Life on the Campaign Trail: Regional Priorities, and Repetitive Jokes

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The best parts about traveling with presidential candidates on the campaign trail are the interactions with voters, who are as diverse as our country and come to the events with hope and optimism that an individual candidate can speak to their most pressing problems.

The worst parts, without question, are the jokes.

You hear a candidate make the same jokes over and over. The part of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech where she jokes about being the “accidental” baby in her family, the part of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s story where she says there were “more cows than Democrats” in her first House district. It’s indicative of the privileged position of many of us reporters, who get the incredible opportunity to hear some of the nation’s most powerful people speak dozens of times. But it also confirms another, equally salient truth: Politicians aren’t that funny.

As a national political reporter for The New York Times, I have a lot to balance on a daily basis. The presidential campaign among Democrats is already in full swing, more than eight months before the first Iowans will cast their vote in the presidential caucus. I have been covering Ms. Warren, who has been releasing policy proposals at a blistering place, including big ideas such as breaking up Facebook, increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans and canceling student debt. That has meant being nimble and available at any moment, ready to jump on a story from a bar (as I did Wednesday) or an airport (last week), or during your favorite soccer team's most important match (don't worry, they won).

On the road, candidates often publicize a day of travel, which can include multiple events that crisscross Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada, sometimes within a single day. Your rental car is sometimes your office. Your cellphone is sometimes your cubicle.

There are also other challenges, including ones posed by the sheer number of candidates in the race. Last Sunday, for example, I attended services with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, S.C. But by evening, I needed to be in Detroit to see a speech by Senator Kamala Harris of California, who told a crowd of more than 10,000 people that President Trump was “not making America great again. He’s making America hate again.” Earlier this year, I flew to South Carolina to see Ms. Harris on one day, then drove to Georgia to catch Ms. Warren the next.

The job can be such a blur I often pinch myself. I’m 26 years old, and when Senator Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to announce his presidential campaign in the run-up to the 2016 election, I remember watching from my college library at Marquette University in Wisconsin. This time, I’m at the epicenter of an election that will put the country at a crossroads, and the current Democratic primary has brought fraught questions of identity and ideology to the forefront.

In essence, the party is asking itself, “Who do we want to be?” and “What does it mean to be a Democrat?” Those two questions can elicit wildly different answers in different parts of the country. As we saw in last year’s midterm elections, liberal Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York can capture the country’s imagination with leftist policies and uncompromising rhetoric, but the same party is home to centrist Democrats who helped make the party’s current House majority, and senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, who both won re-election by explicitly rejecting the leftist lurch.

On an individual level, I see this tension play out voter by voter. Candidates emphasize different issues in different places: In New York, Ms. Warren talked about the tech industry; in the South, she emphasized housing policy; in the West, she prioritized a proposal about protecting public lands. (Although some things, like health care and climate change, are of universal interest.)

I think reporters have a pressing responsibility to tell the diversity of these stories, and elections are a great vehicle to do so. At a campaign rally, you’ll see the rich and the poor, people of different races and genders and sexual orientations — each of whom has a single, equal vote in the ballot box.

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Astead W. Herndon is a national political reporter based in New York. He was previously a Washington-based political reporter and a City Hall reporter for The Boston Globe. @AsteadWesley

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