On the Trail--Inside a Times story
From time to time during this presidential campaign Top of the Ticket will stop and talk with Times political correspondents about their life and observations on the campaign trail, a kind of peek behind the scenes of the stories and blog items you read here every day.
To kick off the series we caught up with veteran Scott Martelle, who was in Arizona after producing this recent On the Trail feature on Duncan Hunter, the California congressman seeking the Republican nomination. Martelle followed Hunter in New Hampshire for nearly two days.
Q: So, Scott, what was the campaign day like?
A: He did a pancake breakfast, two parades and a fundraiser. It was a long day but gave me a good feel for him.
Q: When you report on these kinds of stories, what are you looking for?
A: Lots of things. You want to see the candidate's style, how he or she interacts with people, what people ask, the candidate's responses. Some of them say the same thing over and over. Hunter had a different response for every person depending on their comment or question. The crowds are really irrelevant from my point of view. If they're at a parade, the bystanders are pretty disinterested. If they're at a campaign event, they're all loyalists anyway.
Q: Can you get close enough to really see and hear the interactions?
A: That depends on the candidate. It's a lot easier with the lower-tier candidates. With Hunter I was at his elbow the whole time. We nearly bumped into each other. Not many people knew him, but he kept introducing himself. People were friendly. They were long, hot parades.
Q: Do you get a chance to talk with the candidate one-on-one?...
A: Usually, yes. Sometimes in a car between events. This time at the end of the second parade, Hunter was waiting for a ride to his fundraiser. So he suggested we just sit on a low wall and we talked for 45 minutes. I got all my questions in.
Q: What happened the second day?
A: It got screwed up. Hunter changed his plans, but even though I was the only reporter with him, they forgot to tell me. So I showed up at the original event 45 miles from where he was. I thought that was revealing about the organization, so I put it in the story.
Q: So how do you go about writing one of these?
A: Well, you look at all your notes and the research you did before. Sometimes like with Hunter there's an anecdote you've seen that seems to capture the tone. So you start with that. I wrote the beginning of the story right away while the experience was fresh.
Q: How long does it take to write one of these pieces?
A: I had to get on to the next story, so I'd say probably 15 hours over three different days.
Q: Who else have you covered like this?
A: Over the years I've covered Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, Cheney, Nader.
Q: Who was the best campaigner?
A: Oh, Edwards. I like to interview people on their way into a campaign event and then find the same people afterward to get their reactions. Edwards really connects. I remember in '04 on the way into one of his events, the people I talked to knew of him but were just shopping all the candidates. On the way out they were all carrying his lawn signs.
Q: Thanks. I'll let you go. Travel safe.
Photo: Scott Martelle; Credit: Andrew Martelle