American election night parties are a unique thing. If you’ve been a committed campaign volunteer or, worse yet, a member of the staff, the amount of tension and mental and physical exhaustion building up to the party can be overwhelming. Unlike any other effort, democratic elections are a totally zero-sum game, either you won it all, or lost it all. Maybe you can try again in a few years, but even with the benefit of past experience, you’re pretty much starting a brand new campaign all over again.
So, when you get to that election night party where you find out if all your efforts were worthwhile – the polls are closed and there’s nothing to do but wait for the results – things start to happen.
For one, just about everyone you met during the course of the campaign suddenly seems like your best buddy. Everyone is hugging. They could be smiling or crying depending on the expected outcome, but that’s irrelevant compared to the fact that everyone at this party IS NOW YOUR TRIBE. Tonight, you would fight a thousand samurai warriors with your bare hands for these people.
Even the old guy volunteer that brought donuts every day. Especially that old guy.
Except for the big parties in Washington, D.C., Most election night parties are decidedly low budget affairs. Union halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, a cheap bar at the edge of town, or maybe a meeting room at the Holiday Inn. Big U.S. Senate or governor campaign often rent a fancy hotel ballroom, but it’s a cash bar with a DJ and certainly no appetizers.
Probably the two most extravagant election night parties I’ve been to occured on the same night in 2004.
For the Illinois Democratic Primary, a high school friend was the daughter of one candidate, Blair Hull. A wealthy man, his good government campaign fell apart after local media forced open his divorce files, revealing that he and his ex-wife had physical altercations. But determined to see things through, Hull campaigned hard until the last day.
So, a friend and I decided to check out his election night party, even though he was guaranteed to lose.
It was in a beautiful, high-end hotel ballroom in Chicago. Free drinks, shrimp cocktail and tasteful decorations. But the room was largely empty as a few volunteers and staff drank themselves into oblivion, waiting for the inevitable bad results to come in later that night.
So we left. Down the street, at the Hyatt Regency, was the party for another guy running: Barack Obama.
We knew the party was somewhere in the hotel, but where? It was late and hotel staff were mostly gone. There were no visible signs. Someone we bumped into said, “Down the escalators.”
The Hyatt Regency, a convention hotel, has what seems like four or five basement levels. We went down all of them. Following escalators and a steady trail of people heading the same direction. Then, we reached a bottom floor, turned a corner and heard a raging crowd and thumping music down a dark hallway. We walked a bit, then pulled open some doors, and there we saw a thousand people crammed into a room for five hundred. No bar, no chairs. Just lots of people and a sound system blaring Motown. A stage was at the front, and we stood on tiptoe, craning our necks to see over the crowd.
Then, only minutes after we arrived – Barack appeared! But this wasn’t the international rock star we know today. This was a guy who had just won an unbelievable, come-from-behind win in his first statewide election. He wasn’t even elected yet! This was just the primary election!
He was skinnier, younger than today. Maybe more awkward. But he strode across the stage with a huge smile, pulling a woman that must have been his wife–Michelle did not campaign with him at first–and swung his arm up in a broad wave to us all. The room erupted. Total bedlam! These were people who had worked, really worked to get him elected. Illinois was still learning how to say “Barack”, but these people knew. They were the originals. The core believers.
He took the microphone and said that thing we’ve heard so many times, but it was the first time I’d ever heard it: “Who would believe, that a skinny boy, from the South Side, with a funny name, could ever get so far?”
If it was belam before, now people were crying. Screaming. Laughing. The panoply of human emotion was entirely on display. Even though I was an interloper, new to the whole Obama thing, I couldn’t help but laugh and gush with excitement myself. Maybe-This-Was-A-Big-Deal!
Mercifully, his speech was short. But when it was over, it seemed like everyone in the room – all one thousand of them – knew one another except for me and my friend. We stepped out, as the true believers began to really party for the night.