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It began, unofficially, when Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren formed exploratory committees on running for president, the first big names to jump in. Nearly two years ago. It ended with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. making their final pitches to a divided country. In between, the campaign for the presidency involved more than 30 candidates (28 of them Democratic) and was shaped by an impeachment, a pandemic, record unemployment, social upheaval and a Supreme Court nomination. Through it all, Times journalists talked with voters nationwide and experienced the race in moments big and small. Here, 16 of the reporters who covered the campaign each share an experience they won’t forget.
A sign of worry
On March 10, the last sort-of-normal day on the campaign trail began with Bernie Sanders shaking hands and hugging voters outside a primary polling place in Dearborn Heights, Mich. After that, his press corps was taken to a delicious Middle Eastern place nearby, where a hearty lunch was interrupted by news that one of the reporters may have been exposed to the coronavirus at a conference the week before. I’d shared a hummus plate with her.
Within two hours, Mr. Sanders’s plans were shot. Instead of flying to Cleveland, the candidate and his press corps — minus the reporter who may have been exposed — went to Vermont, where both reporters and Sanders aides all checked into the same Burlington hotel.
The night ended at the hotel bar, with Sanders aides drowning their sorrows and the reporters there unsure what would happen next. Just before midnight, another reporter got a call from his desk: Come home now, the campaign trail is no longer safe. Soon, the case would be the same for all of us. — Reid J. Epstein
The night before Super Tuesday in early March, I took my then-7-year-old daughter with me to East Los Angeles for an Elizabeth Warren campaign rally I was covering. For months, my daughter had listened to me describe scenes and politics she didn’t really understand. By then, it was clear that Senator Warren, the last woman standing, would not succeed in getting the Democratic nomination. But you would not have known that from the pumped-up crowd that night before the California primary.
My daughter was mostly in awe of my friends working for the television networks, as they stood in the stands with their cameras and laptops, predicting the applause lines of the stump speech. That press corps was mostly young women, who were exceedingly generous to a second grader. The night was a moment for her to witness history, and women’s roles in it. We had no idea that the world would change just a week later amid a pandemic. — Jennifer Medina
In February, I was in a New Hampshire ballroom with Andrew Yang, the long-shot candidate I had been covering for months, when he announced that he was dropping out of the Democratic primary. You could feel the room deflate as soon as he said the words. Soon after he exited the stage, I met Gene Bishop, an 81-year-old New Hampshire voter who told me he had never contributed to or canvassed for a political candidate before he began supporting Mr. Yang. “I just can’t believe that it’s over,” Mr. Bishop said, his brave face melting away. Then, to my surprise, he began to cry. It’s easy to get jaded about politicians. But my brief interview with Mr. Bishop has stuck with me. Mr. Yang, he lamented, had been “a big part of my life.” — Matt Stevens
A fitting ‘conversation’
The best part of political reporting is getting out in the country and seeing voters in their communities to better understand how their home settings shape their views. But during the start of the pandemic, I was left to work from my New York home, isolating like many of us and doing interviews over the phone.
I was talking to a Kansas voter over FaceTime audio because, in her rush of masking up and running errands, she had lost her cellphone and was unable to have a regular call. I was missing my headphones, probably swiped by one of my children for online school. Both of us were talking with our voices echoing from our laptop speakers.
As we were discussing politically divided America, her dog started barking in the background. The noise made my dog start barking. We sat in silence as our two dogs thousands of miles apart faced off in a pandemic-era virtual barking contest sponsored by 2020. — Dionne Searcey
An unscripted moment
In June 2019, a white police officer in South Bend, Ind., fatally shot a Black man, and the city erupted in outrage and grief. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor, dropped off the campaign trail to fly home, where he waded into a throng of angry protesters outside the police department. He was cursed at, shouted down and read a list of demands through a bullhorn. The dead man’s mother told him, “Y’all ain’t doing a damn thing about me or my son or none of these people out here.’’ Before Mr. Buttigieg could answer, another woman said, “Are you really here because you care about Blacks, or are you just here because you want to be the president?”
