Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives at Bradley's Hardware… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
It would be imperceptible to all but the most insidery of campaign aficionados, but coverage of the presidential race took on a bit of momentum Monday. That’s when Mitt Romney’s traveling press corps kicked off “protective pool” coverage of Republican candidate.
A routine of campaign coverage for decades, the pools give reporters limited access to candidates even on the days when they have no planned events. The theory is that the press should have maximum access to those who would be president, to witness a simple aside to a voter, contact with a big-money donor or some unforeseen disaster.
Candidates of both parties like to resist such coverage as long as they can — because of the danger of a plotzing publicly, not to mention the suffocating nature of near-constant scrutiny. The press wants to avoid instances like the one in 2008, when reporters covering candidate Barack Obama found they had been kept penned up on a press plane while Obama secretly met with then-rival Hillary Clinton (at the Washington home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein).
Obama’s team has suggested that Romney’s failure to submit to earlier pool coverage amounted to yet another act of opacity from a candidate who doesn’t like public scrutiny. The press corps has been pressuring for more access to the candidate since the spring. But the Romney camp suggested many other candidates waited until late summer to give such access. (Reporting pools occasionally are imposed by candidates earlier in the election cycle when candidates want, for example, to limit the crowds of reporters at intimate campaign events. In 2008, the more routine protective pools began to shadow Obama in June and to follow GOP candidate John McCain at the end of July.)
Once regular access is granted, pooling duty usually falls to reporters who travel with the candidates, with each taking a turn scrutinizing virtually every public moment. Reporters not part of the daily pool (which can include a still photographer and video crew) have time to catch up on interviews, read competitors’ stories, seek remedies for virulent campaign-trail maladies and, on rare occasions, relax.
With protective pool duty, fierce followers of Campaign 2012 can now look forward to an endless stream of “pool reports.” The reports used to be almost exclusively for the enlightenment and amusement of insiders. But, given the endless news hole provided by the Internet, the journal-style missives now frequently find their way into the public record.
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker kicked off the protective pool duty Monday with a painstakingly detailed account of errands Romney ran from his summer vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H. The expedition could be summarized in a word: uneventful. But to give a sense of pool report style, it’s best to let Rucker’s four filings (edited here, because the Internet is endless but your patience is not) speak for themselves:
“Pool Report No. 1: Gov. Romney departed his residence in Wolfeboro, N.H., at 8:40 a.m. en route to an undisclosed location. Your pooler did not physically lay eyes on Romney.”
Four minutes later, NBC News embed reporter Garrett Haake helpfully chimed in: “Fwiw [For what it’s worth] I was down the street jogging and saw him in the right 2nd row seat behind the passenger. Open collared shirt and looking down, I presume at his iPad.” (Reporters on the long slog of a campaign try to help each other in a pinch.)
By Pool Report No. 2, the candidate had arrived at the undisclosed location, which turned out to be Bradley's Hardware in downtown Wolfeboro. Time: 8:45 a.m. “He wore jeans and black New Balance shoes,” Rucker corresponded. “As he walked into the store, he was carrying what appeared to be a shopping list.”
Romney said hello to a local woman (Rucker leaves unanswered how he discerned the woman to be “local”) and asked her how she was doing. Then the Washington Post scribe negotiated a bit of enterprise reporting: “ When your pool asked her if she planned to vote for Romney, she said, 'Of course.' "
There’s only one thing duller than watching a candidate shop in a hardware store and that’s being put by campaign workers or the Secret Service in a “hold” outside the hardware store. Fortunately for Rucker, Romney kept him waiting just nine minutes. This exchange ensued: “Gov. Romney left Bradley's Hardware at 8:54 a.m. with a beige bucket of goods. Asked what he bought, Romney told your pooler, 'Hardware stuff.' "
That’s pool duty. If you’ve got to be dragged along to see it, the thinking goes, why not write it up? Extreme attention to detail, combined with a tone of ironic detachment, are preferred.