Tuesday night the Democratic Party threw a party in the Knoxville Convention Center where, in another year, George W. Bush himself appeared for a high-dollar fund-raiser and Democrats were shooed off of the sidewalk.
To a cold observer, it might have seemed an ambiguous occasion for celebration. At 8:01, moments after the polls closed in Knoxville, Katie Couric announced Tennessee as one of the nation’s first sure states for McCain: “so red it denied native son Al Gore the election in 2000,” she said, not mentioning that in the two previous presidential races, Tennessee had been, technically, a blue state. But nobody talked about red states and blue states in the ’90s.
Tuesday, at the Senate and House levels, Democratic candidates earned less than 30 percent. Democrats found no surprises to cheer at the state level, either.
Still, the crowd of perhaps 250 were jubilant. The most unlikely presidential candidate in recent memory, the first black man, the first Hawaiian native, the first son of an immigrant since maybe Andrew Jackson, had just won the nation, in both popular and, overwhelmingly, electoral votes. But Barack Obama lost Tennessee, and even though he won several precincts in Knoxville proper, Knox County went for McCain.
A big-screen TV showed the coverage on CNN; a smaller screen at the other end of the hall had NBC. In between were the remains of a buffet, a big bowl of heavily cratered dip, but no chips; the carcass of a pineapple; and a few forlorn cucumbers, surrounded by trampled crumbs. The bar was crowded, and throughout the hall the hum of conversation and laughter dominated the TVs’ audio. A string of red, white, and blue balloons showed many more blues than reds.
The crowd numbered perhaps 250—more came and went, some of them to a “VIP” party for Obama volunteers in the Sunsphere—and suggested no demographic description. Some were octogenarians, like World War II vet and retired UT professor Gid Fryer; some were children, dashing amid Democratic knees. Perhaps one in seven were black. Former Knoxville NAACP chapter president Dewey Roberts was there and admitted, “I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. I’m very proud of everything and everybody.” There were a few graying hippies, but in all, they seemed more or less like any sample of people you’d find at the mall.
“The excitement here is just crazy,” said former Democratic Party chairman Jim Gray. “People understand the historical aspect. You can tell that by the number of people who brought their kids to vote.”
Bob Scott, Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s easygoing challenger, was there. “Well, I lost,” he said, laughing. “The only thing worse than losing would be winning.” Scott kept Duncan down to 76 percent, better than his predecessor in ’06.
Tennessee went to the Republicans, and no Tennessee Democrat could claim his or her vote affected the electoral-vote result. Still, they cheered. As Madeline Rogero pointed out, many of those present were indeed involved in the national victory, via contributions and campaigning in Virginia and elsewhere. Knoxville Obama campaign coordinator Gloria Johnson says Knoxville volunteers made “thousands” of conversations with voters in those neighboring states. Some of the most vigorous campaigners went to Virginia in person, and missed the party because they’d just arrived back in Knoxville exhausted.
Few parsed Tennessee’s results. Some muttered about “racism,” but at the end of the night, Obama’s percentage was about the same as Kerry’s in 2004.
It was almost 11 p.m. when Virginia was projected for Obama, and a wild cheer went up.
At 11:01, the big screen carried the words BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT. An otherworldly high soprano howl possessed the room. People wept, hugged, danced to some unheard funk. Then, inevitably, the chant: “O-ba-ma!” and then “Yes we can!”
Not all present were supporters. A shaven-headed man built like a wrestler left after McCain’s concession. “I gotta go puke,” he said. Attorney Dan Holbrook admitted he didn’t even vote for Obama, and had previously been at the Republicans’ party. Admitting he would prefer a president checked and balanced by another party’s Congress, he added, “We need someone extraordinary right now,” he says. “Maybe he’s the man.”