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Cheap Hotels, Mate Tea, and Friendly Secret Service: On the Nevada Trail with Bernie Sanders

VICE News embedded with the Sanders team in the lead up to the Nevada caucuses, and found a very different atmosphere to the other candidates' tightly controlled and buttoned-up campaigns.

by Liz Fields
Feb 22 2016, 12:25pm

Photo by Liz Fields/VICE News

Late on a Thursday night in Elko, Nevada — a town many in the Bernie Sanders press corps hadn't heard of until earlier that day — reporters and campaign staff sat around a T-shaped marble bar drinking bottles of $10.99 Ménage a Trois Red Blend wine.

The kitchen and bar at the Hilton Garden Inn had long closed by the time the senator's motorcade and press bus rolled in at around 10pm. The hotel staff had left cloched plates of burgers and soggy fries for the campaign who were weary after a long day of flying from Washington DC to Nevada, and then motorcading straight to a series events, including a pit stop at a picket line, a nationally televised town hall, and then a fundraising dinner on the Las Vegas strip.

Such is the glamorous life of staffers and reporters trailing one of the most popular candidates in the history of the United States presidential elections. With more than 4 million small campaign donations to his name, Sanders, a 74-year-old Democratic socialist from Vermont, has upset Democrats and challenged everything pundits thought they knew about electability. Over the weekend in Nevada, the senator clambered up from a 25-point disadvantage to establishment favorite Hillary Clinton to narrowly lose and come out just a few delegates behind.

Senator Bernie Sanders encourages culinary union protesters in Las Vegas. Photo by Liz Fields/VICE News

As support for the Sanders insurgency has swelled, so too have the senator's staff members, campaign spending, and press efforts. Yet, with growth comes pain. The campaign is still navigating the intricacies of dealing with a newly-inducted secret service team that only joined them less than three weeks ago. They also have to contend with a growing press corps of partially-embedded, camera-toting journalists who frequently get in the way and freak out security by crowding and shoving long lenses into the senator's face.

On Thursday, I became one of those bothersome reporters. On the way to the televised town hall, the motorcade made an "OTR" or off-the-record stop to the front lines of a protest of Culinary Union members. Press piled out and quickly swarmed around the senator and his wife, Jane. Somewhere in the melee, I nearly got taken out by a network cameraman after losing my footing inches away from Sanders, who was at that point gleefully yelling about affordable healthcare into a megaphone. Secret service agents, who had earlier swept our bags and persons for hidden weapons, went into defensive mode as reporters mobbed the senator and blocked the flow of protesters. At one point I accidentally bumped into Jane, an unusually gracious woman with very long and soft hair. No wonder Sanders doesn't like the press. He waded through the crowd with great patience however, and while he might occasionally blow off questions in a bit of a bluster, his interactions with individual reporters are generally courteous.

Photo by Liz Fields/VICE News

Over two days, multiple reporters on the trail would tell me that the Sanders outfit was one the most open campaigns towards media they had ever come across. At the bar Thursday night, staffers who had previously worked in Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaign agreed, saying even they were surprised how much access Sanders's top tier of operatives have granted to the press.

Sanders campaign staffers are also a fairly friendly lot. Most have no qualms telling you about their pre-campaign lives or pouring you cups of mate tea from a thermos in the middle of a rally. The senator's head of secret service is the first to say good morning and point you toward the sandwich table. It's always sandwiches at Sanders events, but no one can complain — we're travelling with the socialist candidate after all. The whole vibe typically is a world apart from other candidates' tightly controlled and buttoned-up campaigns. At Donald Trump rallies, bouncer-type security guards gruffly handle reporters and protesters, many times at the direction of the man himself. Most campaigns also regulate the production of their official candidate merchandise, sales from which go directly into their war chests. Sanders staffers on the other hand, tolerate but do not encourage an entourage of travelling salesmen who set up shop outside major events hawking unofficial gear, including hats, badges, and t-shirts bearing the now-famed slogan "Feel the Bern."

The level of openness surprised me, not least because Sanders's disdain for corporate media is infamous, and as a rookie embed you're not exactly sure what to expect.

