How Press Photogs Survive the Grueling Travel of the Campaign Trail

Every day, you see the toll of the campaign trail in the eyes of Hillary and The Donald. But it's equally as grueling for the security details, the journalists, and the campaign staffers who accompany them. From the beginning of campaign season (which now stretches to more than a year before Election Day) until a winner is declared in November, a rotating cast of reporters and photographers shadows the candidates as they travel the country. Yes, it sounds glamorous to hop on private jets with a person who may soon be president. And, yes, after doing that for months, the sheen wears off.

We spoke with Andrew Harnik, an award-winning Associated Press photographer who this year has been assigned to the Hillary Clinton campaign, and previously has covered the White House and the 2012 presidential race. He gave us some insight on what it's like to be on the road with a presidential hopeful.

Fifteen-hour days are the norm

Our days are ridiculous. From the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, I’m pretty much going the whole time. There are days when you'll meet at a private airfield, throw your bag on the plane, and fly to, say, Pittsburgh. Then you motorcade to an event, take pictures for an hour, then motorcade back to an airport and fly somewhere else. And then do it again. And maybe again.

You do have a general idea how long you’ll be gone. A typical swing -- where a candidate goes to multiple cities in a few days -- starts Sunday night. Then you'll go to as many as three cities a day, then finish by Thursday or Friday. Then (Hillary) will go home to New York or DC for a few days -- I go home too, then they’ll send someone else out with her for the next swing. But sometimes it’s longer. For instance, when I went to the convention, I was told I’d be in Philly then following her for two weeks. 

Some people I know are on the road so much they’ve given up their apartments. On their downtime they’ll go visit friends or take two- to three-day "vacations."

Pack light, and carry a smart bag

We fly private a lot, but sometimes at the beginning of a swing I’ll fly commercial. So you learn to pack light. I’ve learned how to pack a week’s worth of stuff into a carry-on, like a medium-sized duffle bag. Then my “personal item” is for my gear. It opens you up so you can move much easier, like taking ghost flights where you book a trip that connects through your final destination. It’s often a lot cheaper than a nonstop to that city.

I typically travel with two cameras and two lenses, a laptop with an external hard drive, wires, chargers, and a laptop bag. That laptop bag is pretty neat -- it’s a shapeshifter that’s fairly small but has an accordion-style zipper that opens to be three times the size. When I travel I keep my camera equipment in there as well, so it opens into one big bag and I carry just that and my duffel on board.

Friends and family don't understand your schedule

One of the hardest things is explaining to people how fast-paced the whole experience is. People think I'm sitting around for hours with nothing to do, but in fact we have almost no downtime because as soon as an event is over, we're on the move to the next city. And even if I’m in a city where I have friends or family, I can’t commit to meeting up ahead of time. We get our schedules the night before. So people get mad when I hit them up last minute like, “Oh, hey, I’m in Nashville tonight. You busy?” But that’s just the way it runs.

Hillary requires less gear than Trump

I travel in a tight pool, so we can pretty much get in Hillary’s bubble and not need a bunch of big, cumbersome lenses to get the right shot. Each person in the pool has been vetted, so the Secret Service gives us a little more trust, and we can get a lot closer.

Now, with Trump, it’s different.

Typically candidates let photographers get to work in what’s called “the buffer," that area between the stage and the crowd. With Trump, you’re required to stay on this back riser that’s sometimes 100 yards or more from the stage. Then they’ll take photographers in small groups up to the buffer for one to two minutes at a time, then you have to go back to the riser. So for most candidates, you can get away with using a 35mm lens. For Trump, you need 400-600mm lenses, and those are HUGE.

You interact more early in the campaign

You’re always trying to look for something beyond the campaign speech, trying to find moments that humanize the candidates. They always know that there’s a camera there, but to try to catch an off-guarded nice moment, and early on in the campaign that’s much easier. In Iowa, you had guys like Rick Santorum literally going around from town to town in pickup trucks and you could just go in the truck and take pictures.

One afternoon I was photographing Marco Rubio pushing his kids on a sled in Iowa. I was using a zoom lens to get him on the top of the hill, and I wasn’t paying attention to where his son was headed after he pushed him. I couldn’t see him in my lens, but I hear Rubio say, “Look out! You’re going right for him!” And I literally had to jump to the side at the last second to avoid getting completely taken out by his son. That video cuts out right before I jumped. (Note: that's at the 0:13 mark of the video above.)

When I follow Hillary it’s just kind of like she’s on, I’m on, and there’s no real interaction. There’s no “how’s it going?” and you don’t get to shoot the breeze like you could at the beginning.

You wonder who'd actually want the job of president

I get to see how grueling campaigning for president is. But I’ve traveled with Obama too -- and covered him in Washington -- and you see what an awful, stressful, demanding job the presidency really is. Don’t get me wrong, I see maybe 2 to 3% of the president’s day. But even that’s enough.

For example, I traveled with him once to Alaska. We flew maybe eight hours there and as soon as we landed, he had to be going, 100%, the entire time. Fully up to date on everything going on in the world, and having a response and position to every issue. Basically, there’s no downtime on those flights, it’s all just getting briefed and preparing responses. 

Christmas is the worst. I’m relatively convinced anyone who’s ever been president hates this holiday more than anything. Because after a full day of briefings, press conferences, and making decisions that literally affect the entire world, you’ve gotta throw a party EVERY DAMN NIGHT. And not just like a dinner party where you entertain your friends. A party where there’s a receiving line of literally 300 people, each of whom you’ve got to make feel special for 15 seconds while they take a picture they’ll keep framed for the rest of their lives. Reagan used to do like 12 of these. Obama’s cut it down.

Every day I’m on the campaign trail and see these people working so hard for this job, I seriously wonder why anybody would ever want it.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist who thinks Marco Rubio's kids are probably a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Follow his non-award-winning Instagram @meltrez1.