Notes From Inside Obama's Election Night Party In Chicago

by Janet Potter

5:45 The 146 bus dropped me off in front of Soldier Field and I started walking across empty parking lots, heading toward McCormick Place. It was raining and dark and the lights of election headquarters served as my guide. I thought about dwelling in that metaphor for a while, but I was in too much of a hurry to get inside.

The rally was being held in Hall D, a cement space the size of an airplane hangar. The guests hadn’t been let in yet, so I had a chance to see the event stage across the empty hall. The press area was opposite the stage. National broadcasters had the best view, positioned on reserved riser space directly facing the stage. Beside that was another first-come first-serve riser whose occupants included an incredible-looking Italian broadcaster. In fact, with TV anchors everywhere, almost everyone was good-looking. Everywhere I went I had an ongoing, vague feeling of recognizing almost 80% of the people I saw, but that was probably only because they were uniformly good-looking in a way that made them seem instantly familiar.

I wandered around trying to find the optimal space for someone without riser space. It turned out this didn’t exist, and the press weren’t allowed on the convention floor at all. We were essentially stuck behind the risers. I commiserated with some local reporters, and we decided to sneak out into the crowd once the place filled up.

6:15 I spot some excitement. A crowd of news cameras surrounded a professorial man I didn’t recognize. I edged as close as I could and overheard him say the words “voter suppression” and smile knowingly before he was whisked away by an aide.

All the people that did not reserve riser space were walking around grumbling about our lack of ability to see anything or anybody. A man watching CNN on his iPod pointed out to a colleague that he didn’t “come to Chicago to watch fucking TV.” A crowd gathered at one of the exits to the press area and pelted a member of the event staff with questions about why we weren’t being allowed to see anything. He was sympathetic but demanded that everyone “respect the protocols in place.” To back it up, he threw out a few mentions of “the Secret Service.” This had a subduing effect.

6:40 The professorial man made another stop for questions from the press. It was Dick Durbin! I was duly embarrassed to have not recognized a man I’ve voted for. My niche in the crowd around him, as the least intimidating person not carrying heavy equipment, was to identify the Senator for the foreign journalists. “Durbin,” I said, “DURBIN. DUR.BIN.”

I convinced a volunteer to let me stand in front of the risers for a minute “just to look around.” An English reporter with a spiky shock of white hair and a great accent was trying to negotiate with another volunteer.

“Can I stand here during the event?”
“No, this is reserved for people with riser space to walk through.”
“But I’m a writer, I just want to stand here with my notebook out of the way.”
“If you don’t have riser space you have to stay behind.”
“I can’t see anything back there.”
“You can feel the energy.”
“I don’t want to feel the energy, I want to see his face when he wins.”
“You will be able to feel the energy.”

7:00 Hoping that the press isolation policy would be overturned in time, I headed downstairs to the food court. I grabbed a slice of pizza and watched Wolf Blitzer on the monitors. I was standing next to the entrance for a walled-off area reserved for “WH Travelling Press.”

The first crop of polls officially closed and Wolf called Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois (big cheer), Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. It was fun down here; there was a big crowd around the monitors and everyone was excited and busy. “Maybe I should just stay down here and watch TV,” I grumped to myself, but returned upstairs anyway.

In the interim, a small pen beside the general riser had been opened up for miscellaneous press to stand in. I spotted the pals I’d made earlier and join them there. It’s full of local reporters and foreign camera crews. It turned out that I was going to be standing in this pen for the next six hours. As a silver lining, the hot Italian broadcaster was stationed on the riser four feet away.

The people with “Special Guest” distinction file past us onto the main floor. On the other side of their path was another pen for what I guess were Less Special Guests. The reporters yelled questions across at them and stopped as many of the Special Guests as possible. A lot of the questions revolved around election night 2008 at Grant Park. Were you there? How is this different? Several guests found themselves explaining to the press the difference between being inside and being outside. One seemingly agenda-driven French reporter beside me kept asking people, “This is less magic, no? Less passion?”

Over the loudspeakers country music played, inexplicably.