Bernie and Jane Sanders deplane their campaign charter, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Reno, Nev. Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

From the very beginning of my two-and-a-half day stint with the Sanders crew, it was apparent that there was a subtle hierarchy separating old embeds — the Washington Post, ABC, and Buzzfeed — who have chased the campaign since last spring, and the troupe of newbies who have jumped on the press wagon in recent weeks.

Many in the band of US-based reporters are in their 20s or early 30s, roughly matching the ages of the young high achievers in the Sanders campaign. Most staffers are genuinely and intensely passionate about the senator's message and try to show you campaign videos or tout his message whenever they get the chance. It's almost a sport for campaign staffers and supporters to sway journalists from their stated independence and impartiality. The foreign journalists, of which there are fewer, and the photographers, tend to be a little older than the US embeds, and hang around on the fringes of the louder American network coterie.

Related: Sanders Declares Nevada a Victory, Despite Losing to Clinton

The age thing matters a little because campaigning is physically demanding and stressful work. Often you don't find out the candidate's packed schedule until hours or minutes beforehand, or while you're already on the campaign bus en route to the next stop. Days often go for longer than 12 hours and take the candidate across multiple cities. The day before the Nevada caucuses, the Sanders campaign took charters to rallies in three locations, each in different corners of the state. Since Sanders himself is in his 70s, some rivals and supporters alike have questioned his ability to see through a general election (considered even tougher than the primary contest) let alone a full term, or two, as president.

The senator has routinely shot down those claims, saying he is in perfectly fine health, largely thanks to his youthful days of long-distance running. And despite a slight crack in his voice as he spoke at the fundraising dinner Thursday, Sanders showed pretty good stamina on the trail this week.

Reporters following the Sanders campaign deplane the charter in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Liz Fields

Among the press pool that trails candidates, it is apparent that alliances have long been drawn along the way. Some relationships have been forged over many months and beers across many states, while others are as fragile and ambiguous as the reporting catchphrase "off the record." For instance, FOX and NBC were previously in Iowa together and lost at least $40 on the Black Jack tables Monday night, while CNN was very excited to bump into CBS at a cocktail bar on Friday, and Politico seemed to recognize all sorts of staffers and obscure politicians from the Washington DC circuit.

Yet embed reporters are also friendlier than those found at events open to the public, which are already oversaturated with media. There's a camaraderie you wouldn't ordinarily find, say at a phone drive or rally open to the general scruff of journalists who sometimes outnumber actual participants at those events. Here, in highly coveted seats on campaign busses and charter planes, journalists aren't afraid to be friendly at breakfast the next morning or during long stretches at airport lounges while waiting for secret service to sweep bags. At one particular leg from Elko to Reno, the plane hit rough turbulence as it flew into a mountain-trimmed valley and everyone clung feverishly onto their seats as the vessel flopped through the air. Those kinds of moments when you think you're going to die or pass out or pee your pants can only serve to bring people together. That, and the cheap wine and hotels the campaign organizes for overnight stays.

Elko, Nevada. Photo by Liz Fields/VICE News

Even Sanders's celebrity surrogates are housed in hotel rooms that are usually around the $100 mark. In Iowa, artists and musicians like Vampire Weekend and Foster the People, who were there to stump and play concerts for Sanders, were put up in poky rooms at the Hampton Inn near the Des Moines airport. In Las Vegas, where hotel rooms are generally cheaper than other cities (they're usually subsidized by the money casinos make off their patrons at the tables) the digs were slightly more upmarket. Some campaign staff stayed at the Flamingo on the strip, while others were put up at the quieter Vdara hotel with the senator and his family.

I cut the umbilical cord with the Sanders campaign on Saturday afternoon shortly after Sanders gave his concession speech at an open-aired pavilion on the outskirts of sin city. The message was buoyant — he's looking forward to Super Tuesday and building on the momentum of his support from the last three early states. I arrived to the speech late in an Uber after spending the morning reporting on an at-large caucus in the Caesar's Palace casino hotel and missing the campaign bus. I did however come just in time to see the senator and rest of the media cohort whisked away by secret service to board a charter straight to South Carolina, where another week of sandwiches and cheap hotels await.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

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