Las Vegas

“I feel dazed and stunned,” said Margot, a 25-year-old UCLA law student as she stared at the TV showing John Kerry slipping 136,000 votes behind George W. Bush in the crucial Ohio tally and nearly 4 million nationally. “I know this is a great loss, but I’m numb. Like it hasn’t fully hit me yet.”

Her words pretty much summed up the postelection scene on the second floor of the aptly named Ice House Lounge. Hundreds of volunteer canvassers who had poured into Nevada for a final ground campaign to defeat Bush were now gathered to help one another adjust to a bitter reality–another four-year term for the incumbent.

Election day in Las Vegas had started much better than it was ending. More than 1,000 volunteers mustered at 7 am in a hangar-sized tent near downtown and were methodically equipped with two-way radios, Palm Pilots, precinct maps and voter lists. They were one division in the small army assembled by pro-Democratic 527 groups and coordinated by America Coming Together (ACT). Their spirits were soaring. “We’re hitting 45,000 doors today with 143 teams of seven people each,” said a hopeful Mike Garcia, president of the Los Angeles-based Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, home of the legendary Justice for Janitors movement. “In twenty-three years of political activity, I have never seen anything like this sort of intensity.”

That palpable intensity built among the canvassing teams as exit polls filtered out around noon showing not only a national pro-Kerry wave but also Nevada coming into reach of the Democrats. Kerry, indeed, took a lead in the early evening returns. But as his numbers turned south nationally, he eventually lost the Silver State as well.

Disappointment hit hard. “People voted for Bush because of fear of change, because he has more Christian values,” concluded 24-year-old healthcare union organizer René Sebeny. A former Howard Dean supporter, she now figures that he too would have been defeated. “Now I think in this political environment only a candidate who is more center-right has a chance of winning.”

Some among the volunteers were still hoping against hope that Kerry could pull out a victory after the provisional ballots were counted in Ohio. “I give Kerry no more than a 1 out of 10 chance on that front,” said another young ACT volunteer, an aide to a liberal Los Angeles city councilman. “I say let loose the ninja lawyers. Unleash them on Ohio.”

Others seemed consumed by pain. “This proves the ignorance of the American people,” said one writer volunteer. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

A number of the activists, by contrast, expressed scant surprise. “From the beginning I thought Dean was much more of a straight talker than Kerry,” said 26-year-old Ari Yampolsky, a Bay Area researcher for SEIU. “What was it with John Kerry anyway? He was this moribund sort of candidate who was given a presidential gravitas. But he was never inspiring.”

“Tell you the truth, I’m amazed anyone votes Democrat at all,” joked Todd Jones, a young philosophy professor at the University of Nevada who had spent recent weeks canvassing for ACT and who was taking the evening’s defeat as a symptom of a national mood. “I mean, the Republicans want to lower your taxes and tell you what to do. We want to raise your taxes and let you be free. Why would you vote for us?”

Many wondered where all the energy, all that intensity, which first surfaced in the Dean campaign and had been transferred to ACT, would go, if anywhere. “ACT has its shit together better than anyone,” said the councilman’s aide. “And who was ACT? It was about one-half Deaniacs. And one-half union people. Well, you have to figure that about half that Deaniac faction will get discouraged, disheartened and will drop out or drift away. The rest of the Deaniacs will remain active. And the union people are going to keep doing what they always do. That’s not so bad. We come out of this with a bigger activist base than we had, say, a year ago.”

The evening’s grim results did offer one opportunity. “Obviously, we need a re-evaluation of everything we’ve been doing,” said a 35-year-old union lobbyist and consultant who had spent the last week as an ACT field coordinator. “We’ve invested four years of blood, sweat and tears–and tens of millions of dollars to boot. And we still don’t know how to win the hearts and minds of the American people.”

“We obviously have a lot of serious work and serious soul-searching to do,” he added. “But for the time being we have a much more practical question to answer. Just who is the new leader of the Democratic Party? Hillary Clinton or John Edwards?”

His question remained as frozen in the pre-dawn darkness as the electoral vote tally. The ACT volunteers continued to huddle and drink and console one another in the retro lounge, blending seamlessly into a city full of hard-luck losers.