After endless months of manoeuvring, jostling, positioning and wheedling, the Democratic primaries finally began at the beginning of February. The bloated odyssey that is an American election year is underway.
For me “2020” is the culmination of four years reporting in America, traversing this vast nation under Trump and trying to work out just what in the hell is going on. More than that though, “2020” is the result of half a lifetime spent following American politics far more closely than I probably ought to have done.
The sheer scale of a presidential election, and the vastness of the stakes, has fascinated me ever since the Florida recount-palooza that was George W. Bush vs Al Gore in 2000. Later came Barack Obama in 2008, an obligatory fascination with all seven seasons of The West Wing, then finally Donald Trump in 2016, when things got hella weird and I first arrived in America.
This time though, in my own tiny and peripheral way, I’m a participant in the greatest shitshow on earth. Now I’m in the ring. First come the February primaries, in careful sequence: Iowa, then New Hampshire, then Nevada and beyond, all of them hallowed names in the political pantheon.
Is it as glamorous as one might hope? Of course not. Life on the campaign trail is a carousel of overcrowded shuttle flights and bland Holiday Inn rooms with appalling carpets. Of rubbery scrambled eggs and soggy granola at 7am. Of being perpetually surrounded by screens showing CNN and its absurd multi-layered panels of meretricious politicos. And of waiting around endlessly for the bloody candidates to show up.
You start to see the same faces on the trail. Again and again the media troop into gymnasiums, town halls and diners to watch career politicians insist that they are not, in fact, career politicians and must be sent to the White House immediately to rescue America from the big bad tangerine man.
"Just occasionally, though, the campaign delivers the kind of rough-hewn glamour that you hoped for"
There’s the hot presenter from MSNBC, who glows suspiciously in the drab February light. And that old codger with a broken foot, hobbling around at every event dispensing wisdom from the ’72 McGovern campaign. There are the young bucks from Buzzfeed, smug long-formers from the Atlantic and the New Yorker and those earnest, ubiquitous Japanese camera crews, explaining the intricacies of the Iowa caucus to audiences in Nagasaki.
Just occasionally, though, the campaign delivers the kind of rough-hewn glamour that you hoped for. Late night beers and pizza in a dive bar, hacks gathering round to trade unprintable gossip and campaign war stories. These evenings resemble your Twitter feed made flesh; all those familiar faces, slightly chubbier and less perky than in their profile pictures, working the bar, searching carefully for the right conversation to join.
The whole thing is of course a ridiculous circus. The politicians preen and lie and grapple for supremacy, and the media chivvy the horserace along desperately hunting for a narrative to flog.
But there is one bright spot. One thing that makes the prospect of yet another night eating peanuts alone in yet another sad hotel room not completely miserable.
You’ll have to forgive my cheesiness here, but the voters rescue it. The people you meet at events, locals and visitors both, who queue and clap and question and smile sweetly when you become the fourth reporter in an hour to ask them who they are voting for.
People like Diane Bear, a 76-year-old retiree who teamed up with her friends to travel from Oregon to frigid Iowa, just to listen to the candidates and see what they have to say. “It’s not the same until you’ve shaken their hand,” she said.
"Life on the campaign trail is a carousel of overcrowded shuttle flights and bland Holiday Inn rooms with appalling carpets"
Or Valerie Cadugan, an advertising executive who took her 17-year-old daughter Amy to see Pete Buttigieg speak in Merrimack, New Hampshire, queueing for an hour in -10C because she wanted Amy to see what democracy looks like. The hall was full, they never got in. “We’ll come back another time,” Valerie smiled. Amy looked less sure.
For all America’s dysfunction, there is, at least in these early primary states, a genuine fascination with the government of this vast democratic experiment. There’s real patriotism, community and political engagement. People really care. They want better lives and a better country. To me that’s irresistible.
I’ve wanted to cover an American election for so long, the reality has inevitably been a little deflating at times; age and cynicism demands it must be so. But the people actually participating in this grand poll of polls, they’ve matched all my expectations. They are what will get me through this longest of years.
For politics closer to home, catch up with all the latest from the week in Westminster…
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