The campaign trail can be its own unlikely locale—a place of endless diners and stages and handshake lines. But thanks to COVID-19 precautions, the 2020 campaign is largely taking place on screens. For the political reporters used touring five states in three days with a candidate, this brave new world of campaigns has taken some adjustment. To get a better feel for the new virtual campaign trail, we spoke to Ruby Cramer, Buzzfeed’s political reporter who is covering the Democrats, about what reporting life is like in lockdown.
SG: It’s less than 80 days until Election Day. Where would you ordinarily be reporting from right now?
RC: Four years ago I was on the road 24/7 covering the election, and so I do know what it’s like to do it at its height in normal times. By this time the nominee would have a 747 airplane and be hitting three states a day, probably spending way too much time in Florida. Then we’d be off to Ohio and then back to North Carolina, and then in this case probably flying back to Wilmington for the night. That’s the usual pace of a single day. It would be everybody on one plane; the candidate in the front, staff behind him or her, then a cabin for the secret service, which is slightly bigger than the press’s cabin—nicer seats—and then the press are in the back. Sometimes the candidate would come back there to speak to us. Hillary’s relationship with the press has been very well documented so she wasn’t super eager to come back and talk to us all the time. But on the rare occasion that she would it was always a very big deal. Every reporter would get up from their seats to rush into the aisle and it was a totally hazardous experience. You’d just get elbows and cameras and giant telephoto lenses and giant TV cameras bopping you on the head. Either she’d take questions in a very formal setting or it’d be something more casual, but it wasn’t like she was wandering around the aisles having private chats with us.
SG: Where are you working from now?
RC: I’m in kitchen in Fort Greene [Brooklyn] and thankfully I’m thrilled to be heading to Wilmington, Delaware, in a rental car at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning. I have never been more excited to pick up my rental car and drive to Delaware. It’s my first trip since I got off the trail when lockdown started in March.
Before this I was covering Bernie and his campaign. I think we visited something like 16 states in two or three weeks in the lead up to Super Tuesday. We were going everywhere and it was crazy because COVID was starting, and we were doing everything that the health experts are now telling you not to do: talking to strangers (because that’s literally our job) and visiting the hot spots. It was almost laughable the degree to which we thought we were all going to get it. It turned out to be fine—everyone in our press core was okay—but our flight attendant was handing out little pandemic packs to everybody with hand sanitizer and Advil. This was at the very beginning so nobody knew what they were doing. So it was like Purell, Advil, and I think she put gloves in there too.
Technically it’s the Democratic National Convention which was supposed to be held in Milwaukee. Joe Biden is not delivering his speech from Milwaukee any more because of concerns about COVID; he’s delivering it from his hometown of Wilmington. And in order to cover the speech on Thursday you have to be in Wilmington on Monday to basically self quarantine for two days and undergo two rounds of testing.
SG: What’s missing from the reporting generally when you can’t report directly from an event?
RC: So much. I just miss little things. The things you can observe only when you’re in the room: facial expressions; the way staffers are shuffling back and forth in the hallway adjacent to the room you’re in; seeing the backdrop; seeing the way the candidate looks at his notes; observing the people who are in the room with you.
One of the biggest thing is the voters themselves—you can’t talk to anybody, so you have no idea how people are interacting with the individual campaign. I know Joe Biden has spent the last five months doing Zoom events and Zoom town halls, but who are the actual people watching those? Are there any people watching them? How are people interacting with this election? I have no idea. I remember reading a story about Biden in quarantine and there was this little detail about Biden waking up every morning, getting on his Peloton [exercise bike], and in the normal world that detail would be fun but inconsequential, but reading it found it to be totally revelatory because I have no idea what his life looks like right now. It’s just shut away and private, and there’s no visibility. That detail was one of the biggest windows into what his days are like. It’s sad you can’t see or feel that.
SG: Do you think the candidates prefer that you can’t see as much?
RC: I think in a sense there are political advantages to [us not being able to witness it] but since we’re talking about Biden, this is someone who has built a political career by being able to connect with other human beings. I can’t imagine he doesn’t miss that human touch, so to speak.
SG: Is it easier for campaign staff to ignore reporters when they’re working remotely, trying to contact people for a quote by phone or email?
RC: Yes, it’s much easier. When you travel on the road with these people they can’t ignore you. A lot of reporting takes place over dinner, or drinks or in airport terminals. I definitely miss that part of it. Any reporter who tells you the social aspect isn’t a major part of it—they’d be lying.
SG: The Trump campaign has gone ahead with rallies and an invited public. How would you feel about covering one?
RC: Our news room is pretty strict about COVID protocols. I woke up one day to a package from our security guy who had shipped me 2 pounds of PPE—really hard core equipment including one of those thick masks that bruise your face. I don’t want to sound flippant about my own health—I’ve been lucky not to have gotten this—but I’ve been pretty careful. I’d be fine going [to a rally]. It wouldn’t stop me from wanting to do my job. I’m thrilled to be going to Delaware.
You can follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyCramer