Posted on 12 November 2012.
So the ludicrous 18-month hoopla of the US election process has left us pretty well where we started – with the same leader of the free world facing pretty much the same set of head-bending intractable problems, from the recession to China to whether American Idol will ever be the same without Simon Cowell.
I was in line at 7.15 in the morning, a quarter of an hour after the poll opened, at a polling place – not a station, here – in a backroom of the local Assistance League. Selection of suitable venues is, shall we say, more varied than in Britain’s normal reliance on schools and churches. Branches of McDonald’s are sometimes used and, bizarrely, even private houses.
Americans often think nothing of queuing for hours to vote. I often wonder why they don’t simply open more locations. I waited about 20 minutes before first my name and then my address were carefully crossed off by different officials in return for my signature – without asking for any ID.
Then I was given the voting card, about three inches wide and maybe 18 inches long. In the booth the voter slides it into a black, plastic frame and it is held in place by a couple of red pegs.
Then the real business starts: choosing a President and Vice-President as a pair, plus a Senator, Congresswoman and state attorney-general.
Those are fairly predictable in a Californian city, all of which are solid Democrat. Less predictable are the votes on State-wide propositions and County measures, 11 questions this time, ranging from the death penalty to compulsory condoms for porn actors. You show your choice by punching a hole – nothing as simple as marking with a cross.
I was out by 7.45, awarded my “I voted” sticker and off to Starbucks for a well-deserved coffee and instant porridge.
It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, there are basically three ways of spending an election night watching the results come in on TV: at a party, in a town square or snacking and drinking at home with like-minded friends.
In the Los Angeles area there wasn’t much going on in town squares that I knew of, and I’m sure the smart crowd had their discreet parties at the Beverly Wilshire or the California Club in Downtown LA, but I went for the third choice – just like millions of Brits do when the UK polls close.
We’ve become regular friends with three other couples, all of a similar age and political outlook, who we see over a meal or in a book club, so it was an obvious plan to congregate at Pat and Elaine’s elegant Spanish-stye house for what we thought we going to be a nailbiter of an evening.
Nachos, hummus, guacamole, grapes, goat’s cheese and biscuits got us started before I and the other three guys were packed off to the local branch of Chipotle to collect takeaways of beans, fajita, chicken, salsa and lettuce – all very healthy and the identical menu to the chain’s British branches.
Then we trooped into our friends’ version of the family room. They don’t have children, but that is no barrier. This is a curious Californian housing custom that we had never come across until we bought and then sold a house of our own.
Every home aims to have a family room, a den with some easy chairs and, crucially, a TV. It has to be separate from the sitting room, which has a formality that harks back to the “Sunday best” room in northern working-class terraces. The sitting room is where people sit and talk over a drink. The family room – with or without family – is where they lean back and watch TV.
We have found houses where the most inconvenient corner – maybe part of the kitchen or just an enlarged cupboard – is dressed up as the family room for selling purposes. We don’t have one in our house, but I suppose we’ll have to fashion one if we move.
Unusually, Pat and Elaine’s family room is upstairs and it was a bit of a squeeze for the eight of us, but our hosts gallantly sat on the floor.
After a grinding election campaign, and what from the Democrats’ point of view had been a worrying surge in popularity by Mitt Romney since the first of the televised debates, the end came surprisingly early, and easily.
The three-hour time difference between the east and west coasts is more of a factor than Europeans often realise, whether planning a trip or watching World Series baseball. What’s more, several east-coast states closed their polls as early as 6pm, which is 3pm in California.
So by the time we gathered at 6pm – evening events start much earlier here than in London – the exit polls from across the country were beginning to trickle through. The first states went their expected way, and there were delays in the key battleground states of Florida and Virginia. North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008, duly returned to the Republicans.
We were watching the left-leaning MSNBC, but all the TV stations had impressive statistics and graphics, keeping a running total as Obama and Romney crept towards the clinching 270 electoral college votes. Americans still do not directly elect their President.
The mood began to change when Obama won Pennsylvania, a Republican hope. The reporter at the Republican HQ in Romney’s state, Massachusetts, was saying that the atmosphere there was going quiet and no one would talk to her.
Then, suddenly, it was all over.
At 8.13pm west coast time the TV networks projected that Obama had won Ohio to give him 274 votes. It took another two hours for Romney to concede, and meanwhile the tension went out of the TV coverage – and our room.
All that remained was Obama’s statesmanlike, Lincolnesque victory speech and, instead of the all-night vigil we had expected, we were saying our goodbyes soon after 11pm.
Ominously, though the futures market was correctly predicting a bad day on Wall Street as worries shifted to the so-called fiscal cliff. It’s business as usual in Washington.