When I picked up my press credential at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire for the ABC News Republican Primary Debate on a clear Saturday night in January, I expected to be steered to a press gallery close to the stage in a musky debate hall. But there were more than 600 journalists on the campaign trail in New Hampshire in 2012. So we were stationed in a nearby basketball gym, in long rows of tables facing two large projection screens showing the television broadcast. We would be watching the debate the same way most baseball broadcasters watch the ballgame nowadays, on television. But the real-time color commentary would be via twitter, and our press box felt as big as an airport hangar. I grabbed a folding chair on the side between a Norwegian journalist and a nattily dressed Romney national finance chair whom had escaped the packed green room to enjoy the relative roominess of our cavernous press lounge, and because “the food is better.”
I shouldn’t have expected anything less than a sprawling media corps, but the image of a salty fraternity of wise-cracking journos in fedoras dies hard I guess, as do all sentimental tropes of American culture. Shoot, there are upstreamers to accommodate now. Guys like Phil Anderson, a cheery, red-cheeked student and Occupy affiliate up from Boston. He roamed the press hangar in a black peacoat, holding a flip video camera and camping headlamp rigged to a tripod pole by an L bracket and Velcro. He was narrating the proceedings to 15 or 20 people watching his live stream online, pointing his camera at whatever they asked him to via the onscreen chat feed. If that sounds a little technical, just picture a college student walking around with a phone-sized camera strapped to a pole seemingly talking to himself like a schizophrenic, but possibly representing the future of media.
It was an exceptionally punchless debate, full of eye-rolling platitudes and few direct attacks on Mitt Romney, the frontrunner. A local TV cameraman explained that the League of Women voters used to run the debates, but when ABC News took over, it changed from “a news event covered by the news to an entertainment event produced by Disney (ABC’s parent company).” The press stars were there too of course, and mostly bored: Mark Shields, the Washington Post columnist and liberal commentator, shuffling around the food table and hawing in his Boston accent, “No more cookies?” Don Gonyea, NPR’s chief political correspondent, tut-tutting and oohing over such wondrous statements like Rick Santorum’s disdainful retort that, “there are no classes in America.”
When the debate mercifully ended, we all scuttled to a smaller gym next door that served as the official spin room. Amid half a dozen constantly forming and disintegrating press scrums you could make out craggy veteran politicians making a play for a possible cabinet post down the road by talking up the talking points of the candidate they’d chosen to latch onto. Hello Tom Ridge, former homeland security chief, coming out of the woodworks to do a little spin service for Jon Huntsman. Hello Nikki Haley, late Tea-Party sweetheart turned embattled South Carolina governor, stumping and preening for Mitt Romney in a long fringe silver dress. There were the candidates’ spokespeople as well, gamely running out their best lines. Take R.C. Hammond, Newt Gingrich’s spokesperson: “Gingrich walked like a president, talked like a president, must be a president.”
As always, there were the oddballs that our national political carnival attracts, such as Craig “Tax Freeze” Freis, who’d flown out from California to challenge President Obama in the Democratic primary. He handed me about 30 photocopied documents including the official Democratic ballot and a newspaper article about a lawsuit he had won against the Democrat Party in Southern California. I told him to call me if he had an official campaign event, but I later realized that I had probably unknowingly participated in the only type he could afford.
Over the next couple days, I attended the campaign events of all five candidates actively campaigning in New Hampshire. In many ways they are homey events, in rustic town halls, small manufacturing plants, conference rooms of woodsy resort hotels. They range from the booster-club pageantry of bunting, pom-poms, and confetti guns at a Jon Huntsman pep rally to the long-winded bloviations of a Newt Gingrich lecture in a hot and steamy high school gymnasium. They can seem dingy, or at least provincial at the time. But when you watch the clips on television news or see the photos in the paper, they gain an aura of authority.
Ron Paul’s events are the most fun in the aggregate, as you can’t avoid appreciating this wiley, frumpy, 76 year old doctor from southeast Texas who has inspired young people across the country to become constitution-waving enthusiasts. They feel the media constantly portrays them as being crazy, which they are not. They just quote policy specifics with a Star Trek convention-goer’s fluidity, and possess the zeal of a true believer, and so your average non-believer never knows quite where to file them. Barbara, 50, a paraprofessional from Meredith, NH, who didn’t want to give her last name, was unwavering in her support for Paul’s plan to eliminate the Department of Education, even though she might lose her job in education. “If that would happen, I’d find jobs elsewhere,” said the former Democrat turned Republican.
