How 2020 Blew Up Campaign Reporting

For one, there’s the obsession with food. The acknowledgments in “Double Down” thanked more than 20 chefs and restaurateurs — Batali, Chang, Meyer — who “attended magnificently to our corporeal sustenance.” On “The Circus,” a typical prepandemic episode began with gorgeous, slow-motion shots of scallops being sautéed or chicken being deep-fried, before cutting to the team talking politics at their table. “Did they catch all the seafood in the ocean?” McKinnon marveled as waiters in Portsmouth, N.H., delivered an obscenely tall shellfish tower. “The Circus” has tried to keep up this prandial tradition in pandemic times, but the results feel awkward. Heilemann eats and talks in an eerily empty Gramercy Tavern. A waiter nervously asks Wagner, “You’re eating by yourself, right?” When Palmieri checks in from a pub in Kenosha, Wis., she reports that “It’s grim” — she’s talking about the city’s mood, but she could easily be summing up her wan plate of fried seafood.

The most fundamental similarity between “The Circus” and those books, though, is their cynical treatment of politics as a game, one played by savvy operators who manipulate the public into voting the way they want. Elections, in this view, are won and lost by campaign strategists, who use the news cycle to build narratives that benefit their candidates or, more likely, hurt their opponents. Political reporters, wise to the strategists’ tricks, reinforce or reject their efforts. And it is the resulting media moments — like Sarah Palin’s disastrous “60 Minutes” interview in 2008, or Mitt Romney’s 47-percent video in 2012 — that decide elections.

But in a 2020 race devoid of such theater, the backstage maneuvering doesn’t feel terribly consequential. One campaign’s strategy is to keep the candidate largely hidden away, for public health (but also political) reasons. The other’s chief strategist is the candidate himself, who constantly broadcasts his thoughts and intentions on Twitter and Fox News.

Granted, the strategists still believe they are pulling the strings. The Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, talking to Palmieri, lapses into the third person: “When the history books are written and they say Kellyanne was the first woman in history to successfully manage a U.S. presidential campaign … ” — as if her role in the 2016 race will merit even a footnote. When Heilemann marvels to Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director, “Who knew that the basement strategy would be a winning strategy?” she replies, “Well, we did, John.”

The journalists, though, seem to glean that their roles have been diminished. “The Circus” used to depict its hosts as insiders at the center of the action: Its signature look, reminiscent of a third-person shooter video game, had them filmed from behind as they wove through the crowded halls of Congress or a civic-center campaign rally. Now Heilemann is seen from a distance, wandering forlornly through a parking lot at a “drive-in” Biden rally, or standing outside the candidate’s house, telling the camera that “down at the end of that driveway, Joe Biden’s making history.”

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