Twenty-Nine Hours on the Campaign Trail

And all I got was lost. (And, chicken fingers.)

NEW HAMPSHIRE — When covering New Hampshire, as with any primary, the general journalistic strategy is to trail the candidates around the state, cameras and microphones out, as they visit as many restaurants, grade school auditoriums, and American Legion halls as possible. This is fucking exhausting, and it’s the sort of thing that’ll grind even the best reporter down into a simpering, horse-race handicapping, quote-plugging hack. We’re often quick to criticize campaign coverage for its focus on the ephemeral and the predictive, but the modern campaign is built to emphasize those things, and it’s not entirely the reporter’s fault that he or she so often fails to transcend the banality of the source material. These reporters are told by their editors to stick to the trail, and they’re expected to file various dispatches from it every single day; as such, they don’t always have the latitude to ramble about in search of meaningful stories.

Over the last two days I decided to immerse myself in the campaign life and attend as many candidate events as possible. Here’s an abbreviated, impressionistic record of a twenty-nine-or-so hour span in which I learned absolutely nothing of use, and spoke to almost no one who wasn’t frantically vying for my attention. In many ways, I am not a very good campaign reporter. But, then again, it’s hard to be a good campaign reporter.

Sunday, 4:45 PM: After filing a story, I leave for a Mitt Romney event in Exeter, New Hampshire, only to change plans when I realize that Exeter is much farther away than I originally thought. New Hampshire looks small on a map, but it has crummy, picturesque roads that don’t support fast driving. Also, it is dark, and I don’t really know where I’m going. After taking the wrong exit and ending up in the outskirts of Manchester, I abandon the Romney plan and stop for chicken fingers instead. I am confident I made the right choice. (Despite this.)

Sunday, 7:00 PM: A pound-and-a-half of chicken fingers later, I end up at a soporific Gingrich town hall at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. In the rear of a packed auditorium, dozens of badly dressed journalists stand around chatting, waiting for Gingrich to appear. “The Radisson’s like $500 a night,” one says, somewhat enviously. He is staying somewhere out on the highway. Gingrich’s advance man takes the podium and establishes the ground rules: once the town hall is over, form an orderly line and “you can get a picture with the next president of the United States!” A journalist standing next to me raises his eyebrows. Another guy chimes in: “Is it Obama?”

No, it’s Newt, to everyone’s regret, who proceeds to conduct a drowsy, uninformative town hall in which he hits almost all the same points he covered in the previous night’s debate, deviating from the script only to mention Ronald Reagan at least once a minute. I wander into the building’s foyer, where an AP photographer is snapping three kids who have covered their faces with Newt 2012 stickers. “We’re gonna be in the news!” says one kid. The only other non-official personnel in the hallway are two Ron Paul people, keeping tabs on the speech. The Ron Paul people are everywhere, and they’re always eager to talk. “The dumbest question the media ask is, ‘Why is he an isolationist?’” says campaign volunteer Tom McDonough. “To accuse him of being an isolationist is completely false. What Ron is is a non-interventionist.”

Back in the auditorium, Gingrich, who is every bit the lecturer whose class you’d drop after shopping period, lulls the crowd to sleep with rambling answers to simple questions. “I will challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, with a timekeeper but no moderator,” he says at some point, apropos of nothing, drawing cautious applause from a crowd apparently unenthused by the prospect of listening to Gingrich speak for twenty-one solid hours. He leavens his proposal with a laugh line: “To be fair, I will concede in advance that he can use a TelePrompTer. After all, if you had to defend ObamaCare, wouldn’t you want to use a TelePrompTer?” The crowd laughs, seemingly out of politeness. Soon, the town hall concludes, an America-themed country song blares, and the remaining reporters race to tape-record Gingrich and/or interview people standing in the photo line. I offer a silent thanks that I’m not on an immediate deadline, because I have no idea what one would file about this event, other than, “It was what you would expect.” (Or, maybe it was “larger-than-expected,” which is what the Union Leader led with.)

Sunday, 9:30 PM: After the town hall, I swing by the Manchester Radisson to see if I can pick up some sources. The Radisson—the only hotel in downtown Manchester—is the de facto media hub for the New Hampshire primary. ABC News and the Associated Press have pitched massive tents on the front lawn, conference rooms have been given over to workspace and filing stations, and the lobby and bar are normally flush with familiar faces. I head to the bar, intent on decompressing and swapping stories with fellow journalists. I end up watching an MSNBC show about bicycle crashes and listening to a drunk TD Bank employee talk about how he’s voting for “Kennedy.” An hour later, I’m back home, too tired to lay any of the “groundwork” I had been planning to lay in order to make the next day more fruitful.

Monday, 12 PM: Oversleep. Head out to a Jon Huntsman meet-and-greet at a bakery in Dover. Miscalculate how long it’ll take me to get to Dover, and don’t arrive until the candidate (and, apparently, the goat) is long gone. As I later learn, this is not an uncommon experience for reporters on the primary trail. New Hampshire is a small and poorly-roaded state, and journalists are bound to get delayed or lost. I purchase a fig square for ninety cents, which sort of makes the hour-and-a-half drive worth it, though.

