“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before” – what it’s like to report on the Clinton v Trump election

After 51 years worth of reporting politics, war and genocide, veteran journalist Jeremy Thompson tells us about his sixth and final time covering the US election

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Sky News journalist Jeremy Thompson has a CV the length of a short novel. During his 51 years in the trade he has reported on British elections dating back to Harold Wilson’s in 1974, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Iraq War in 2003, the recent terror attacks in Brussels and Paris, and has travelled to the US to broadcast six American presidential elections. Does anything surprise him any more? “Not much.”

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So when he says that the current leadership race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is “like nothing I’ve ever seen before”, and describes the public attention it has received as “box office” and the candidates’ security as “staggering”, you know that it is.

Thompson witnessed the “feeling of hope” during Obama’s first campaign and had the privilege of reporting on the hanging chad scandal in Bush’s 2000 election, but never before has he worked on an election quite like this.

When we catch up to speak about this year’s election – his last big hurrah before retirement – Thompson is on his way to a village of 150,000 retirees, travelling down a long, straight interstate road, flanked on either side by trees sagging with Spanish moss. He has just come from a Clinton rally in Tampa, Florida, and in the days to come he’s set to visit voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, New York and more. With his schedule he often reaches one state per day.

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The first presidential debate on 26 September broke the record as the most-watched in US history

What does Thompson mean when he describes this election as “box office”? He is referring to the extraordinary character of the Republican candidate Donald Trump, and the record-breaking ratings of the TV debates. “This feels like a celebrity election,” he says, “The American audience have all been drawn into it whether they wanted to be or not.” He explains that for most American networks – like Fox or CNN who are covering it “relentlessly” – their viewing figures can go up by 40 per cent when there’s a big Trump story. “It’s kind of car-crash telly… Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. 80 odd million people, just hooked on it. Way, way more than Obama. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

The security surrounding the candidates, too, is colossal – “Everywhere they go is a huge armed shell around them.” Thompson describes a relatively small Clinton rally at a waterside park in Tampa, Florida, which he attended the day before our interview. When he looked around him, there were snipers poised on the roof of every single building. This was at a minor rally that lasted barely an hour and was one of three or four the Democratic candidate did that day. “Hillary just waltzes in and already I had counted at least eight snipers on rooftops, and around her there were 30 plus secret service. There were 10 immediately around her and others staked out at the front of the stage and around the back. There were also armed security teams on a boat on the waterfront by the park.”

When you compare this to the UK, and consider the fact that neither Clinton nor Trump have even been elected yet, the scale of the thing is epic.

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Hillary Clinton at the Tampa rally on 26 October

And if these layers of security don’t make it hard enough for reporters to get access to the candidates, Trump’s team will make sure it’s almost impossible. Covering US elections is notoriously difficult for British journalists anyway, for the obvious reason that they are not largely broadcasting to a voting audience. However, Thompson says this election is unique in that at Trump events, the press are often actually regarded as the enemy.

Thompson tells me that he and his colleagues who have been to Trump rallies have found them “hostile” and that “there’s no doubt that Trump’s rhetoric has turned his supporters against the media. [According to them] the media are part of the great plot and the great conspiracy with Washington… At one stage we and other networks were banned for no particular reason. Trump’s people banned some of the television media simply because unless you were a cheerleader for Trump, you were against him.”

So who is actually at these rallies? We’re all too familiar with a certain idea of Trump supporters: elderly white folk from the deep American south; violent fans who scream anti-Semitic vitriol; at one point seemingly our very own Ukip leader Nigel Farage. But on his way around the US, Thompson has met some that don’t fit this stereotype: “Yesterday I had a long chat with a very bright young accountant, female, probably in her 30s, very well educated, she’s got three degrees and is from New Jersey [a state expected to vote Democrat]. She was extremely fluent in her argument that Trump was shaking up the system, ‘and about time too’. She by no means fitted the profiles we’ve been provided with. She and other people I’ve spoken to indicate that there is a support for Trump that is deeper and wider than people suggest.”

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Trump counts young women among his supporters despite sexual misconduct allegations being made against him

After the shock results of last year’s general election and the EU referendum here in Britain, the words “never assume” have never been more apt. Thompson says the question of the young voter turn-out is as important in the US as it is in the UK and that millennials feel “disaffected and distant” as they do here. He also notes the “echoes” of Brexit in support for Trump – he says they are alike in that they are protest votes, a rebellion against an old, central government. And in America, like here, pollsters are struggling to find unexpected voters – the young female accountant being a prime example.

Could Trump win the election? “I certainly wouldn’t write off Trump. I’m constantly surprised by the number of people I talk to that believe in him. I’m constantly surprised by the demographic.”

No one can know who will win come 8th November, who will become the 45th President of the United States and the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. But on results night, we know where Thompson will be: “We’re building a small studio in a hotel lounge overlooking Times Square. That’s where I’ll be presenting the overnight results show… It should be fun.”

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Sky News’ U.S Election night programme Clinton v Trump: America Decides begins at 10pm (UK) on Tuesday 8 November