Back when I worked as a newspaper reporter, I used to love Election Day. That seems like a very long time ago.
True, American politics have always been contentious, American voters polarized almost from the beginning. The Election Days I experienced, though, felt more like sports events than cultural warfare.
By design, political campaigns are built around alternative realties, each party claiming to have all the answers to whatever the questions of the day might be. Election Day is where those divergent realities collide, and true reality emerges.
Presidential years were the most fun to cover, but the first Tuesday in November was always busy. My newspaper covered a wide swath of Central Virginia, which meant numerous local elections had to be followed as well as the headliners. These local races tended to be much more low-key than today, when even county supervisors employ their national party’s fiercer talking points.
I can recall a number of late-in-the-evening phone calls to local candidates that went something like this: “Hey, congratulations on your victory.” “Really?”
The presidential and congressional races were obviously more intense, but generally lacking the bitterness so evident today. The Democrats and Republicans always planned “victory parties” to watch the returns at some public place, and those were always fun to cover, if only for the free food.
One losing congressional candidate held his party at the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville, which provided me with a gift opportunity for a snarky story lede. This particular campaign, I wrote, “fell to earth, appropriately enough, in the Gravity Lounge.”
Back then, the losers actually talked to us. One overly optimistic congressional office seeker had loudly predicted an upset victory, then managed only 30 percent of the vote. When I interviewed him, he had tears in his eyes.
“The people have spoken,” he said sadly, “and they hate me.”
Perhaps I’m romanticizing my recollections, but I clearly remember longtime Democratic and Republican volunteers chatting pleasantly at the voting places and congratulating the winners after the votes were counted. Sometimes the losing candidate would even pay a visit to the other side’s victory party.
On Election Night in 2000, I had been assigned to shadow a Congressional candidate some 60 miles away from my office. His “victory” event was held in a motel ballroom alongside I-95, and the candidate’s supporters remained stubbornly optimistic until late in the night, when the negative numbers finally became overwhelming. Faced with an onrushing deadline, I hurried back to Lynchburg, driving as fast as I dared along rural roads, listening on the radio as first Al Gore, then George W. Bush was declared the presidential winner. Our newspaper actually put the deadline “Gore Wins” in large type on an early edition, only to be forced to pull it back again.
Yet even then, during one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history, the rancor between the participants was nothing like the mood today, where each side typically declares that the world as we know it may end if their opponent is elected.
I contrast that to Congressman Watkins M. Abbitt, an Appomattox lawyer who was re-elected to the House of Representatives more than a dozen times. Watt (as he was known) was a staunch conversative, with all that implied in the rural South. Only rarely did he face opposition, but when he did, he refused to even mention the name of his rival. He always declined debate invitations, and did most of his campaigning at local barbecues, where he proclaimed: “Y’all know what I stand for. If you agree with that, vote for me.”
I don’t know what it will be like back in Lynchburg, VA on Tuesday, but there are places in the country where people will actually bring automatic weapons to the polling places, or drive past the site honking their horns and screaming invective at the other side. Of course, given the current circumstances, many will be wearing masks to repel the coronavirus. What a mess.
Although I always loved the energy radiating from polling places, I voted in New York this year by absentee ballot. Meanwhile, my old newspaper is down to a skeleton staff and appears to be transitioning into an online news source. And I’ll bet COVID-19 has eliminated the victory parties.