On Obama’s night, an election to remember

His victory means many things to many people. Here’s how a cluster of Americans – black and white, liberal and conservative – experienced the historic 2008 election.

By Amanda Paulson, Patrik Jonsson, and Mark Guarino | November 5, 2008 edition

Chicago – When early polls closed at 7 p.m. Eastern time, April Branch and her daughter, Christian, sat huddled around the TV in their home on Chicago’s South Side. Ms. Branch had taken the day off work to take her 18-year-old daughter to vote for the first time, and the two – wearing matching Obama T-shirts – wondered if this would be the year they’d see an African-American elected president of the United States.

It was too early, they thought, to be optimistic. “We’re a little cynical after 2000,” says April.

Seven hundred miles away in Dallas, Ga., Rocky Swann had finished his stakeout on Ridge Road, where he’d held a McCain sign to influence passing voters, and was about to head to the Paulding County Republican headquarters, where about 20 people were eating tiny hot dogs wrapped in bacon and watching the returns come in.

“This is an election for the soul of America, as I see it,” says Mr. Swann, a Vietnam War veteran turned high school history teacher.

And in Chicago’s Grant Park, where some 70,000 ticketholders were lining up to enter the biggest Election Night party in America, and hundreds of thousands more gathered nearby, Ben Oklan was busy volunteering for the Obama campaign, trying to ensure that the event would go smoothly.

“I’ve been counting down until 6 o’clock [7 p.m. Eastern time] since noon today,” says the San Francisco resident, who was laid off from his job as a tax attorney one week ago. “Now that it’s finally 6, I wish it was 7 p.m. When 7 rolls around, I’ll want it to be 8.”

As the huge screen above Grant Park flashed the first election results, Mr. Oklan jumped up and down excitedly. “Come on Georgia, Indiana!” This is great!”

Across the country, Americans were glued to their televisions and Blackberries Tuesday night, watching the returns come in at home, at parties with friends, or out in streets and churches and community centers. They celebrated or mourned, depending on their political convictions, as state after state was called. Some Obama supporters continued to bite their nails, fearing to hope despite the positive polls and media stories, and some McCain supporters clung to the possibility that the polls were wrong and that other Americans would see the choice on Tuesday in the same stark terms they did.

A few individuals in these three locales in America provide one small window into the jubilation – or disappointment – that millions of fellow citizens felt as they watched the 2008 election finally come to its historic end.

* * *

Early Tuesday evening, those gathered at the Republican headquarters in Paulding County, known to many in the state as Republicanville, USA, saw their first – and only – lead of the night. It’s just 7:04, and their man, John McCain, had captured 13 electoral votes to Barack Obama’s three. “We’re winning!” says Paulette Braddock, who helped cook the food for the post-election party.

“I’m hoping that the polling leaned toward Obama just like the media leaned toward Obama,” says Emil Infusino, a civilian government worker who spent most of his life in the US Navy. “I really think McCain is going to pull it off.”

They get more encouragement just after 8, when Georgia begins to trend toward Senator McCain. “It’s real close,” says Mr. Swann. “C’mon, McCain! You can do it!”

Thirty minutes later, they hear Georgia has elected McCain by a comfortable margin. “We’ve done our part,” says one woman.

* * *

In Chicago’s Grant Park, the excitement is palpable. The first ticketholders are let in just after 6 p.m., and they sprint across the wide expanse to nab prime spots with a good view of the stage. Oklan, the goateed Obama volunteer, is watching hopefully as the Indiana results come in, trying to soak up the atmosphere.

“I don’t know if I’ll understand the full ramifications of this until weeks from now,” he says. Until this year, he was the “definition of the apathetic voter,” barely voting in elections, let alone following them. Obama’s candidacy inspired him, however, and his recent layoff made it personal.

“I’d like to see a resounding win – a clear message from the country that this is the direction we want to move in,” says Oklan. At this point, “I’m feeling good,” he admits. “But as the night goes on, things might change. I never want to rely on polls.”

* * *

At the Branch house on Chicago’s South Side, the election party is growing. Two friends from April’s teenage years stop by. Sandra Boyd, who drove in from suburban Flossmoor, Ill., reports that the roadside LED signs were tracking electoral votes.

“The first one had him at 198, and the next one at 171,” she says of Obama’s Electoral College totals. “I’m like, ‘Which one?’ ”

Ms. Boyd laughs, but later she confesses that earlier in the day, after waiting more than two hours to vote, she stood alone in the voting booth and cried.

“I did too! I broke down!” says April.

News of states like Kentucky and West Virginia going to McCain don’t make folks here lose hope.

The Southern states “haven’t really voted Democratic maybe since before I was born,” says April. Christian reminds her of how close Kentucky is to Chicago.

“Don’t go south of Kankakee,” her mother responds.

Then, some good news: “Ohio!!!”

April shouts and claps for the first time, celebrating Senator Obama’s win in a hard-fought battleground state. She reaches for her cellphone to call her brother in Dayton. “We all know what trouble y’all had in that last election,” she tells him.

* * *

In Dallas, Ga., the Ohio call hit hard.

Jessica Gullett, representing what local McCain chair Micah Gravley calls Paulding County’s “new Republicans,” watches the returns at Vito’s Cafe, a second Republican hangout in the county.

A 20-something vegetarian with pink-tinted hair and sensible clogs, Ms. Gullett says she was “politically homeless” until this election – an independent-minded constitutionalist with a strong pro-life bent that extends to fighting the death penalty.

