Washington, DC—With the early returns showing Democrats winning key Senate races in Missouri, Indiana and Massachusetts, and the momentum tilting towards President Obama, the atmosphere at the Republican National Committee party in Washington, DC, started off low-key. It quickly spiraled into downtrodden immediately after the election was called for President Obama.
When the polls closed in a number of states at 11 pm, and Fox News on the giant screen behind the stage showed North Carolina going for Mitt Romney, the crowd breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Thank God,” said one middle-aged blond woman. “It’s about time,” added a male friend of hers, ruefully. They broke into broad smiles, but only momentarily. As Obama racked up a series of Western states, the reality slowly dawned on them that Obama had reached 244 Electoral College votes and was only one big state short of victory.
The RNC party was held in the grandiose atrium of the aptly named Ronald Reagan building, a hulk of federal offices on Pennsylvania Avenue just two blocks from the White House. Upon arrival, the vibe was more that of an oversized office Christmas party than a political event. Swank bars with ice blocks and tables filled with party food—fresh roasted turkey and strange-shaped pieces of focaccia—were sprinkled throughout.
There was a constant thrum of cheesy country pop music from the stage. None of it was terribly celebratory. Shortly before 11 pm, country star Ronnie Milsap belted out a slow, maudlin rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Throughout the night the emphasis was on loud, nearly deafening, music rather than watching the results. The music was turned off to watch Fox News only for a few minutes at each hour as polls closed and a fresh batch of states came in. At first it struck me as odd. Later, I realized it was a protective maneuver. Who wants to watch bad news?
The crowd was almost a caricature of Republicans: the majority of the women were wearing red dresses and/or had platinum blond hair coiffed in careful waves. (I asked one member of a large claque of the red-clad if this was merely coincidental. She told me she and her friends decided to all wear red to “as a show of Republicanism.”) Attendees were overwhelmingly young. But save for a few Asian-Americans, I did not spot a single racial or ethnic minority in the crowd of hundreds. The young DC resident were mostly staffers on Capitol Hill. As is always the case with Hill staffers, they did not want to be quoted by name and, if they said anything at all, spoke in diplomatic banalities.
They mostly professed to be “optimistic” or “hopeful” about Romney’s chances. But none proclaimed confidence that he would win. Many left before the final result even came in, although all denied it was because they thought he would lose. Some went to drink elsewhere—one young woman told me she will party no matter what, but harder if Romney wins—and some went to watch the results at home, believing they would go on until the wee hours. It seemed as if “it’s going to be too close to call,” or “I don’t know who will win,” was the refrain of people who subconsciously knew they were in for a hard night, but had not yet admitted it to themselves.
The most honest attendees acknowledged they were beginning to feel queasy. “I don’t know if I’m confident,” said Claire Anderson, a congressional staffer who did not look at all confident. “I’m holding out hope. I was confident until today, but I’m getting nervous and bracing for the worst.” If Obama wins, said Anderson, the GOP’s lesson will be that “it needs to do better at get out the vote and appealing to young Americans.” How should they appeal to young Americans? “Good question,” she says.
According one another Hill staffer, Republicans will now face the strategic question of whether to blame President Obama or the Democratic Congress for what she predicts will be a very rough few years head. When asked around 9:30 pm if Romney would win, she paused for a long moment, and smiled sheepishly. She did not say “no,” but it was legible in her expression. “We’re doing better locally [in congressional races],” she said, giving her best spin. Pointing to the crowd, she said, “Most of these people, if they’re smart, will leave soon.”
Sure enough, by the time Fox came on to call Ohio and the presidency for Obama, the room was mostly empty. The few who remained looked forlorn, although not despondent. Since the news was hardly a shock, there were no dramatic screams of agony. It is worth remembering that before the first presidential debate it looked as if Obama was almost certain to win. Republicans have been preparing for this moment since the time they realized, sometime last summer, that they did not have any good presidential candidates vying for their nomination.
Most of the crowd who remained did not have much to say about how they felt. “Sad, very sad,” said Margaret Wilcott, a young Republican who lives in DC. “Good luck, America,” she added, shaking her head.
Since this is a crowd of political professionals, there was none of the reactionary delusion of some grassroots Republicans. No one claimed the election was stolen or otherwise challenged Obama’s legitimacy. Common themes were that “Republicans always respect the office of the president,” and that the people have spoken. “Fool us twice, shame on us,” said Elizabeth Bender, a young woman on her way out.
If the Republican Party is going to engage in any deep soul-searching in the wake of two consecutive decisive presidential losses, it was not apparent from the RNC event. Asked what lesson Republicans should take, most had little to say. One recurring theme, though, was acknowledgment of a demographic reality: the GOP must reach out more to voters who are not old white men.
“We just need more thoughtful approach to young people and women,” said Meredith Beatrice, 24, who works in public affairs and volunteers for the RNC. “The next candidate needs to speak on a more personal level to how our policies will empower young people and women.”
No one suggested any actual policy moderation, however. The simple fact is that cutting funding for education and reproductive health, opposing equal pay legislation and denying reproductive freedom does not empower young people or women. And Romney was, for a Republican, a relative moderate on those issues. Until Republicans realize that they need to change their policies, not just the way they sell them, they will be in for a lot more nights like this in the years to come.