7:30 The jumbotrons in the hall played CNN on mute, with the audio cutting in any time there was a new projection. Every once in a while the crowd would start to cheer and we would all strain forward to see what state had just been called. Two-thirds of the times they were cheering because CNN has cut to a shot of the hall. Over the next few hours, I learned to differentiate between a projection cheer and a there’s-the-camera cheer.

There was another riser (inevitably) directly between our pen and the podium. Friends texted to see if I was having fun; I texted back that I was not going to be able to see the stage.

8:00 The wi-fi wasn’t working, and nobody was getting reception. A few of the guys around me were supposed to be live-tweeting or live-blogging and they’re pretty stressed. We oscillated from staring ineffectually at our phones and talking to the passing guests. Older black ladies in sequined Obama shirts were the most likely to get stopped for pictures and questions. A woman, spotting me taking her picture, yelled, “Lady! Lady! I’ve got Michelle on my dress!” as she fanned out her skirt for me to see. Standing about five feet away from me behind another barrier, she was one of my favorites in the crowd, and we made a lot of meaningful eye contact throughout the night as big results came in.

People gamely cheered for the projections like you do for first quarter two-pointers. Texas going red got an enormous, sustained boo.

CNN cut in to announce the results for Michigan, New York, and New Jersey. For the first time, the crowd went really, truly wild. And it finally struck me that this night was going to be awesome. My heart got fluttery and I had an impulse to call my brother.

CNN faded out and they started playing the first installment of “Road to November,” essentially an Obama highlight reel. This first part has a lot of the greats — Obama killing the fly, playing basketball, singing “Let’s Stay Together,” talking about his daughters,” announcing the death of bin Laden. There was even a clip of Hillary Clinton at the ’08 convention calling for Obama’s nomination. I wrote down, “went from boring to magical.”

8:20 The second installment of “Road to November” was Michelle-heavy. And in general, there was no shortage of Michelle footage all night. One of the screens cycled between photos of Barack, Joe Biden, and Michelle in almost equal turns. Notably absent from “Road to November”: Mitt Romney.

A rumor went around that Charlie Crist was going to come by. He never materialized, but someone in the pen claimed to have seen him in the bathroom.

8:30 Wisconsin gets the second biggest cheer of the night so far. A girl in front of me had given up on the pen and left. I maneuvered my way into the vacant space, making an enemy of a cameraman. From my new spot I found I had a keyhole view, through two women seated on a riser in front of us, of the podium. I could see the podium!

8:45–9:30 A man walked by shouting “Organized labor for Obama! Carpenters! Carpenters!” There was a shot in the latest section of the highlight reel of Obama looking tired backstage at a rally, and then jogging gamely onto the stage when he was announced. For some reason it made me unspeakably sad to watch. As more special guests filed by, I wondered if Michelle’s eyebrow stylist was here. I read an article about her in 2008. Half the people filing past looked like really stoked volunteers, one-quarter looked like politically engaged seniors, one quarter looked smug. A woman from the West Side of Chicago wearing a bedazzled Obama sweatshirt and hat covered with campaign buttons declined to disclose her age to the press pen. She admitted that she’s “65+” then “over 70.” Stopping to have her picture taken, a girl in red skinny jeans, a blazer, and a bowtie crossed her legs and leaned slightly back to be photographed the way starlets do. I’d never seen anyone do that before in real life. Standing next to me, on the other side of the barrier, were two youngish women assigned to check every guest’s credentials. I’d now heard them say “Special Guests?” at least 8,000 times. They were ruthless and amazing. When the wi-fi cut in for a minute and I discovered that Todd Akin had lost. I felt like everyone should know, so I shouted the news to a few people around me and got some thumbs ups. The hot Italian newscaster was doing vocal exercises. A man wanted to leave the Special Guest area; he told security he’s “trying to find a place that’s quiet!” Not a rally, dude. We were all waiting for Ohio, Florida, or Virginia to project. I wondered if the English reporter found a place to feel the energy.

9:40 On the stage, someone — Bill Edwards — led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bishop Vashti McKenzie did the Invocation. I spotted five people standing off to themselves holding hands.

