Rough Night at Kerry Headquarters

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A John Kerry supporter waits for the candidate to appear at an election night rally in Boston.

Boston Phoenix | November 3, 2004
6 p.m. The local Kerry people want to keep the press out—worried, maybe, that roving media will distract the phone bankers striving to squeeze every last vote out of New Hampshire. But I finagle a quick tour of Kerry’s Massachusetts HQ, located a stone’s throw from the Fleet Center. My guide whisks me through a second-story room dominated by two long tables where volunteers sit, phones pressed to their ears, reading from a prepared text in a low murmur. On the northern wall are two TVs, one tuned to CNN, one on MSNBC. I’m then directed to a pole near the water cooler and told I have 15 minutes to observe. Is there any way I could stay a bit longer? My guide says she’ll get back to me. The walls are festooned with signs bearing the Kerry/Edwards campaign’s well-worn catch phrases: “AMERICA CAN DO BETTER”; HELP IS ON THE WAY”; “KERRY/EDWARDS: A STRONGER AMERICA.”

6:25 p.m. My guide brings me a package of “National Embarrassmints,” breath fresheners in a tin emblazoned with a portrait of President Bush. Bush’s head—wearing a typically simian expression—sits atop a stick-figure body; one hand holds a nuclear missile, the other an overflowing bag of cash. Hard to argue with that.

6:35 p.m. “Quiet on the floor!” someone shouts. When the hubbub dies down, a tousled, bespectacled youth who can’t be older than 22 tells the crowd what’s next. The polls in Nashua close at 8, but other New Hampshire towns shut down at 7. Some callers will be switching to Wisconsin. “It’s volume, volume, volume,” he barks. “Just bang the calls out.”

7 p.m. Silence falls when the networks give early projections. Bush, the talking heads agree, has won Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia. Kerry’s has Vermont. The callers gawk as a young staffer tries to maintain discipline. “Alright — the gallery is distracting the callers,” he declares. “We’ll know at the end of the night. Move it along, soldiers — fight!”

7:45 p.m. I discuss the election with a French reporter. Not surprisingly, she’s hoping for a Kerry win. “I’m not saying Kerry is the best ever, but better than Bush,” she says. “Four more years, four more wars!” She chuckles grimly.

7:58 p.m. David Simas, the Boston office’s director, tries to get the crew pumped for the next round. “Folks, we have Wisconsin phone calls coming,” he shouts. “Wisconsin’s been a battleground for months, and we’ve really gotta get cracking.” There’s applause when the cable-TV talking heads say Kerry’s taken New Jersey and Maine’s at-large electoral votes. Kerry’s win in Massachusetts elicits a few self-mocking fist pumps.

8:25 p.m. I catch a snippet of a Simas cell phone conversation: “We win Broward by a quarter-million votes, we win Miami-Dade by 250.” Is Florida breaking for Kerry?

9:00 p.m. Maybe not—Bush has taken a huge early lead in the Sunshine State. The Upper Midwest, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still too close to call. Meanwhile, the eagerness of the volunteers to stop working at the top of every hour is becoming a sore point among the higher-ups,

9:10 “Is anybody waiting for a phone?” my tour guide shouts to no one in particular. “Because for once today, we have several.” The volunteer pool is ebbing. Can’t be good.

9:35 p.m. A middle-aged woman in a fleece vest gets up from her phone and turns to me, looking troubled. “How come Kerry’s 112 electoral votes haven’t changed in the last hour?” she demands. I don’t have the answer. A Kerry staffer tries to reassure her. “Because they haven’t called any new states solidly,” she ventures. “But the Bush total keeps going up,” the fretful woman observes. The Kerry staffer tries again: “Just wait till the West Coast—we’ll be golden!” Her pained smile doesn’t reassure.

9:41 p.m. “Are you with the press? Where are you from?” a phone banker near me asks. “Want a good scoop?” Sandie proceeds to tell me that she just got off the phone with a Latino voter in Nevada. According to this voter, Sandie says, Republicans have been calling newly registered Nevada Latinos and telling them they can vote on the Internet. That’s nasty, I say. “It is nasty,” she replies. “They’re the most despicable people I’ve ever met.”

9:53 p.m. A staffer endeavors to boost volunteer morale. It’ll be a long night, he acknowledges, but nothing’s happened so far that wasn’t supposed to. Your calls are working. Keep going.

10:19 p.m. The mood among the true believers is dropping. “Wait a sec,” one college-age girl murmurs as she stares at the TV. “New York is in there and we’re only at 112? Aaarrrrgggh! What is going on here? I’m getting kind of nervous.” “As are we all,” a second college-age girl says.

10:29 One of the young leaders is trying to buoy the spirits of the middle-aged woman who noted, almost an hour ago, that Kerry seems to be going nowhere. “Remember—Bush owns the middle of the country and Kerry owns the sides,” he tells her. She’s not buying it. “An hour and a half without one electoral vote?” The young leader is flummoxed. “I don’t know what kind of answer you’re looking for,” he sputters. “Numbers can change—as the last election showed us!” So it’s come to this, I think: Democrats are hoping for another Florida. Soon the young leader brings better news: Pennsylvania is 60-40 for Kerry, and New Hampshire is too close to call.

10: 53 A breakthrough—Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes are called for Kerry. Applause and triumphant shouts. “If it happened in Pennsylvania, it’s gonna happen everywhere,” yells one optimist. The mood in the room has been completely transformed.

11 p.m. The newly energized crowd counts down to the top of the hour, then erupts when California’s 55 electoral votes go to Kerry. With Idaho’s four electoral votes sliding to Bush, the margin is a mere 197-188.

11:41 p.m. Whatever energy was generated when California went to Kerry is sucked out—big time—by the news that Bush is about to lock up Florida. The die-hards who’ve lingered on are ominously silent.

12:02 a.m. The election hasn’t been called yet, but the CNN gang is already performing its Kerry moratorium. Those still in the building—the hardest of the hard core — glance away, smile gamely, scratch their heads.

12:11 a.m. The funeral has commenced. On TV, a smiling Karen Hughes is mulling what kind of governing style George Bush will bring to his second term. Florida is called for Bush. Only a dozen people remain. David Simas, the office director, promised a Kerry victory less than an hour ago. Now, he rests his arms on a folding chair and stares at the TV. The shellshocked look on his face says it all. It’s over.

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