“This is my home, too,” Mr. Buttigieg replied. Standing a few feet from Mr. Buttigieg with a notepad, I was struck by how different the encounter was from the carefully staged rallies, speeches and meet-and-greets that make up political campaigns. Mr. Buttigieg had a day job, as a small city mayor, and I was able to observe him up close during a crisis. After about an hour, the protesters set off on a march. Mr. Buttigieg, flanked by the dead man’s brother, walked at the head of the column. — Trip Gabriel
Lots of contact
The week before Labor Day, President Trump resumed his campaign rallies despite the Covid threat, and I was with him for one of the first, in Latrobe, Pa., where thousands of largely maskless, socially not-at-all-distant supporters cheered him on. He seemed charged up to be back on the road. The sun was setting, and it was a beautiful night with Air Force One strategically parked in the background. But after months of mostly avoiding contact with other humans, it was hard for me not to feel uncomfortable being squeezed in so close to everyone else. In addition to the traditional red meat and false claims in his speech, Trump mocked mask wearing and then made clear he had only passing interest in the people he actually came to address, saying he liked airport rallies better. “I get off the plane, I make a speech, and I get the hell out of here,” he told the crowd. A month later he had the virus. — Peter Baker
One more vote
The people I meet along the campaign trail are the most memorable part of the job. During this campaign, many of them expressed deep emotional investment in the election’s outcome. Among those who stood out was Jeff Loken, a rabid Democrat whom I visited at his home near Racine, Wis., in 2019. Mr. Loken had been glued to the televised impeachment hearings, concluding that President Trump had obstructed justice. We spoke again in April 2020, during Wisconsin’s messy primary, after Mr. Loken’s absentee ballot failed to arrive. He later texted me to say that he and his wife, Dawn, reached the last-minute decision to head to the polls in person despite the coronavirus outbreak. I didn’t know it at the time but Mr. Loken was in the late stages of melanoma. He died on May 26 at age 66. — Stephanie Saul
What might have been
Covering the Democratic primary was in many ways a more vivid experience for me than the pandemic-constricted general election. And the primary was a more dramatic and revealing saga than its result, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s nomination, might suggest.
Two events I covered linger in my mind as glimpses of alternate outcomes. One was Elizabeth Warren’s September 2019 rally in Washington Square Park. Addressing a huge crowd from beneath the illuminated arch, she wove a heroic narrative about the American labor movement, linking it to her governing aspirations. Grander and more thematic than Senator Warren’s usual stump speech, it sounded like a convention address.
The other event was Michael R. Bloomberg’s first campaign stop, before Thanksgiving, popping into a coffee shop in Norfolk, Va., and then delivering matter-of-fact remarks to reporters at a nearby hotel. Downtown Norfolk was vacant and the phalanx of aides around Mr. Bloomberg most likely outnumbered the patrons he interacted with. He and his entourage departed Norfolk as quickly as they arrived, foreshadowing how well-organized, well-funded and devoid of spontaneous energy his candidacy would be.
Rather than overtaking Mr. Biden, the two wound up on a collision course, and Ms. Warren demolished Mr. Bloomberg on a Las Vegas debate stage in February months after her own momentum faded. That debate sticks in my memory for another reason: It was the climax of my last reporting trip before the virus struck. — Alexander Burns
Riding the ups and downs
The Iowa State Fair is a rite of passage in presidential campaigns. Certainly for the candidates, who spend the time wooing voters and trying to avoid being photographed eating unflattering fried foods like corn dogs and pork chops on a stick. But also for reporters, who chase the candidates around the 445 acres of the fairgrounds, asking questions, taking notes and hoping they’ll take just one little bite for the cameras.
With so many Democrats running this year, my colleague Reid Epstein and I decided to see if we could persuade candidates to do more than view the famous butter cow and deliver their soap box speeches. (Yes, they happen on a literal soap box. This is Iowa, after all.) We wanted to interview as many as possible.
On a Ferris wheel.
In the end, only three agreed — Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet. Senator Amy Klobuchar opted for a ride on the sky glider. The interviews were memorable, if not particularly newsworthy. When Mr. Booker boarded the wheel with us, a pack of photographers jumped in the next car, dangling into the sky to get the shot. The rest of the pack of reporters were left stranded on the ground and furious.
When I called Mr. Booker this week to talk about the state of the race in the final week, he joked that he’d prefer to chat on a Ferris wheel. With the virus raging, the idea of squeezing into an amusement-park ride felt unimaginable. But perhaps, in 2024, the candidates will return to the Iowa State Fair. And when that happens, I’ll be first in line for the Giant Slide. — Lisa Lerer
An optimistic start
It is difficult to remember now, but Beto O’Rourke was going to be president. Really, people thought so. The first day of his campaign came 20 months and many lifetimes ago, March 2019, in a far-flung corner of southeast Iowa called Keokuk. He stepped onto a chair in a coffeehouse and declared the moment eternal, win or lose: “I will remember this forever,” he said, “every single one of your faces and what you were wearing and what you had to drink.” It didn’t work out. Most campaigns don’t. But sometimes the end takes your mind back to the beginning — full of promise, free of virus. — Matt Flegenheimer
A long night
The most memorable night of this campaign was, hands down, being on a conference call in the middle of the night with a few of my reporter teammates; my editor, Bill Hamilton; and our Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, after President Trump tweeted that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Because the president returned so quickly to the campaign trail after his hospitalization, he has succeeded in making the whole incident feel like a minor hiccup. But that night, it felt like the thing that was both unthinkable and inevitable had happened, given how he had been conducting himself on the campaign trail, along with his repudiation of face masks. It fit the pattern of so much of what happens to or because of Mr. Trump: Surprising? No. Shocking, nonetheless? Definitely.
