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.