Monday, 2:45 PM: Arrive forty-five minutes early to see Rick Santorum— whose campaign is so disorganized that they can’t even afford a PA system and a microphone—give a perfunctory town hall at the American Legion in Somersworth. Journalists congregate on the sides and at the back of the hall, checking e-mail and exchanging greetings. As 3:30 approaches, comes, and goes, the place fills up: cameramen jostle to find space to set up; a CNN correspondent obliviously performs a loud stand-up interview in the middle of Santorum’s unamplified speech; two freelance reporters for The Daily (“the original tablet newspaper”) interview three adolescent boys who try their best to sound professional for the camera, and then immediately discuss the experience once the reporters zoom off in search of their next targets. “It’s like she was looking right through me,” one boy says. “Like she was focusing on a point there on the wall.”

Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman, is here, standing in the back of the room inconspicuously, prompting some observers to wonder whether he is a stealth Santorum supporter. He is not; he’s here with a network news team. His companions are approached by a gangly man with horn-rimmed glasses who skulks around these events hawking an anti-Democrat Dr. Seuss-style children’s book that he wrote. “Have you seen the book that I wrote?” he asks, before showing you a browser’s copy. “It’s dedicated to Glenn Beck.” A middle-aged man with a moustache is not impressed. “You can look at this if you want,” he tells me. I’ve seen it before, though. “Yeah, we’ve all seen it a thousand times,” he says.

The same could be said for the town hall, which is at least more lively, if no more novel, than last night’s Gingrich event. Santorum is an engaging stump speaker who interacts with his questioners; Gingrich is the professor who spends the entire first class session reciting his own syllabus. If nothing else, these trail events tell you a lot about a candidate’s public speaking prowess—which, as we know, is the key qualification for a president.

Monday, 6:00 PM: An hour-long drive brings me back toward Manchester in time for a Mitt Romney rally at a school in nearby Bedford. It takes me a while to find Bedford (dark, map-less), and when I get there the parking lots are full and the side streets are jammed with parked cars, as if they were giving away free wallets inside. The Ron Paul people are there, with their homemade signs and their devotion, simultaneously inspiring and disconcerting. I eventually find a parking spot a quarter-mile away, but it’s cold outside, I’m late anyway, and Romney’s not going to say anything of interest. (Although, CNN found Romney’s “demeanor” during a “skirmish” with a protester to be “markedly different.”) I head back to Manchester.

Monday, 6:30 PM: Newt Gingrich is scheduled to give a speech at his Manchester headquarters, but the event has been hijacked by Occupy protesters and Ron Paul people, who have rigged a digital projector to flash “RON PAUL 2012” on top of the “Newt 2012” headquarters sign. This is the most technically advanced tactic to come out of the Paul camp all week. Whereas the rest of the candidates have professionally-designed signage, the Paul people often favor ominous, black-on-white signs that appear to have been made all at once in some dilapidated punk squat using particle board and stencils purchased at a discount from a Big Lots that lost its lease. Also there: two people wearing pig costumes. The protesters block the sidewalk outside of Gingrich HQ, and Gingrich is apparently spooked by all this, because he cancels the event. (The AP noticed this, too).

I consider whether to talk with some of the Paul people—who, as I said, are always lively and talkative—but I see nothing particularly interesting in their current theatrics and I’m too hungry to get sucked into a long debate about monetary policy. Consider whether to attend a Santorum rally at a restaurant in downtown Manchester. Decide against it, because I’ve already seen Santorum today. Consider whether or not to go tailgate with Buddy Roemer in Durham, New Hampshire. Decide against it, primarily because I do not know how to get to Durham, New Hampshire. Consider whether to go and get more chicken fingers. Decide to go and get more chicken fingers.

Monday, 7:45 PM: I end up at a sports bar called The Draft in Concord, where my old pal Newt Gingrich is scheduled to watch the BCS Championship Game. Gingrich makes a quick tour of the restaurant, trailed by a gaggle of cameramen, jockeying for position—“Let’s talk about how you were pushing me out of the way,” one hisses to another. “This is my fourth presidential campaign, honey. It’s not my first.”—and then disappears to an upstairs party room for the rest of the night. As the game proceeds, I spend about an hour talking to an exuberant woman who had just come from a Huntsman rally in Exeter. “I tried to see him at a bakery earlier, but he was gone before I got there,” she said. I know the feeling.

Monday, 11:00 PM: Driving home, I try to collect my thoughts. Over the past day-and-a-half I had put about 300 miles on my rental car, toured the state’s finest auditoria, and learned little that would be of interest to the voters of New Hampshire and the wider nation; at this point, with the day winding down, I was so exhausted by the grind that I just wanted to file something and go to bed. My experience, brief though it was, is not unusual. I talked to a reporter covering the Paul campaign for a major US daily who had been to four Paul events that day, gotten lost while trying to make it to a fifth, spent several hours driving from one to the other, and was all the while trying to figure out how to get a story from four staged events at which the candidate said essentially the same thing that he says at every campaign event.

When a candidate never says anything that’s substantively new, the campaign-trail media ends up reporting on the way that the same old message is delivered; on deviations in tone, phrasing, temperament. The delivery becomes the story, and the smallest, least consequential deviations from the candidate’s standard delivery are mistaken for news. The public would almost certainly be better served if, rather than acting as a barometer of political inflection, the media spent more time truth-testing a candidate’s assertions and ads. But, from the reporter’s point of view, it’s hard to delve into factuality when your primary concern is the shortest route to the next event.

The obvious answer is to get off the trail and find your own story. But that’s easier said than done. When you get on the follow-‘em-around track, well, it’s obvious that you’re going to end up writing campaign stories. That’s the only sort of story the grind really allows you to do. More thoughts on this soon.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.