COLUMBUS, Ohio – Right before some of the East Coast polls close, a little before 7 p.m., I park at a reasonable distance from the Renaissance Hotel and find the bar. That’s where the TVs are, so it’s where we will learn whether Virginia and New Hampshire are as close as Nate Silver says they are. I want to watch it with Ohio’s Republicans, and this is where they’ll be partying.
At 7, the Fox News ALERT came across the screen: Everything was close, especially New Hampshire and Virginia. A distracted crowd of Republicans looked up, pondered the lopsided raw vote numbers coming in from Kentucky, then went back to their conversations. Nothing would really count until Ohio.
I took the escalator up to the ballroom. Soon, they hoped, Buckeye Republicans would announce that they’d rescued the rest of America from the death-grip of Euro-socialism. They bought $4.75 beer tickets and swapped stories from the endless campaign. Mike Robinson, a 33-year-old small-business man who wore blue shorts with white stars, gripped a Bud Light and let me ask him about the final rounds of negative polls.
“I’m optimistic,” he says. “The president’s not going to get the same percentage of the African-American vote. They’re not going to come out again. He did a good job in 2008, but this year, I hear that their numbers are down.”
The 48 hours before this party were a flurry of rumors and numbers and buncombe. If you were a reporter jumping on conference calls, you heard each presidential campaign explain why the real early-vote advantage was in their precincts, or their counties. Republicans had great fun pointing out how much smaller Barack Obama’s crowds were—down tens of thousands from the ones that came out for John Kerry, and look what happened to that guy.
I run into Loren Spivak, a Massachusetts activist who has written two Doctor Seuss-style books about the Obama years under the nom de plume Dr. Truth. He was trying to figure out the numbers that had Obama leading New Hampshire.
“I know a lot of people in New Hampshire and they’re all for Romney,” he says. “But, you know, a lot of us live in our bubbles.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., the evening’s “program” begins. State GOP Chairman Bob Bennett ambles onstage, joined by state Auditor Dave Yost.
“I expect to join you to celebrate the election of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as our president and vice president,” he says, not very convincingly. “And I expect to cheer with you when we announce a new United States senator from Ohio, Josh Mandel!”
By this time, those of us with smartphones have seen the exit polls for Ohio. If they’re only a little wrong, they still have Mandel, the youthful state treasurer, losing narrowly. If they’re right, they have Barack Obama winning the state, and the presidency.
They might not be wrong. From time to time, the PAs ask the crowd to move from their hallway hangouts back into the ballroom for the “program.” At 9:15, the Republican leaders return to share more words that sound like good news.
“I heard the networks were thinking about scrapping the map of the United States and calling it Ohio!” says Douglas Priesse, chairman of the GOP in Columbus’ Franklin County. “This is going to be a historic night. I saw Peggy Noonan on the TV, and she said: This is going to be a historic night in politics. I’m not sure the excitement is going to be as high on the other side!”
By this point the applause was pretty weak. The Republicans respond with the last-ditch move that has worked so well in vaudeville history: a cute kid. One of the young volunteers with Generation Joshua, an evangelical activist team, takes the mic to talk about all the work she was doing. I find a space to stand, next to some college-age Generation Joshua kids who had covered themselves in Concerned Women for America and Romney-Ryan stickers.
“Each of these stickers symbolizes a call that one of our volunteers made today,” explains Ryan McDonald, an 18-year-old student from Patrick Henry College. One of his partners had plastered the stickers over his eyes and his mouth; photographers couldn’t get enough of them. As we talk, I learn that Mandel has lost. “When the margin’s that close, you just know that you fought as hard as you could,” he says.
The screens along the broad side of the ballroom turn into Mandel logos. To kill time, I walk to the back of the party area, a room where party number-crunchers keep loading and reloading local data. I accidentally break the news of the Mandel loss to Kevin Shook, a lawyer who had worked against the Democrats’ lawsuit that extended early voting. But then, the party is beckoned back into the ballroom, for another “victory” announcement.
“Steve Stivers has won the votes to let him return to Congress!” says Yost.
We listen to a speech by Stivers, a local congressman, and one by a successful candidate for state Supreme Court. It feels like we’re being pointed away from the TVs, which keep on showing lousy news for Romney and Democratic wins in Senate races. When I leave the ballroom again, I meet people talking about the ramifications of the Obama win. “I’m worried about our Constitutional right to bear arms,” says one Republican, who wears a tiny gold pin of a Glock to make the point. And then, finally, Mandel concedes, talking about the “peaceful transition of power” and how it doesn’t exist “in the Middle East, or in some countries in Africa.”
He finishes quickly, shakes a few hands, and exits. Priesse retakes the stage. “We were all here tonight to see Josh Mandel end his first bid for U.S. Senate,” he says. “We will be there when he wins.”
Priesse keeps talking, and the speech sounds perfectly inspiring, but the timing is horrible. Anyone who can see a TV screen can see Fox News call Ohio for Barack Obama. Small crowds gather around the corners of the room, ignoring Priesse completely. They wipe away tears. They deal with it.
“Because Ohio’s economy has turned around so well under our Republican governor, Obama got credit,” says 22-year-old volunteer Evan Mathini. “I’m optimistic about the future. If we want optimism, we’ve got Chris Christie.”
The Republican leaders are still here, but they have nothing to say. The lights start to go out. The party moves down to the first-floor bar. I ask a damp-eyed Yost what he thinks of Fox News’ on-air debate about whether the state should have been called so early. “If NBC and CNN call it, I’m confident that they’re right,” he says.
He leaves, and I rejoin the group at the bar. Earlier than they expected, they’re waiting for an end to the election and a Mitt Romney concession speech. The only spare seat is next to Darrell Poor, a black Democrat who happens to be driving the “party bus” from the rally tonight.
“You know what I think?” he asks. “I think Bill Clinton was right, and he made sense to people. We were in a mess for eight years. Nobody could’ve cleaned that up in four years.”
Poor explains the election to me without sounding overly enthused by Obama. After a night in the Republican orbit, it’s a helpful reminder of how the president actually won this state. Poor looks around the bar, as the Republicans buy each other cocktails and talk over the Fox News feed.
“I should take the bus to the Hilton, where the Democrats are,” he says. “That’s where the real party is.”
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