A gathering of about 50 McCain supporters quickly dwindles to a dozen, and Gullett picks up a blue elephant and a party hat decked with red, white, and blue candies and heads for the door. The only good news: Paulding County delivered for McCain, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) will continue to represent Georgia, dashing the Democrats’ hopes of an invincible hold on Congress.

“It’s scary, and I’m sad and tired,” says Gullett. “I’m going hope to take a hot bath and play with my dog.” Her dog is a huge German shepherd named Rocky. Sylvester Stallone, she points out, supported McCain.

Swann has also headed home, discouraged. At 10:47, with MSNBC on his computer and Fox News on TV, he’s losing hope. “It’s not looking good,” he says. “I’m dreading an Obama presidency.”

A few minutes later – before the networks have officially called the election – he’s in bed. He’s due at Republican headquarters at 9 Wednesday morning to collect campaign signs. “I’m bringing a box of Kleenex with me,” he says.

* * *

Oklan, the Obama volunteer, is feeling good – and harried. He’s been escorting reporters into the throng, and his back is aching. It’s hard to watch the returns as closely as he’d like, but “I’m hearing cheers, so I know it’s good,” he says. “You feel it in the crowd. People are ecsatic. There’s an energy out there.”

With every state called for Obama, the crowd erupts into cheers – particularly for hard-won places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. News that Obama is leading in states too close to call elicits more roars from the crowd.

“You walk down the streets here tonight, and everybody loves everybody,” says Kerrie Rosenthal, an Obama supporter who drove in from the suburb of Palatine with her daughter, Sarah. Ms. Rosenthal arrived at the polls to volunteer at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. Over three days, she says, she knocked on 500 doors as an Obama canvasser, and she has made more phone calls than she can count. She and three friends had decided that this was the year they had to be active for what they believed in.

At 11 p.m. Eastern time, CNN calls Virginia for Obama and, moments later, the presidency.

As the crowd roars around her, Rosenthal tears up, a smile fixed to her face.

“Yes we did! Yes we did!” she says loudly, and soon others around her join in the chant. “Can you say President Obama?” she asks.

Then she and her daughter are locked in a long, tearful hug. “This is the first time that the people have had a voice in a long, long time,” Rosenthal tells her daughter.

* * *

“Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.”

In the Branch home, one word is enough when CNN announces the winner.

“Oh Jesus, we’re going to have a black president,” says April.

“My first vote!” Christian says, hopping up and down, before calling her grandmother to relay the news.

“Tell her,” April says.

“She’s turning to it.”

“Just tell her. Did she see it?”

“She says we’re going to see black children playing on the White House lawn!” Christan shouts.

April says she wishes her grandfather were alive to witness this moment. Likewise for her friend, Sandra Boyd.

“How long did it take to get from the Underground Railroad to this?” asks Boyd, through tears.

“Two-hundred-thirty years,” says April.

After watching McCain’s concession speech, April takes stock.

“It happened in my lifetime,” she says. “And my grandmother’s and my mother’s.”

They all fall silent for Obama’s speech.

“He sounds like [Martin Luther] King,” says Boyd.

“He sounds like a president,” says April.

They scream as Obama ends on a note of universal hope.

“This will be a story to tell your kids,” Boyd tells the teenage Christian.

* * *

In Paulding County, the straggling few Republicans are nursing their wounds.

At 11:03, just after Obama is declared the victor, Mr. Gravely receives a text message: “God help us.”

Since the campaign began, Gravley and his wife have had a daughter, and his wife is now pregnant with their second child. He says he’ll take some time off from political organizing.

“I named my first daughter Hope, but my second one won’t be named Change,” he says.

“Still,” he acknowledges, “though I’m on the wrong side of it, you can’t deny this was a historic election.”

By the time Obama gives his acceptance speech, Vito’s Cafe is empty and dark, the chairs on the tables.

* * *

In Grant Park, the crowd is getting revved up. As they wait for Obama’s acceptance speech, people break into chants of “Obama!” and “Yes we can.” They sing along to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

When Obama appears on stage, Rosenthal takes a precarious position standing on a fence, arms on another Obama supporter for balance, to get a glimpse of the president-elect.

“Is this it?” she asks. “Oh my God!”

“Mom, take pictures!” Sarah tells her excitedly, trying to pass up her camera.

“I can’t,” says the teetering Rosenthal. “I just have to remember it here,” she adds, pointing to her head.

As Obama addresses the crowd, she listens rapt, hand on her heart, nodding along.

“He’s our president,” she tells her daughter at the end of the speech, as the throng around her hugs, rocks, cheers, and cries together.

Oklan, who was about 100 feet from the main stage when the election was called for Obama, stays front and center for the speech. He jumps and screams, and his friends burst into tears.

“I could see his facial expressions without the projection screen,” he says afterward in disbelief. “I can’t believe what I’ve been a part of.”

He’s getting ready to head to a celebration party, and then plans to relax Wednesday before flying back to San Francisco. Despite his exhaustion, he can’t contain his jubilation.

“I’m just elated,” Oklan says. “How much this means for our country, and how much it means for me personally, as one of the 760,000 recently laid off. It gives me hope for change.”

Ms. Paulson reported from Chicago’s Grant Park, Mr. Guarino from the South Side, and Mr. Jonsson from Dallas, Ga.

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