A year (and then some) on the campaign trail

Jan 24, 2013
For 18 months, my life was the 2012 presidential election. It was a strange election, relative to other recent ones. The explosion of social media into our everyday lives fundamentally altered how citizens interacted with campaigns and how journalists covered news from the trail. (Twitter was the biggest evolution. It existed in 2008, but usage wasn’t as extensive as it became by 2012.) This meant that tradition was out the window, and the campaign began when the candidates said it did – which turned out to be the summer of 2011. The first story the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps published about the 2012 election ran on June 21, 2011. The first primaries were about six months away, but seven Republican candidates had already thrown their hat into the ring, while another two or three would add their names to the roster in the following weeks. At the time, I didn’t want to accept that the election cycle had begun – I started working with the Kids Press Corps in 2008, during the early days of those primaries, and it felt like that campaign never ended. It was quickly apparent, however, that this wasn’t going to be a one-off while we waited out the Iowa caucuses in January. There was a much-ballyhooed straw poll in Iowa in August, followed by a seemingly endless series of Republican debates that brought to mind the fierce Democratic primary of 2008. The election was in full swing, and we hadn’t even made it to Thanksgiving. A byproduct of this prolonged cycle was that the politics of the campaign got very vitriolic very quickly, and because of social media there was no escaping it. So while I had thrown myself into my work, I was railing about how ugly the campaign had become – on both sides – and how I couldn’t wait for the election to be over. This began before the Iowa caucus, so I clearly needed to pace myself. Not only to save my sanity, but to protect my health. Once the primaries officially began, long-term planning kicked in for the conventions, debates, and the inauguration, and my calendar filled up with travel to Tampa (for the RNC), Charlotte (for the DNC), Danville, Kentucky (for the VP debate), and Washington, D.C. (for the inauguration), as well as a short-range trip to Long Island (for the second presidential debate). There were also trips to Florida for a non-election interview with First Lady Michelle Obama and Washington for an election interview with President Barack Obama. And this was on top of personal travel for weddings, vacations, and a long-delayed honeymoon. At the time, being ensconced in electoral politics and undiluted partisanship – especially at the conventions – felt corrosive. But when I was finally able to stop, catch my breath, and reflect on the experiences I had and were still to come, I realized that what was being burned away were old assumptions about the political process and about journalism. I’ve never been a political junkie, and I’m still not. Not really. But I love history and the American political process, and the past 18 months reinforced everything I value and challenge and respect about my country. Covering this election was to be embedded in history, in the process, in America. This was pure democracy, and I had the good fortune to experience it in a way most people don’t. And it was journalism in its most necessary and vital application: challenging politicians, cutting through politics, reporting on off-hand remarks and slips of the tongue that reveal truer convictions behind manufactured candidates, acting as a guardian of truth for the public that can’t always directly question their elected officials. Of course journalists didn’t always accomplish these lofty aspirations over the course of the campaign, but I for one walked away from every event I attended and every editorial session with a Kid Reporter more committed than ever to the fundamental role journalism and journalists play in our society. I had a lot of conversations with Kid Reporters on the campaign trail about why journalism is important and how there was a time when we were called the Fourth Estate and I never felt naïve or idealistic. That’s the way it is and should be forever. The experience of covering this election was transformative. This, to me, seemed like what journalism should be. It felt right. And for all my bellyaching and complaining and kicking and screaming, it was my life for 18 months. And I loved it. Photo: Dante A. Ciampaglia with Kid Reporter Andrew Liang on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.