Scene and Heard: Election Night at the IOP

Campaign yard signs hang from the ceiling like colored shirts from clotheslines. Star shaped balloons and American flags deck the stairwells.

“Oh, I’m definitely going out tonight,” a guy in a tucked-in shirt says to a friend as they enter the Institute of Politics at 8 p.m. “It’s election night.”

In spite of its sterile floors and perfectly grained wood panels, the IOP has done its best to give itself a party atmosphere for the election. Campaign yard signs hang from the ceiling like colored shirts from clotheslines. Star shaped balloons and American flags deck the stairwells.

Nonetheless, the scene still looks more like a networking event than a party. Kids stand around in clusters, chatting over cups of punch and sometimes mingling with the adults in khakis who, for some unknown reason, are making an appearance at this "student" watch party.

Not all that interested in pursuing that Senate internship, we instead make a beeline for the food table. The drink selection is impressive: a bright red punch with sliced fruit, water with mint, and hot cider. Red and blue cupcakes aside (“I’m taking a BLUE one,” a woman boasts nearby), the food selection looks a bit like Brain Break: Chex Mix and popcorn. A woman wearing a star antenna headband twirls by with a bottle of Stella Artois, but, after some purely journalistic sleuthing, we find out that the night’s beer selection is a plastic punch cup of Yuengling available for purchase for two dollars. Great party, IOP. Do you mind if we hop over to Kirkland real quick?

The main viewing floor is situated beneath the wall-size TV mounted on the ceiling. Clusters of students sit cafeteria-style at tables below the screen, chatting more than paying attention. Some, however, do the IOP proud—a line of men in button-downs sit, staring fixed at the TV, laptops out at the ready. The dress code leans conventional, but there are a few exceptions. One of the many guys wearing a tie and collared shirt steps out from behind a table to reveal some fetching star-spangled swim trunks.  Another guy sits down next to us and strikes up a conversation, asking, “Hey, what team are you on?”

Half an hour later, the night’s MC makes his first appearance. It’s Rick Berke, who we learn is an important National Political Correspondent at the New York Times. He cracks a few jokes, then points up at the gigantic screen, which is tuned to CNN. “If you want to watch Fox News for a… different perspective,” he informs us, “go to the FDR room down the hall.” Nobody moves.

The party forges on. A massive cake bearing the IOP logo is brought out and cut ceremonially. It’s half vanilla and half chocolate, which we suppose is meant to symbolize bipartisan compromise. This isn’t reflected in the night’s attendees. Most of the Republicans have tucked themselves away in the bird’s-nest balconies on the second floor as we discover by listening to their booming cheers at their party’s victories from above. The second floor also seems to be the seat of choice for those trying simultaneously to do their homework, watch the TV, and refresh maps on POLITICO while actually just stalking that guy from section on Facebook.

Though every moment of political spectating is, of course, riveting, we tear ourselves away from the screen for a minute to visit the Fox News room. It’s in the back, and is also being used by the catering team to store their food. One student stands defiantly among giant sacks of popcorn, watching the screen.

Other Republicans choose to express their pride in different ways. When David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign advisor in 2008, takes questions from the main room in a phone interview, a student bounds down from the GOP section. “What’s your name and serial number?” MC Berke cracks. “My name is Cameron,” the student answers, “and my serial number is GOP.” There isn’t much for Axelrod to say after that.

As the last polls close on the East Coast at 10, the atmosphere in the room changes. People set down their punch and $2 Yuengling and stare at the glowing expanse of CNN hanging overhead. Napkins and Chex Mix cups litter the floor. There are cheers and boos as CNN flashes us with various percentage points. The headband woman's antennae quiver with anxiety.

Suspenseful rock music blares. Then, the TV cuts to a commercial for a sexy-looking political drama called “State of Affairs.” Everyone groans.

The night is drawing closer to an end, and the Harvard Democrats are looking glum. One of them tells her friends, “If this gets too depressing, there’s a statue of JFK in the bathroom we can go look at.” CNN calls the Virginia race for Democrat Mark Warner, and the floor rallies briefly with a ragged cheer. But then, several more states get called for the GOP, and the mood dies completely. Downcast Democrats file out of the IOP one by one with plastic stars occasionally stuck to a shoe or two like the toilet paper of a political dream, dead. The Republican booth is still packed and whooping.