbitant fees. But as a contract writer with a small magazine, I was trying to save money. I ended up exiled to the Best Western in Concord.

That was nothing compared to my experience in South Carolina. To get from Myrtle Beach to Columbia you must putter down Highway 378, which is narrow and surrounded by exactly the sort of trailers, ranch houses, and churches you would expect to see in rural South Carolina. For a brief moment you will pass through the tiny town of Turbeville, and the speed limit will drop to thirty-five miles per hour. I was breezing through when I got pulled over. “Where are you in such a hurry to get to?” the cop demanded. He handed me a ticket, which, he noted, would be written up under the town ordinance instead of state law, thus saving me from getting points on my license. He was already leaving when I asked how much it was. “You’ll find that on the ticket,” he said. He was gone by the time I realized that I was about to be charged $388. When I pulled back onto the road a few minutes later, the cop had already pulled over someone else.

It was a busy day for the Turbeville police force. A convoy of reporters, who had been in Myrtle Beach for the debate the night before, made the same drive. At dinner that night with half a dozen colleagues, I learned that two others had received the same ticket, for the same steep price, in the same exact manner, down to the cop’s evasiveness about the price. To be fair, the cop did routinely promise to help the driver get his ticket price lowered if the driver appeared at his court date in person, knowing perfectly well that no reporter from New York or Washington will be there in February.

One such unlucky reporter, Neil King of The Wall Street Journal, was so incensed that he looked up Turbeville to call and complain. He is now the world’s expert on the otherwise non-noteworthy town. (Among his finds: Turbeville is not named for someone named Turbe, but rather for one Michael Turbeville.)

King went to some considerable effort to get his ticket reduced, with little success. Like any good reporter, he was able to find the mayor’s home phone number. Upon calling the mayor at home he was passed on to the chief of police, who was sitting right next to the mayor. The police chief was unmoved, claiming, “We’re protecting your constitutional rights being defended by our troops abroad.” Ultimately, he hung up on King.

When King went to protest in person he found the cop hiding in the same place where he caught us, and a town clerk with a desk drawer full of tickets, including about twenty that had been handed out even more recently than King’s. King was only able to get the charge reduced to $288, notwithstanding Turbeville’s official claim of being “a small town with a big heart.”

Apparently locals are wise to the Turbeville scam. “Oh yeah, I know to go thirty-five in Turbeville,” said a lifelong South Carolinian with whom I shared my tale of woe. “That’s a town of 700 people, and that’s how they pay for their police force.” (It has 720 people and a three-person police force, whereas its fire fighters and emergency rescue team are volunteers.) The influx of out-of-state journalists was certainly a bonanza.

Other journalists have their own stories of primary state speed traps. One reporter from a political web site got pulled over in LeMars, Iowa on Highway 752. The speed limit goes from seventy to fifty-five to thirty-five in a short space, stops at a stoplight, and then goes up to seventy again. Near Ames, Iowa several reporters were caught in a speed trap on I-35 when the speed limit drops and there’s a cop hanging out just past where it changes.

A frequent question among reporters who get speeding tickets while racing from one event to the next is whether they can expense them. After all, they were incurred in the line of duty, trying to satisfy the dueling masters of going to campaign stops, filing stories, and not getting lost in a foreign land. In general, though, the consensus is that you can’t.

Campaign reporting involves other unexpected costs that are ultimately passed on to the publications, such as the extortionate price charged by rental car companies for returning to a different city than you departed from, and the various penalties one incurs when making and changing travel plans on the fly.

But it’s good business for the early primary states. The South Carolina Republican Party boasts that the event brought an estimated $20 million of spending from visitors to the state. They did not respond to an inquiry as to whether this includes speeding tickets.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.