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An illustration of numerous microphones surrounding a laptop displaying a political event in an empty auditorium. Doug Chayka for Vox

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How do you cover a presidential campaign during a pandemic?

What happens when the campaign trail is an ethernet cable?

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.
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Olivia Nuzzi was covering a Donald Trump rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this summer when the New York magazine reporter had an idea. Why not go talk to the Trump fans at the gathering, most of whom had been spending hours packed together, mask-free?

Then she reconsidered.

“I’m not going over there today. I’m not fucking going over there and talking to people who don’t have masks on,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t think the news value of my dumb little idea of a news story is worth the risk.”

Interviewing a campaign rally attendee is a staple of campaign journalism. But not in 2020. In addition to killing 200,000 Americans and putting millions out of work, the pandemic has upended how campaigns are run — just like everything else, they’ve now mostly moved online — which means it’s changed the way they are covered.

Which isn’t necessarily bad. But it is unsettling for many political journalists (again: join the club) who are trying to figure out how to do their job in the most unusual of circumstances. And they’re thinking about what all of this means — both for this year and for future campaigns.

“You’re just seeing the press release that goes out, you’re tuning into the livestream of the speech, you’re making as many phone calls as possible,” says BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer, who is covering her third presidential campaign this year — and has been in her Brooklyn apartment, except for a single trip to see Joe Biden accept the Democratic nomination, since March.

The question that journalists and politicians, and eventually voters, will have to reckon with is whether the distance between the reporters and the people they’re writing about matters: If you can’t be on the road with Joe Biden because Joe Biden’s not on the road, does it make a difference in what people are going to learn about Joe Biden between now and November 3?

And if it doesn’t, should journalists and politicians permanently rethink the way campaigns are run and covered, even when we can (hopefully) gather in person again?

The boys were already off the bus

A standard pandemic cliché, at this point, is to note that it has accelerated a shift that was already underway. Go ahead and use campaign journalism as another example.

You may have a hazy understanding that the most important coverage comes from Important Journalists who travel alongside candidates on the trail, pestering them and their staff for tidbits of news, access, and interviews. That’s the idea behind Boys on the Bus, Tim Crouse’s famous book about the 1972 presidential campaign and the men who covered it.

But that notion hasn’t synced up with reality for some time. Yes, sometimes candidates say things at campaign events that become news stories, and may even affect their candidacy — think of Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of American voters in 2012 or Hillary Clinton dismissing Trump voters as “deplorables” in 2016. But there aren’t many of those moments, and they certainly don’t have much to do with day-to-day campaign trail reporting.

Which is one of the reasons why reporters who cover candidates on the road in recent campaigns have been “embeds.” They tend to be earlier in their careers and lower in the journalistic pecking order (and more likely to put up with the indignities of constant travel).

More important, though, is that campaigns have realized they can use Twitter, Instagram, livestreams, and any other tech they want to bypass reporters and go straight to their intended audience. Reporters who travel with the campaign can be tolerated, but they’re much less likely to get access to the candidate.

“The curtain at the front of the plane separating the senior staff from the press corps has been drawn for a couple of campaigns now,” says Peter Hamby, a former CNN reporter. He says the utility of the campaign trail coverage has been minimal for years. The shift was clear enough for Hamby to see back in 2013, when he produced a 95-page research report titled “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?

Hamby apparently reached his own conclusion: He’s now Snapchat’s chief political correspondent and does little reporting from the campaign trail.

“It was a visceral thing to watch”

So even without a virus tearing through America, you’d hear and see reporters talking about the way campaign coverage has been, and should be, changing in 2020. But the strain of working in the pandemic underscores the weirdness. Now you not only have to question the value of interviewing a Trump voter at a Trump rally — it’s a Trump voter at a Trump rally, so what could they say that would surprise you at this point? — you have to worry about whether doing so will make you sick.

And that internal discussion is happening after years of Trump himself, who has overturned every bit of conventional political wisdom, going back to his initial campaign. In 2015, for instance, everyone knew that the one thing you couldn’t do in American politics is to cast aspersions on decorated, wounded veterans. But Trump announced that Sen. John McCain, shot down in Vietnam, held in captivity, and tortured for years, was “not a war hero,” because Trump liked “people who weren’t captured.”

For any other candidate, in any other year, that would have been the end of the campaign — and precisely the reason you cover every word a presidential candidate says. But now, we’ve learned that this stuff is intrinsic to Trump. You expect it. You hear it all the time. Why bother going on the road to hear him say it again?

Because maybe you’ll still learn something, say reporters who’ve worked the campaign trail. Yes, you can see a lot of the campaign on Twitter and TV. But if you’re not there, they say, you can’t get the details that let you know what’s really going on — or at least the details that make a great story. “Texture” is a word that comes up a lot.

“It’s sort of like this intangible quality that’s only present in person,” says Cramer. “And it has to do with a feeling inside a room, or the way campaign staff are shuffling back and forth in the hallway while the candidate is speaking.”

