It is possible to have firm views about Justin Bieber without seeing him perform live. Reviewers may judge books whose authors they have not met. Yet journalists covering an American presidential election still spend months, cumulatively, in the air and on the road, reporting in person. We watch candidates addressing poker-faced Rotarians in New Hampshire, or pretending to enjoy battered, deep-fried candy bars at the Iowa State Fair. We cross the country to attend big set-piece events, from campaign launch-rallies to the conventions.
Why do journalists still cover politics in person? After all, most voters only ever see such events on television, or streamed online and modern campaigns keep reporters penned at the back of high-school gymnasiums and hotel ballrooms, while candidates recite the same rote-learned speeches. At Trump rallies, caged-in reporters became part of the show, as the tycoon denounced the “disgusting” press, then beamed as cursing supporters gave correspondents the finger. With colleagues sending endless updates to followers on Twitter or Snapchat, it is possible, in theory, to follow an entire campaign via social media, from a thousand miles away.
But even though a presidential run is mostly a stage-managed, made-for-TV endeavour, some things about a candidate can only be learned up close. After two decades of covering elections on four continents this reporter has learned that politicians can fake almost anything – except whether they are enjoying themselves. When the 2016 presidential campaign season kicked off, the favourite was Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and the lavishly funded darling of the wealthiest conservative donors. The problem was that Mr Bush may love holding office, but is hopeless at hiding how little he enjoys running for it. I spent a grimly fascinating trip to Iowa watching Mr Bush making small children squirm with such lines as “workforce participation rates are lower today than they were in 1977”. Asked by an angry man how he planned to stop illegal immigration, he replied: “I’ll say five quick things about borders,” then embarked on a wonky riff about electronic-visa controls.
The 2016 cycle showed the implacable power of electoral mathematics, as Bernie Sanders, an economic populist challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, tried to convince the most left-wing quarter of the country that they could be an election-winning majority if only millions of sporadic voters turned out to cast ballots. Interviewing Sandernistas from Colorado to Iowa and Indiana, the striking narrowness of his support base became clear. Time and again his fans turned out to be students, college lecturers, community organisers, youth workers and the like. In Iowa a plaid-shirted hipster briefly surprised by announcing he was a farmer. “Organic kale?” I asked, in a moment of shameful cynicism. “Er, yes,” he replied, startled.
Televised debates offer less lofty reasons to travel. Reporters attending these hustings are not actually allowed into the main debate arenas, instead watching on big screens set up in tents or university dining halls (sometimes there is free food to cheer hacks up). We go because flying to a debate brings the chance to haunt the post-debate “spin room”, at which campaign managers, bigwig supporters and sometimes the candidates themselves appear. Spin rooms are useful places to conduct business. A 90-second chat at a Republican primary debate in California secured me a day on the campaign trail with a hard-to-access candidate. It also won an invitation to tour a prominent Republican strategist’s LA mansion, during which I learned that he has a faithful replica of the Oval Office in his basement.
The race for the White House is the most professional electoral contest on Earth. There are military invasions with smaller logistical footprints. The best candidates need the acting skills of a Hollywood star and a supermodel’s ease around cameras. But they need earthier skills, too. The best candidates read a room like a stand-up comic, and work a crowd like a street preacher.
Travelling with the candidates lets us see life as they do, too. Trapped in campaign bubbles, they rely on folk they meet in diners and town-hall meetings to tell them what real people are thinking: it is stunning how often candidates cite life stories told to them on the campaign trail. Elections distort reality, to be sure. Even so, the best viewpoint is up close.