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.)