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.