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Campaign exhaustion

interior-exhaustionThis article first appeared in the Sunday Herald, on February 10, 2008.

Hillary Clinton looked knackered. Barack Obama was hoarse. The bags under Mitt Romney’s eyes offered the first clue that his defiance was hollow. Even as he was saying “this campaign is going on… all the way to the White House” his body was visibly giving in.

Super Tuesday revealed a group of presidential candidates utterly exhausted by life on the bus, tired of staying sharp and good humoured from dawn until midnight. Only John McCain appeared sprightly, displaying a front-runner’s energy as he celebrated victory in Arizona.

McCain insists on a minimum of five hours sleep per night. When John Edwards was canvassing around the clock in his doomed attempt to win the Iowa caucus, McCain observed that “some politicians think you have to brutalise yourself to show how well you are doing.” He also understands sleep deprivation at a deeper level than any of his rivals. As a prisoner of war, it meant being woken every two hours with a kick in the ribs.

The primary season is always gruelling, but the non-stop intensity required by so many contests in such little time makes this year more punishing than ever before. For the Democrats, with nothing decided and the popular vote split almost exactly fifty-fifty, there is no let-up in sight. After this weekend’s primaries in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and Maine, there is another batch on Tuesday in Maryland and Virginia.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney’s withdrawal from the race must have come as a blessed relief to his wife Ann. “It’s like a very strange sorority-fraternity you’re involved in,” she said recently. “When I see Michelle Obama, when I see Elizabeth Edwards, we give each other hugs and that look. We know what it means. I tell people it’s like Groundhog Day. Every day you want Groundhog Day to be over.” Now it is, for her family at least.

The strain is showing on everybody. Obama has lost weight and is close to losing his voice. In his Super Tuesday speech, he kept repeating himself, noting three times that his candidacy “started with a whisper”. Clinton needed cue cards to remind her what to say. Her make-up gets thicker with every public appearance.

Rudy Giuliani blamed the “severe headaches” that derailed his campaign in January on nervous exhaustion. Mike Huckabee offered his “apologies” for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto rather than his “sympathies” and suggested he needed forty winks.

When Bill Clinton’s most pointed attacks on Obama attracted criticism, his wife dismissed them as a product of fatigue. “Maybe he got a little carried away. You know, that comes with a hard-fought election,” she said. “It also comes with sleep deprivation which I think is marking all of us, our families, our supporters.” As if to underscore the point, Bill nodded off during a speech on Martin Luther King Day.

Hillary’s tears in New Hampshire were widely credited with shoring up support among female voters in the state, but both remaining Democrats will be hoping to avoid any further breakdowns. Sheer stamina may play a role in deciding the nomination.

Last week, Clinton covered 5,500 miles in three days, campaigning on the Atlantic coast in Virginia, by the Pacific in Washington state, flying up to Maine in the far North-East and back to Virginia again.

Obama travelled 2,200 miles in a single day, starting off in New Orleans, spending the afternoon in Nebraska and finally getting some sleep in Seattle, three time zones later, which is like having breakfast in Cairo, lunch in Rome and dinner in Glasgow, fielding questions from journalists all the while, shaking every hand that’s offered and delivering the same soaring speech every few hours.

Coping mechanisms vary from candidate to candidate: Clinton drinks tea, Obama relies on a morning exercise regime, Huckabee takes power naps, maintains a strict diet and fantasises about eating pizza when it’s all over.

Sensing a publicity opportunity, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine put out a press release warning that “risky decisions can be more attractive to a sleep-deprived brain.” The director of the Yale equivalent, Vahid Mohsenin, said that mistakes are inevitable in the next round of debates, because “nothing is more detrimental than being tired.”

In this respect, McCain has a clear advantage. With the Republican nomination all but sewn up, he can afford to take it much easier than Clinton or Obama in the months to come. The prospect of a drawn out struggle is already alarming Democrats. The chairman of the party’s national committee, Howard Dean, said he hopes to have a clear nominee by April, adding that “if we don’t, then we’re going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement. Because I don’t think we can afford to have a brokered convention.”