10:00 The waiting crowd counted down along with Wolf Blitzer’s west coast poll closing clock. California, Hawaii, and Washington are called. “Let’s Stay Together” began to play.

10:10 Governor Pat Quinn walked by.

10:13 With Oregon projected, CNN called the election for Obama. The monitors stayed muted, but Obama’s face loomed large on all the screens while the crowd cheered. “Recognize, Romney, recognize!” a lady kept shouting nearby. The air was full of fist pumps. I was transfixed by a guy, probably in his early 20s, in a suit with boyish hair. He reminded me of Cary from “The Good Wife.” He ran around hugging everyone and doing jump/fist-pump combo. From his badge I could tell he was a campaign staffer or intern, and I wondered what his year had been like. His enthusiasm felt different than everyone else’s, his happiness palpably more personal. The volunteers handed out American flags for people to wave for the cameras. A few people managed to jump the barrier between the non-special and Special Guests sections. A “four more years” chant went up, lasting for a minute or so. The pen was quiet and busy. We all cheered when the announcement was made but then set to scribbling and filming and recording. It felt like being inside a phone booth at a party.

10:30 — Midnight The atmosphere settled back down to general merriment. I witnessed many, many bro hugs between volunteers. My spot at the front of the pen grew more precarious as people crowded towards the front in anticipation of Obama’s appearance. At one point I shifted my weight and it angered press representatives from three nations. Vivica A. Fox walked by shouting “Boom!” The remaining state projections received varying notice.

More and more people wearing badges that say “Election HQ Staff” filed in from wherever they’d watched the results. They seemed like they hadn’t come down from tension mountain yet. One woman, when asked for her credentials, pointed at a gold lapel pin she was wearing and kept walking. When she passed again later I saw that it was a golden White House pin. One of Obama’s friends from Chicago’s Trinity United Methodist Church of Christ stopped by and told us the president was “honest and lovable.”

11:55 The appearance of Mitt Romney on the screen raised cheers, which then settled into boos. His line about the perils of partisan bickering got a big laugh. Having avoided television coverage of the campaign, this was the first extended speech I’d watched Romney give. I admitted to myself, now that it was safe to do so, that he looked presidential.

After the feed from Romney’s rally faded out, curtains parted behind the stage to reveal people seated on risers who were cheering and waving something white (flags? handkerchiefs?). They would later serve as a backdrop for Obama’s victory speech, but at that point they just stood there cheering and waving for the better part of 30 minutes like a really extended free-throw distraction. My neighbor in the pen and I looked at each other in bewilderment. The hot Italian broadcaster was going strong. “Let’s Stay Together” began to play for the fourth or fifth time. Somewhere during the course of the evening I started to hate that song.

12:30 The reporter to my left and I confessed to each other that we were really bored. We heard that no one was allowed to leave the building until after the speech. We wondered to each other what the Obama family might be doing. She guessed high fives. Vivica A. Fox walked by again and I lazily wrote “Vivica” on my notepad.

James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” started to play. When I heard the lines: “Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself” and saw an image of the president on one of the screens, I got a little teary.

12:40 “Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States, his wife Michelle, and their family.”

The crowd went absolutely bonkers. Waving American flags flew out of people’s hands. My mind ping-ponged between wanting to write everything down, getting my recorder out of my pocket, and just wanting to watch. I wanted to see Obama with my own eyes. My keyhole view kept coming and going as the crowd undulated. “Am I blocking your view?” I asked the lady behind me as I contorted myself. “VIEW??” she said.

As the crowd settled down, I locked onto my view. For about two-thirds of his speech I was watching him, from maybe 100 yards away, through a tiny aperture in the crowd. I was trying to pay attention, but mostly I just looked at him: I got the president in my sight-line and I stared at him. I saw him lift his left hand, state the introductory clause of a sentence, and put it back down on the podium. I saw him lift his head and tilt it slightly to the side between sentences, or during applause. I started crying when he ran through the list that ended with “able or disabled, gay or straight.”

My friend Alex texted me, “Are you somewhere awesome?”

I texted back, “I’m looking at the president.”

Janet Potter is a staff writer for The Millions and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.