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On the Campaign Trail
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Four hours’ sleep in a nondescript motel room. Meals grabbed on the run. Hours logged in airports and miles in rental cars. A head cold that never quite goes away. They all signal one thing to political reporter Dan Merica ’10: dream job.
The former Global Studies major with a passion for politics landed at CNN shortly after graduation. After a stint as a news assistant that included covering stories about religion, he was tapped in 2013 to follow prospective presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The plum assignment got even sweeter with her official entry to the race, in April 2015.
Bentley Magazine caught up with Merica in New Hampshire, at rallies in Manchester and Nashua on the eve of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.
I’ve been up since about 5:30 to read about what’s going on in the world and have a little personal time. This bag has my camera gear and, of course, laptop. It’s always been key for me to know where everything is at all times. At this point I had not been home in 90 days.
Smoothies are the perfect road food. This one — the Green “Monstah” — gets its color from kale. Staying healthy on the road … it’s a challenge. One of my best life hacks is joining the YMCA. They’re everywhere and a workout is a great way to fill an hour.
Manchester Community College
Before the rally, I check in with Jeff Zeleny, CNN’s TV correspondent covering Hillary Clinton. Our team also includes Jeff’s producer and a photojournalist. We all contribute to each other’s reports.
I record Clinton’s speech on my phone, from where I’m sitting. A big part of the job is listening to the speech, taking notes, then going back to review and write a story. Or, in the moment, emailing CNN to let them know “she said this new thing” or “she commented on this story.”
I was assigned to cover Clinton at the end of 2013. Few news outlets had someone on her that early. This has been very helpful because we’ve gotten to know more of the key people to talk to. Twitter is a great platform for getting your reporting, and the network’s reporting, out there and being part of the conversation. It’s also valuable for news gathering. I follow other people who cover Clinton and learn about topics they pursue.
On the rope line, which separates candidates from everyone else at the rally, it’s all about framing a question to spur a reaction. The day before, Bill Clinton had ridiculed Sanders for saying that anyone who doesn't agree with him is a tool of the establishment. So I asked, “Are you surprised by how your comment yesterday was taken?” which gives him an opportunity to explain himself. I followed up with, “They’re calling you an attack dog.”
As the campaign has gone on, we’re traveling differently. There’s a private plane now that takes the press around, so we go from plane to bus to event. During the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, we spent a lot of time in cars … this was a messy, sloppy day of perilous driving.
New Hampshire is unique in having a number of restaurants with a political history. This one is owned by a Democratic operative, so it’s popular with Democrats but Republican candidates also visit. It’s famous for chicken tenders, which I ordered, and mudslides, which I did not.
Alvirine High School
At the second rally, the guy talking to me is Alex Sietz-Wald, a reporter for MSNBC and a good friend.
On my other side is Ken Thomas, with the Associated Press.
At events there’s always a designated area for the press — and some campaigns are pretty restrictive about where the press can go. The Clinton campaign, for the most part, lets us walk around wherever and talk to voters.
The term for our job is “embed” … as in being embedded with the campaign. Every network has an embed, so you see the same people all the time. We’ve grown close, traveling the country together for more than a year. Reporting can be competitive, because you certainly want to get your story out there. But it’s not as competitive as most people would think.
Part of my job is to get video of the day. We try to film almost everything, because you never know what’s going to happen. Here I’m filming the Clintons greeting voters, taking selfies. These moments of personal interaction are telling, I think: They say something about who the candidate is.
The candidate is gone, the show is over and it quiets down pretty quickly. I’m typing out my notes or sending them out to the network. The story I wrote about the Manchester rally was posted online the same day. What I write varies greatly: I can write three stories in a day or no stories.
The job is exhilarating and exactly what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. But it can be lonely. There are these quiet moments on your own, when you put everything together before disconnecting for the day, before things start all over again tomorrow.
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