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My Worst Presidential Election Nights, Ranked
It remains to be seen whether tonight will be added to the list, but the lead-up has sure been a hell of a ride.
Election night 2020 has finally arrived, and I don’t now about you, but I AM FREAKING OUT. I’ve spent a few hours text-banking with the wonderful Field Team 6, an organization dedicated to helping register Democrats and make sure they vote. (Consider donating!) It’s been a great way for me to feel somewhat effective, and to keep myself relatively sane.
Writing to you is another distraction — another way of staving off a complete breakdown. (My god, we have so much at stake, and so many voters in this country who don’t get that, or don’t care.)
I’m writing this in the early evening, while I still have no idea what kind of night we’re in for. Perpetually unhinged Democratic strategist James Carville is predicting a Biden-Harris win by a landslide, with results by 10pm, but as much as I would love that, I’m going to try not to get my heart set on it.
I find my mind turning to previous fraught Presidential Election nights. Herewith, my worst of them, ranked.
Sixth Worst: 1988, when Michael Dukakis lost to Vice President George H. W. Bush
Honestly, I have no real recollection of this night, back when I was 23. I can tell you where I was living — in a shitty, mouse-infested 5th-floor walkup on East 7th Street — and where I was working — as a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily. And I can tell you I was bummed that the two-term Reagan years were going to be effectively extended, prioritizing military spending, perpetuating the fallacy of “trickle down economics” that was hurting so many, de-prioritizing civil rights, criminalizing drug use. I remember thinking we’d never have another Democratic president in office.
Fifth Worst: 1984, when Walter Mondale lost to incumbent Ronald Reagan
In November, 1984, I was newly 19, so this was my first time voting. It was also my first time conducting man-on-the-street interviews, for one of my journalism classes — I was a sophomore at SUNY Albany. Stationed a few hundred feet from the campus polling place, I found it incredibly awkward to accost voters as they emerged and ask if they were willing to share who they voted for, and how they felt about their candidate’s prospects.
God, did I hate doing that. Over the years, as I got more seasoned as a reporter, I grew accustomed to interviewing random people on the scene. I’d grab a reporter’s notebook, screw up my courage, approach them, and get what I’d need. But, still, I always hated doing it.
At the end of Election night ‘84, I was shocked to learn Mondale had lost. I’d been so sure everyone in the world agreed that four years of tough guy Ronald Reagan was enough. I felt pretty disillusioned.
Fourth Worst: 2004, when John Kerry lost to incumbent George W. Bush
How could so many people have voted for George W. Bush a second time after he’d screwed up so royally in his first term??? It just didn’t seem possible. I mean, he’d started a war with the wrong country to exact revenge for 9/11, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, not to mention putting our own armed forces in harm’s way. What a fucking idiot.
On election night, Brian and I held a watch party at our apartment on 8th and B in the East Village. When our friend Dave arrived, he said, “I’ve been phone banking, and after having many conversations with voters, I’m pretty sure this is going to be a landslide in Kerry’s favor!” That sure sounded good. Of course, that’s not what happened.
Brian and I walked around in a depressed stupor for months. We looked into getting Italian citizenship so we could leave this godforsaken country. Boy am I nostalgic for the Bush level of things sucking in the USA.
(We couldn’t get Italian citizenship after all, because Brian learned that his Sicilian grandfather had naturalized before Brian’s father was born.)
Third Worst: 1980, when incumbent Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan
I was only 15 when Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term, but it felt like the end of the world to me. There was all this talk about escalating the cold war, and using the “nukes” he had the codes for. He had this cowboy swagger that scared me. I didn’t know much about politics yet, but my lefty parents were all in for another four years of Carter.
On election night, we had my former-best-friend-turned-mean-girl and her family over to watch the coverage. Having her there, trying to act like I wasn’t still hurting from her turning on me two years before — and turning the rest of our clique against me — made it a difficult evening to begin with. When the results came in toward the end of the night, it was just too much for me, and I burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably for hours.
Second Worst: 2000, when Al Gore “lost” to George W. Bush
In the fall of 2000 I was a complete mess. I was 35, subletting out my apartment on E. 13th Street for stupid dot com money, while I rented a room from a friend-of-a-friend in Rhinebeck and went about my life aimlessly.
Upstate, I canvassed for Ralph Nader. At Dutchess County Green Party meetings, dirty-cute progressive guys would say there was no difference between Bush and Gore, and so refer to them as “Gush and Bore.” In the end, I got worried and voted for Gore.
I returned to the city to cast my vote — and to spend the night with the sexy jerk I was in a long-distance relationship with, who lived in the West 50s — a person who had never voted in his life, and had no interest in changing that.
I stayed up late watching CNN, long after he turned in. “What?” he said, when I asked him how he could sleep, “It’s never made a difference in my life who was president.” I nodded off somewhere around 4am, and was stunned to learn in the morning that we still didn’t know who had won.
I was agitated for the next three weeks, and then enraged when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush.
The Absolute Worst: 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote, to Donald Trump
It could be argued that four years later, many of us are still feeling the horrible effects of Election Night 2016. I know that for me, the shock has never fully worn off.
That night Brian and I went to Stockade Tavern, a local bar in Kingston in walking distance to the apartment we were renting, assuming we’d be celebrating with our friends Hillary Clinton’s victory as the first woman president of the United States.
At the bar, CNN election coverage was projected onto a wall. We alternated between watching that, and looking at the New York Times needle on our phones. Somewhere around 10pm, everything stopped making sense. We tried moving closer to the screen to see if we could figure out what was going on, and refreshing our screens again and again. We decided to go home and watch there, where we could see and hear better.
The story had changed. Somehow, this utter joke of a candidate, this complete buffoon, was accumulating electoral votes. Around 11:30 we went from “Wait — what?” to “God, no…” And we’ve been pretty much stuck there for the past four years.
Now we’re talking about possibly getting Portuguese citizenship, by way of my Sephardic heritage, if Trump gets re-elected. Or maybe regardless of who wins. It would be nice to have an alternative, safer place to go. Trump has emboldened racist, anti-semitic white nationalists in this country, and I am terrified of them.
Boy, do I hope Trump doesn’t win this election.