By Jason Moscovitz
For a political reporter, an election campaign is what you live for. To be on a party leader’s tour means so much adrenaline and so little sleep. It’s a professional experience like no other as people live together in a bubble, in airplanes and busses, for weeks at a time.
Now, so many years after my last campaign, I can still feel the excitement as others do it. The technology is much improved, but the game is the same. It is a time when the leaders sell themselves and their party platforms to voters, and they still need journalists to help them do it.
Listening to the same campaign speech every day is tedious, but in the world of electoral politics you know that every day will provide a statement, a reaction, or a mistake that will propel scribes on the tour to getting their stories out.
There are usually no scoops on a campaign tour. The stories are pretty similar and that is precisely what the political planners want. Control. The political pros who work the campaigns always like to know, not so much what the journalists are writing, but rather, what they are thinking.
Reporters are often led into conversations that always start friendly and innocently, but the whole point of talking to them is find out what their take is on certain things. Political staffers need to know what reporters think, individually and collectively, because they can’t afford not to. Surprises are bad for business. Reporters know to be careful, but it is hard at close quarters.
I never liked the term “handler,” but that is still the term used for the political staff who travel on the tour. Their tasks range from talking to reporters to advising the leader, while others facilitate hotels and meals. While media outlets pay for the travel, food and hotels, it is the political parties who organize it and, in some cases, subsidize it.
The rule of thumb has always been that if reporters are kept happy and well fed, their reporting will be more favourable. It sounds dumb, but it’s not. Hungry people don’t write well.
A well organized, efficient campaign is one whose planners think of everything. A badly organized effort sends out a message that if people can’t organize an election campaign properly, chances are they can’t run a government. That may be too simple, but a campaign is a test in a bubble, and the bubble can’t burst.
It has been a longstanding policy for media outlets not to keep the same reporter on any one campaign for too long. Rotation is a common practice for two reasons. If a political party considered a reporter overly and unnecessarily negative, rotating reporters alleviates the complaint. And then there is the risk of Stockholm syndrome. Too long in one bubble and a reporter might begin to believe everything he or she hears. Overly positive also needs to be avoided and rotation takes care of that, too.
Looking back I now realize how little of an election campaign the public actually sees or hears about. What is missed the most is the humour. Political reporters instinctively develop, in private, an innate way of joking about the politicians they cover.
Put them on a long flight with a few drinks and the humour gets funnier – but, somehow, funny doesn’t fit. It is a cutting kind of humour that would not be appropriate in real life. An election campaign in the sky is not real life. It is the only place that political staffers can enjoy the humour at the expense of their bosses.
Often, certainly past the halfway point, the telltale signs are there to know who is winning and who is losing. There is a gaiety with a winning campaign ride that creates a lightness in spirit and somehow, when that lightness hits, media workrooms give up the doughnuts and replace them with canopies and lattes.
Losing campaigns stick to the doughnuts and bad coffee while the staff keeps smiling. It is one thing to know you are losing and another to admit it. It is called the game face, the face that says what Yogi Berra used to say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
At the end of the campaign reporters feel sad, tired and empty. The adrenaline leaves the body and the rush is over.
Believe me, it takes a long time to land.
Jason Moscovitz is a former chief political correspondent for CBC Television.