Election Night Memories

The thing about being an old goat of a political junkie is that you can remember a lot of Election Nights. This is my eleventh presidential election as a registered voter. I’ll share some special memories of past quadrennial festivals, and invite readers to offer their own in the comment thread.

1972: Spent that evening at the Election Night party of the late, great Manuel Maloof, whose Atlanta tavern was for many years (and may still be, for all I know), the most popular watering hole in that city among political people and journalists. Manuel was running for chairman of the Dekalb County (a large Atlanta suburb) Commission, and the night was not going well for Democrats, to put it mildly. At one point, with Manuel barely trailing his Republican opponent, Manuel shouted to the depressed folks drinking his booze: “We’re bucking an 80-20 trend!” That was how badly Nixon was trouncing McGovern in Dekalb. Manuel lost that night (along with all local Democrats, though Sam Nunn did get elected to the Senate amidst massive ticket-splitting), but came back to win four years later and stayed in office for many years.

1976: I was in law school in Athens, Georgia, at this point, and given Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid, an awful lot of us stayed up late to watch the local boy win when Hawaii was finally called, and missed an early morning Torts class. The professor, a legendary eccentric, was displeased and held a pop test. The questions on it, moreover, wound up representing a big chunk of the year’s end final exam, on which I did very poorly. Jimmy’s a big reason I never wound up practicing law.

1980: Since the results were pretty much fore-ordained, I mainly remember sitting at work at the Georgia State Capitol while a co-worker excitedly ran around spreading false cheer about incredibly high turnout among African-Americans in “the North.” Later, the big shock wasn’t Reagan’s margin of victory, but the GOP’s sweep of every single close Senate race, giving them control of that chamber for the first time since 1954. That included a win in Georgia–despite Carter’s landslide there–by the very accidental Senator Mack Mattingly, who ended the Talmadge political dynasty by beating “Hummin.”

1984: As a hard-core Garry Hart supporter, I derived some grim satisfaction from the dimensions of the Mondale debacle, but it was very grim.

1988: My first election in DC, providing a close-up glimpse of how the real pros spent Election Night: angling for media time to promote their careers! The results didn’t surprise me. At a meeting of high-level Lloyd Bentsen advisors right after the convention (at which I got to eavesdrop), when Dukakis was up by 17 points, a poll of the attendees revealed nobody believing the ticket would ultimately win.

* 1992: Perhaps my favorite. I was teaching an evening class called “Election Watch,” and arranged to have the final meeting on Election Night at–you guessed it–Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. At the stroke of 7:00, Georgia was the first state called for Clinton.

* 1996: Back in DC, I spent the entire evening feeding election data to my boss, who was on McNeil-Lehrer providing analysis.

* 2000: Ah, the nightmare that wouldn’t end! Staffing the DLC office while many of my colleagues were in Nashville waiting for Al Gore’s victory statement, I watched the incredible network call of the election for Bush and seconds later, noticed that Gore had all but eliminated W.’s lead in Florida. But my favorite moment was even later, when I got a call from an obsessive friend who wanted me to know: “We’re not going to win Arizona.” That state had been called about three hours earlier.

* 2004: The most painful of them all, even worse than 2000, because (1) I was very personally invested in the Kerry campaign from start to finish, and (2) I had gotten accidental real-time access to the exit polls. I should have known something was awry when I saw one state’s exits showing a 60% female electorate. But instead, I kept calling relatives in Georgia telling them to ignore the results on their TV screens, until a friend working for Kerry in Florida told me the shocking news: “We’re done in Florida, and we’re done nationally.”

* 2008: In DC that night, I sat working on my laptop at some free hooch-and-food event sponsored by some group or other, and happened to leave just as the first network called it for Obama. Stepping out onto a downtown Washington street, it seemed like the world’s best block party. Just a fantastic feeling that finally healed the wounds of ’04.

Tonight I’ll be right here at my computer in relative quiet, hoping the Bad Things don’t recur, plunging us into Overtime again.

What Election Night memories do you have?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.