The Ron Paul organization that garnered an impressive 23% of New Hamphire’s vote seemed a winning mix of rollicking misfit party bus and cagey professionalism. My humble Red Roof Inn in Loudon, NH, was the home to 90 Youth for Ron Paul volunteers who’d come from out of town, and whenever I came home at night they’d be roaming the hallways like a college dorm. One night they had set up chairs in a circle in the lobby of the hotel and three black jean and jacket rockers were jamming on acoustic guitars. The next morning I found myself making coffee in the hotel breakfast nook next to a young man wearing a suit with a piece of duct tape on the back that said “Statistician.” I asked him if he was the statistician for Ron Paul, and could I get a quote, and he shot me a look: How did I know? When I explained, he was still reluctant to give anything more than the perfunctory “it was a great experience.” James Padilioni, 25, a student from Westchester, PA who was filling out a grad school application on a laptop plastered with stickers for various causes (“Yes We Cannabis,” “SchoolsNotPrisons.com,” “Students for Liberty”) stopped himself when I asked him to describe his election day activities. “Our organization is our secret weapon, nobody else has what we have,” he said. “Why give away your secret recipe?”
Barring political catastrophe, Romney will be the Republican nominee, and his campaign clearly boasts the top talent and money. His events are by far the best produced and tightly scripted, with former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty serving as the curtain-raiser hypeman, and Kid Rock’s “Born Free” accompanying his entrances and exits. (Sample lyric: “free, like an untamed stallion.”) Romney’s desire to be liked has an earnest, almost frantic quality. After introducing his wife and splendid family (the best advertisement for the Mormon church in America right now has to be the gorgeous tableaus of the Romney and Huntsman families), he moved to the side of the stage, and stood with his hands tucked in his pockets, stock-still, seemingly determined to never stop smiling. He fools few people with lines like, “A chance to run for President, wow, I never thought I’d do it,” or the Obama-esque riff, “I was just a high school kid with skinny legs.” Left out is that his father was Governor of Michigan and served in the Nixon administration when he was loping around on his skinny legs.
His ad-libs are pricelessly awkward, such as this opening line at the Rochester Opera House, “I can feel the warmth in this room, not just temperature-wise but emotional-wise.” And his stump speech seems written by an algorithm devised to appeal to all parts of a skeptical Republican base. He has a moment where he asks, “Are there any veterans here? Please raise your hands… thank you,” leading to sustained applause. He admits that his father was born in Mexico, hastily adding, “to American parents living there,” as if to snuff out any potential Birther elements, even though it’s only his father. He closes by quoting from “America the Beautiful,” joking, “I said in Iowa that corn counts as amber waves of grain.” He makes no mention of his Mormon heritage and religion, though his campaign slogan “Believe in America” seems a sly reference to his hope that voters will see past his much maligned religion.
There was short-lived hope among reporters on the trail that Huntsman might make it a close race in New Hampshire. The horse race approach to campaign coverage is, for better or worse, what people want to read about most. Why get bogged down in policy comparisons when politics can become a thrilling sporting event? And at the Jon Huntsman voting night party at The Black Brimmer bar in downtown Manchester, the place was packed with the sort of unlikely supporters reminiscent of Obama’s insurgent 2008 campaign. Jon C. Hopwood, 52, a boisterous progressive who’d previously never voted Republican in his life, had battled through the physical sickness he felt when he was given the Republican ballot at the polling place and cast for Jon Huntsman. “How could he be more conservative than Obama?” Hopwood asked, “Obama cut my mom’s food stamps, he cut my home heating oil. I voted for Obama ‘cause my friends told me he was a progressive, but we got a center-right Republican. Maybe with Huntsman we’ll get an Earl Warren.” Elisabeth Langby, 54, a writer and academic of Swedish birth said, “Huntsman is the best presidential candidate since I became a citizen in 1990.”
But even though Romney is a French-speaking millionaire from liberal Massachusetts, he has run the best campaign so far, and, perhaps by process of elimination, seems to have won the blessing of the Republican establishment as the best chance to defeat Obama in a general election. The parallels to Sen. John Kerry are striking, though he never served in the military, so he will not be swiftboated the way Kerry was in 2004.
The journalists on the trail even seemed ready for Romney to secure a win in South Carolina and deliver what would seem a knockout blow to the rest of the field. All the press photographers I talked to admitted they were addicted to the adrenaline rush of campaign reporting, no matter how brutal the press scrum, and how long the days. But as they pulled out their laptops to download their pictures and send them to their editors around the world, the fatigue was evident. One veteran CNN cameraman talked about how the explosion of independent media has made for press scrums with more amateurs who block shots without getting good ones of their own. But generally the press are a welcoming tribe, willing to share a joke or a cigarette with whoever happens to be with them in the trenches that day.
There is an inevitable insularity on the campaign trail, as journalists spend 16 hours a day covering events, tweeting and writing stories, and reading each other’s coverage of the campaign. As most journalists must file immediately for the digital edition, and instantly on twitter, sometimes they can’t even see the candidate when he gives his stump speech, but just hear him through the speakers and are ready to tweet and then file a story about any flub he makes. It seems a bizarre world, until you join it. Then it’s hard to pull yourself away. Thus I found myself watching Jon Huntsman’s speech at 2am in my hotel room, the same speech I had seen live several hours earlier. I had to talk myself into turning off the television, and even then the images of American flags, of perfectly coiffed candidate hair, of the crush and click of hundreds of camera-laden photographers swirled in my head.