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How Do Politicians Not Get Sick, Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies on the Campaign Trail?

We asked an immunologist, an elementary school teacher, and Mitt Romney’s personal aide

As someone who’s spent the better part of the last two months sick with various viral infections, I’m in awe of how 78-year-old Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders maintains his healthy boyish blush, despite the fact he’s been criss-crossing the country for the past year, shaking hands with strangers, eating corndogs and surely abiding by the all-too-common political campaign mantra, “You can sleep after election day.” 

I am 29 years old. I live a normal life, which is to say, I don’t travel much, I shake an average of two hands every three weeks, and I sleep at least eight hours a day. My diet is on the healthier side (mostly). I certainly don’t carry around the weight of 44 million uninsured Americans whose very lives depend on my ability to stay healthy and push forward a presidential campaign. 

Still, by all observable measures, in the last few months, nearly every candidate for president — except for Joe Biden, who seems to be suffering — appears to be healthier than I’ve been.

To put things into perspective, Connie Mariano — who served as White House physician for Bill Clinton and briefly for both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — told CBS News in 2012 that the job of running for president renders a person’s immune system ever-vulnerable to ailment. “I liken it to the ultimate stress test,” she told CBS. “Your blood pressure is higher, your pulse is higher, you can look at the blink rate of the candidates.” Not to mention all the hand-shaking. “The candidates will have back pain because they stand up long hours at a time,” she explained. “Shaking hands, they’ll have wrist pain, maybe carpal tunnel syndrome. … They can get frequent colds.”

So how, then, are these candidates not constantly sniffling into microphones?

“Anyone on the campaign trail has probably been preparing themselves for the hardships they will endure,” says Gianna Hammer, assistant professor of immunology at Duke University. “And remember, as public figures and public servants, neither Sanders or Biden is the average over 75-year-old person. I don’t know what these two do to prepare, but if it were me, I’d work closely with a nutritionist, physical trainer, medical doctor and wellness coach to make sure my body was at its best — especially during flu season.”

But most candidates rely on their personal aides to play the part of nutritionist, physical trainer, medical doctor and wellness coach. Garrett Jackson, who was then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s personal aide during his 2012 campaign, tells me that the trail can be “unimaginably exhausting.” “I look back, and it’s hard even now to think about how grueling it is for these candidates,” he says. “I feel for them no matter what the party. Thousands of handshakes a week. You’re not sleeping much — a lot of nights the candidate would get three to four hours. I was averaging around five hours of sleep, then hopping on a plane to the next spot.”

To that end, Marissa Zeller, an elementary school teacher whose job naturally requires near-constant contact with young, snotty kids, tells me that she steers clear of viral infections by keeping things as clean as possible. “We clean the desks about once every two weeks (with Lysol wipes),” she says. “Also, I have a no high-five policy between me and my kids. We do elbow high-fives. I also work VERY VERY hard to NEVER touch my eyes, nose, ears or lips (any part of my face, really) unless I’ve just washed my hands, so that germs can’t enter there.”

But candidates don’t really have the option of giving potential voters “elbow fives,” which is why Jackson tells me the key to staying healthy is making sure that the candidate’s hands are always cleaned after handshakes. “I constantly had hand sanitizer with me,” he says. “After every event, we’d walk off stage, and I’d spray Mitt’s hands down with hand sanitizer. It’s critical to not get sick.”

Jackson is right: According to Hammer, the foremost piece of advice she’d give to anyone traveling a lot and shaking hands with multitudes of people is to make sure their hands are incessantly cleaned. “Wash or sanitize hands often,” she says. “A face mask is helpful to prevent spreading sickness, but less helpful to prevent getting sick from someone else.”

Although another common factor that leads to a weakened immune system is malnourishment, Hammer is quick to note that even though presidential candidates may be eating junk food, it’s unlikely that they meet the formal criteria of being malnourished. “In this case, as long as essential vitamins and minerals are being acquired through the diet, and the minimal amount of calories, the immune system should have what it needs to defend against infection,” she says. 

It helps too, says Jackson, that Romney was a healthy guy to begin with. “Mitt is a Mormon, so he wouldn’t drink alcohol or coffee,” says Jackson. “That gave him an advantage over other candidates.” Primarily though, Jackson believes there’s only really one thing that keeps presidential candidates and their staff going on the campaign trail: “This sounds weird, but it’s just adrenaline,” he says. “We were on this grind from Iowa to New Hampshire, then when we got to Nevada, after the Nevada primary, I suddenly got really sick. I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You have the flu, a stomach virus and sinusitis.’ It was almost as if, once I had this break, my body was like, ‘I’m done.’”

But of course, the hope, for one lucky candidate is that there won’t be a “done.” Instead, it’s just four (eight?) more years of showering themselves in Purell.