Seth Stevenson on covering the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns.

What’s It Like to Cover Bernie, Trump, and Jeb! Rallies

What’s It Like to Cover Bernie, Trump, and Jeb! Rallies

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May 4 2016 10:56 AM
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Trail Mix

On the road with Bernie, Trump, and Jeb! (Remember him?)

Head on shot of Bernie and people with signs is in South Bend.
A Bernie Sanders event South Bend, Indiana.

Seth Stevenson

Greetings from Indiana, Slate Plus members. I’m here on the campaign trail, tracking Bernie Sanders from Bloomington to South Bend. I’ve been asked to pause my noble journalistic mission to offer you a bit of behind-the-scenes dope on what it’s like to cover this election cycle in the flesh.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

In a word: depleting. I’ve parachuted onto the trail for just a week or two at a time, here and there, but each taste of campaign life confirms how physically taxing this would be as a full-time lifestyle. I pity the reporter “embeds” who’ve been trailing the candidates for months, with months more on the horizon. They’ll cover a rally or a town hall, rush to file something smart about it, pack up their gear (for many modern, “one-man-band” digital journalists, this includes bulky equipment—video camera, tripod, lights), and then sprint to their rental cars to chase the candidate’s bus to the next stop.

Sometimes it’s three stops in one day, separated by hundreds of miles. Sometimes it’s thousands of miles, if the campaign takes wing to another state. Following Donald Trump, I went from Chicago to Cleveland to Boca Raton, Florida, in the space of two-and-a-half days—each stop replete with a harried rental car return, a rush to a boarding gate, and then a resumption of the marathon on the other side.

It’s easy to forget where you are. You jolt to life in an undifferentiated Marriott—two queen beds, TV still on from when you passed out the night before—and you hunt for clues as to which part of the country you’ve awoken in. Your sole glimpses of local life are the roadside scenery beyond your windshield, the pleasant conversations with friendly waiters at late-night diners, or the sudden realization that the accents at the airport car-rental counter have morphed into something strange and new.

It’s unfathomable that reporters once did this without smartphones. Following Jeb Bush around South Carolina in February, I found myself navigating one-lane dirt roads, praying that cell service would pertain in the deepest reaches of the state and that Google Maps wouldn’t steer me wrong. Imagine trying to chart your route on a fold-up roadmap that accordions across your dashboard, dips into your coffee cup, and fails to alert you that you’ve veered 50 miles off course and will soon dead-end into a hog farm. 

If you read journalistic diaries of previous campaigns—Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 or David Foster Wallace’s McCain’s Promise—you learn that some things never change. Reporters have always balanced a duty to file fresh copy with a duty to show up at the next rally and, like, actually observe stuff. Thompson wrestled his typewriter from hotel to hotel. Wallace sympathetically noted his compatriots’ frazzled attempts to charge up their 2000-era paleo-laptops and feeble flip-phones. Everybody’s always tired. Everybody’s always annoyed at the lack of access to candidates. Everybody nurtures pet resentments toward members of the campaign staff. Everybody harbors frenemy feuds with other journos seeking the same scooplets. Everybody’s plants and/or relationships are wilting back home.

Press seating is in Bloomington.
Press seating in Bloomington.

Seth Stevenson

Different candidates have different vibes out on the trail. Jeb Bush rallies (I hesitate to even call them rallies—more like low-energy tea-time conversations with a few dozen gentle souls) tended to be quiet affairs with much time given over to answering voters’ detailed policy questions. Bernie events have been raucous but good-natured, with fellow believers basking in each other’s righteous fervor.

I don’t think I could last if I had to cover Trump as a full-time job. I couldn’t listen to him lie at me for 45 straight minutes, three times a day. I never grew accustomed to the ever-present threat of violence in his crowds. After the infamous canceled Chicago rally that devolved into elbow-throwing mayhem, I was so shaken I got actual jitters. Though in general I only bum cigarettes after three beers in a softball dugout, I found myself stumbling out of the arena and through the angry throngs outside to buy a pack at the corner gas station and suck down a Marlboro.

Louisville.
A Bernie Sanders event in Louisville, Kentucky.

Seth Stevenson

If you have more questions about life on the trail, put them in the comments and I’ll try to respond in a spare moment. But right now it’s time for me to get back in the saddle. My rental Hyundai is littered with fast food wrappers and empty Diet Coke bottles. My phone needs charging and my audio recorder needs new batteries. Bernie’s speaking here in South Bend soon, so I’ve just checked into a bizarre Notre Dame–themed hotel with Knute Rockne memorabilia lining the walls. I hope my plants back home are alive.