Cramer recalls a scene from this year’s Democratic primary, as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy evaporated over the course of a couple days: “I remember getting off the bus and seeing one of Sanders’s senior people visibly shaking. He was shaking from the realization of what was happening, and there was nothing he could do to change it. It was a visceral thing to watch.” That scene made it into her story about the campaign’s collapse.

“Every story I wrote, it was hugely beneficial to be on the road,” says Amy Chozick, the New York Times reporter assigned to the Hillary Clinton campaign from 2015 to 2016; Chozick says she traveled 523 days during that stretch.

“There’s huge value in seeing the candidate that you’re covering every single day — if Hillary changed two words in a speech, I would know,” she says. And being around an event is different from watching an event. Chozick said she could sense a swell of emotion and excitement, which the Clinton campaign hadn’t generated much of before, in the last two weeks of the 2016 campaign — which she readily admits didn’t tell you anything about how Clinton would fare on Election Day.

Campaign reporters also lament that limited travel and limited events mean limited chances to talk to voters at those events. Yes, someone who goes to a Trump event isn’t representative of the electorate — it’s someone who likes Trump so much they’ll leave their house to go see him.

Still, “you’re able to interview voters and see how they’re responding. I basically haven’t had the chance to talk to any voters at any rally to see what they think” about campaign messaging, says Alex Thompson, who is covering the election for Politico from afar. “I’ve been stuck in DC. I’m not going to go through the phone book of Milwaukee and call voters.”

Instead, Thompson says, he’s trying to figure out how to cover something that’s happening virtually. In a normal year, he says, he’d be trying to figure out how to sneak into a volunteer training session for a Democratic door-knocking campaign; now he says he’s “sneaking into a virtual digital training session about how to text and share things on Facebook.”

The Times’s Maggie Haberman, who covered the Trump campaign in 2016 and followed him to the White House, has plenty of access to people around Trump. But she also misses talking to regular humans. “One thing that I think is missing from the coverage right now is that you can get more of a sense for parts of the race by being in person, talking to voters,” she says. “That I really do miss. I really got a lot out of voters when I talked to them.”

The gotta-see-it-live faction is getting more of their wish lately. Over the last few weeks, Trump has revived his campaign rallies, which give him a chance to rile up his base and antagonize everyone else. Just days ago, Trump gloated to a crowd in Minnesota about watching MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi get injured during a protest; since then, he’s also been to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where his crowds were large, densely packed, and largely unmasked. But cable TV networks no longer reflexively cover them live, and Trump’s provocations don’t make news — perhaps because the news has plenty of other things to cover, like mass death and unemployment.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has made very few public appearances at all — a move that’s partly a concession to a virus that thrives in large gatherings and partly a calculation that he’ll be better off letting Trump talk his way out of votes.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of journalists who say the absence of live events hasn’t made a difference in coverage — or, crucially, in the way the public learns about the candidates.

“I think the idea that it’s tremendously valuable to your understanding of an election to be able to go and shoot the shit with a mid-level communications flack at a bar is overstated,” says New York’s Nuzzi. Though she did that kind of reporting herself during the 2016 campaign — and this one, too. In February, for instance, she filed from the lobby of the Marriott in Des Moines, Iowa, where lots of mid-level campaigners were bemoaning that state’s caucus debacle.

But by August, after the general campaign had been almost entirely shut down for months, Nuzzi decided she’d have a better chance of understanding Trump’s reelection chances if she got on the road and visited campaign staff and volunteers in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state.

In a series of vignettes, Nuzzi describes finding nearly empty election offices and campaign events. In one of them, she drops by a training session for volunteers in Harrisburg:

I imagined a lot of Trump supporters, maskless and seated close together, breathing heavily on a reporter leaning in to record their comments. But the office was quiet. I walked through the arch of books by right-wing personalities (Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh) and past the portraits (George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan) and maps of Pennsylvania voting precincts. I didn’t see anyone there.

If this had been a normal campaign, Nuzzi says, she would have never gotten in her car to go to a far-flung office in Harrisburg. “I wouldn’t have thought about it. There would have been so many rallies to go to.”

You’re watching TV. Are you also covering the election?

The 2020 general election hasn’t been completely virtual. In place of their usual, week-long summer conventions — impossible to pull off in a social-distancing era — both candidates staged muted, made-for TV presentations that used live and taped segments to make their case to the country (or, at least, people who watch political conventions).

Normally, reporters flock to the Democratic and Republican conventions because it’s a rare chance to get extended face time with a wide swath of Important Political People. But since very few people, period, actually showed up live in Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden’s event was anchored, reporters who attended the event had little to do.

One of the most striking moments I’ve seen in this year’s campaign was Kamala Harris’s DNC speech — not because of the content but because of the context. The vice presidential nominee stood on a stage, at a podium, just like a normal speech. But when the camera pulled back, you could see the room she was in was nearly empty, save for a handful of socially distanced reporters, taking notes on a speech they could have watched on their couch. Just like I was doing.

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