I had stayed up after Mr. Trump’s interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, because his answers about his own test sounded like he might have already known he tested positive and was, perhaps, waiting for another test result to come back before announcing anything. I remember sitting in my dark living room, on the conference call, while Elisabeth assigned out stories as if it were our regular 10:15 a.m. call. Except it was the middle of the night.
She gave me and Maggie Haberman our assignment and told us to call her when we filed so she could edit it. I remember calling her at close to 4 a.m., waiting for her to finish editing, and then crawling into bed. — Annie Karni
I don’t think I’ve ever been more terrified than I was on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving last year. I was with two other reporters in Sioux City, Iowa, for a Pete Buttigieg event, and we were determined to make it back to Omaha for our flights home early the next morning. The problem was the snow, which had begun falling heavily while we were inside. During our 100-mile drive, as I sat in the back trying to finish a story I was writing, the car fishtailed and slid on a very dark, very unplowed highway. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the car was OK, and we drove on — slowly. My heart may have stopped, but the campaign doesn’t. It took a long time, but we eventually made it back to the hotel. Our flights even left on time the next day. — Sydney Ember
It was a Monday in mid-August, and speculation about Joe Biden’s running mate was at a fever pitch. So I hopped in a car with my colleague Tom Kaplan — masks on and windows down, of course — and we drove to Wilmington, Del., hoping to glean even a kernel of news from Mr. Biden’s hometown. We staked out his house. Nothing. We spent hours circling the airport, in case any vice-presidential contenders landed unannounced. No luck.
Finally, we headed back to the Hotel du Pont, where we had booked rooms knowing that Mr. Biden had held important events there throughout his career. On our way in, just before midnight, we saw workers furiously constructing an event setup in an ornate ballroom — and Tom had noticed that a truck parked outside that day bore the mark of a vendor that had been paid by the Biden campaign. We decided to write a story reporting what we knew: Secretive preparations for a major event were underway in Wilmington, at a moment of intense speculation about Mr. Biden.
Several hours after our story posted, we received confirmation that news was indeed afoot: Mr. Biden announced his choice. And the next day, he and Senator Kamala Harris held a virtual fund-raiser together in that ballroom. Sometimes, it really does pay off to be on the ground. — Katie Glueck
A new normal
On March 26, I sent an email to my editors about the Wisconsin spring elections. “It’s shaping up to be a mess,” I said. “I wonder if it’s worth its own story?” It would soon become incredibly apparent that the April elections in Wisconsin would be a watershed moment for the 2020 election, exposing the frailty of the electoral system amid a pandemic, and that covering them would be different.
Whereas we would normally have a whole team of reporters on the ground for such a major moment, the pandemic forced most of us to stay sheltered; the only reporter we had on the ground in Milwaukee was my tireless colleague Astead Herndon. So in the days leading up to the election I asked all of my local sources whom I had been texting with for weeks — lawyers, activists, political operatives and community leaders — to use their smartphone cameras and send me countless videos of the entire day, be it lines, protests or even mundane traffic. I asked them to give my cellphone number to any voter they encountered. It wasn’t the same as being on the ground, but it would soon become one of the main methods of covering voting during the primaries, at least until we were allowed to travel again. — Nick Corasaniti
Waiting … and waiting
On Feb. 3, I left my Des Moines hotel for an elementary school gym in Waukee, Iowa, one of the sites of the Iowa caucuses, where President Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, addressed 100 Republican caucusgoers and where one lone supporter of Joe Walsh tried halfheartedly to persuade anybody to join him.
Then I went back to Des Moines and settled down in a conference room with the rest of the Politics team to follow the results of the Democratic caucuses, which didn’t come. I stayed up past 5 a.m., slept for an hour, flew back to New York and landed to find they still hadn’t.
Just over a month later, New York locked down. Looking back, it doesn’t feel like that gym or that conference room existed in the same lifetime I’m in now. Nothing seems less relevant than the caucus results we were so eagerly awaiting that night — in retrospect, the last hours in which I thought I was covering something resembling a normal campaign. — Maggie Astor
Joseph R. Biden Jr. stood in a Dunkin’ and his future looked bleak. It was the morning of the New Hampshire primary, and I was one of the reporters on hand to witness what was supposed to be a classic, New England-appropriate photo op. There was only one problem: News had just broken that Mr. Biden, facing a poor showing, was about to flee the state for South Carolina. He entered the coffee shop in Manchester and was pelted with questions.
“What does it say about you leaving tonight?” Mr. Biden was asked.
“Well, it says I’m going to South Carolina, that’s what it says,” he responded. Mr. Biden offered that he was “mildly hopeful” about New Hampshire, but hours later, he would finish in fifth place — a humiliating outcome.
More than eight months later, it may be hard to recall just how close to the brink Mr. Biden’s campaign had come. But that scene from the Dunkin’ on that winter morning remains vivid for me. It is a reminder of how political fortunes can change rapidly and unpredictably — and how a struggling politician under siege in a coffee shop can find the presidency within his grasp less than a year later. — Thomas Kaplan