Before the election
For the last month or so, just about everyone we met, upon finding out we were American, would soon turn the topic of conversation toward the election: From strangers we started talking with while sitting on a bench in Hyde Park to schoolmates I met on my first day of Orientation, everyone wanted to ask us about who were voting for, who we thought would win and so on.
One Friday, we made the poor decision to sit in the second row of a small comedy club in North Lambeth. The MC, during his frequent interactions with the audience, asked me my name, and apparently from my utterance of a single word (‘David’) was able to ascertain that I wasn’t from around here. When he found out I was American he said, “So, what do you guys think about the elections? You must be voting for Obama; I mean, you’re here, so you obviously have passports” (He also took the piss out of me for my Pinky & The Brain t-shirt).
There were actually several venues in London staying open Tuesday night to broadcast Election returns. One bar was serving hot dogs and Twinkies, in keeping with the American theme, but the only place I was ever going to be was The Waterfront, the student bar at King’s. They advertised that they would be staying open until 8:30 am if necessary and would be serving drinks until 4 am. Also, the Waterfront has a view superior to most bars in London:
At first, I was actually unsure whether I would even go, as it seemed we might be headed for a 2000 rerun, when the outcome of the election wasn’t known for several weeks after Election Day. It wasn’t just that it would be anticlimactic to stay up all night, only to know nothing in the end; but I also had class on Wednesday. Then I reminded myself that this is a once-every-four-years occasion and I should suck it up.
Faith and I arrived at the bar around 5:30 pm, hours before anything would be happening in the election. We were with several of my classmates, including one other American (Simone), staking out our prime spot in front of a TV screen. The bar was decked out in American flag bunting, and the staff were wearing stars and stripes hats and red, white and blue leis.
Of course, 5:30 pm GMT was only 12:30 pm EST, so there wasn’t much in the way of election coverage for the first few hours. Indeed, I had time to read 2 book chapters, eat, watch the Champions League match between Arsenal and Schalke and chat at length with friends before the TVs even switched to the CNN coverage, which was a lot of filler. Wolf and crew had the standard footage of people waiting in line at polling stations, rundowns of all sorts of improbable electoral scenarios and explanations designed to insult your intelligence.
Kenneth, my Scottish classmate who’s really into American politics, noted that the most reliable signal to start paying attention would be once BBC’s coverage started.
Between 10 and 11 pm, the bar really started to fill up.Every booth and table was filled and there were lots of people standing around. Then the BBC coverage started. At first, the Americans were complaining about the lack of visually assaulting graphs and maps. But then the BBC did start showing some very strange “interactive” graphs which involved the presenter standing up, sitting down and crouching to trace trend lines and walking behind graphics being projected in the studio.
During the first few shots of Obama that BBC showed, the crowd in the Waterfront cheered, and similarly, during the first few shots of Romney they booed. This quickly dropped off, as there were far too many shots of the candidates to vocally react to each one.
Soon, the first states to close their polls started being called for Romney, prompting more boos. Then Vermont was called for Obama. Cheering.
A few easily predictable states were called for each.
- Kenneth, Simone and Faith say “More states, plz!”
A little before 2 am, with not much yet determined, Faith decided to call it a night. Some people have to work in the morning. Others started dropping off from our group, but the bar stayed mostly packed.
Kenneth, Simone and I were feverishly following along on Politico, New York Times and Twitter. We got some weird looks from the (presumably) undergrads who were crowding our table, and I was starting to sense that everyone else wasn’t really there for the Election; that this was just an excuse to stay up all night.
But then I realised: for everyone who is interested in the entertainment value and drama of our elections (and not the interminable analysis), the election returns are like a very slow-moving baseball game. There are occasionally important moments when you need to be paying attention, but for much of it, you can have a beer and socialise.
I was impressed that, at 4:00 am the bar was still packed. Kenneth, Simone and I had already gone through the scenarios and determined that there was almost no way Obama wasn’t going to win, but BBC’s calling of states was all over the board. Some they called way before any US networks, but most they waited on much longer.
Somewhere not too long after 4 (i.e. 11 pm EST), one of our party saw on Twitter that Fox had called the race for Obama (at this point, BBC was still showing Obama on only 244 electoral votes). We quickly scrambled to corroborate this, and when NBC called it as well, the three of us let out a full-throated cheer. A few people nearby served us with looks ranging from bemusement to annoyance. Someone (sounding like another American) shouted at us from across the room asking what had been called. We shouted back that it was Ohio, and by extension, the electoral college.
Most people in the bar either must not have understood or else were skeptical of this announcement. They weren’t going to believe it until they saw it on TV. A few minutes later, David Dimbledy threw it over to the woman on BBC who was giving updates whenever a state was called. We prepared ourselves to go mental for the announcement.
BBC was now projecting that Obama had won…Iowa.
I have a lot of respect for the BBC. It takes guts to hold back on reporting something until you’re reasonably assured of its verity. But we were getting anxious.
Finally, at around 4:30 am GMT, the announcement came on. Here was the reaction: