The first thing I noticed was the helicopters. Stepping out of my car (don’t ask what I paid for parking, I’m trying to block it out of my memory,) I saw at least three news copters hovering above downtown St. Paul for what would turn out to be Barack Obama’s victory speech.
I had only attended one other political victory speech before, when I was assigned to cover the Herb Kohl and Gwen Moore victory party in 2006. That was at the reception hall of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee in front of maybe a couple hundred people. Outside of some brief cameos by local TV news correspondents, there was little media presence there. It was a charming little affair with a table full of snacks, free beer and a lot of people walking around in baseball caps and hoodies.
This was (reportedly) 17,000 people in a big-time arena, one that will play host to the Republican National Convention in September, covered by every important news outlet in the country and broadcast live across several networks.
Needless to say, there was no snack table and free beer.
After a quick bite and a couple drinks at Patrick McGovern’s (the artichoke dip is delicious but in no way should that much food ever be considered an appetizer) I made my way to the Xcel Energy Center amid a swarm of people. While most were lined up outside the arena to see the speech, others were there to try and make a buck. There were street vendors selling a variety of Obama buttons and t-shirts, and some of them seemed to making money hand over fist. Though there were some clever designs, none matched a homemade shirt worn by an over 30 white woman that said “White woman over 30 for Obama.” Stylish AND practical. Never underestimate people’s willingness to buy a cheaply made article of clothing they’ll only wear once and forget about if they see other people doing the same thing.
We then had the pleasure of waiting in a line that started across the street from the arena, which is every bit the logistical nightmare it sounds like. This gave me a chance to interact with my fellow Minnesotans. Typical conversation went something like this.
“This is the line?”
“This is some bullshit.”
Three days later, we were finally in the building, and after being told to walk all the way to the other end of the arena because those were the open seats, then told that those seats were full and the open seats were in fact on the other end of the arena (the one we entered) I was finally able to sit down. I was, appropriately enough, in between two college freshmen and a senior citizen couple.
The scoreboard in the arena was showing MSNBC’s election coverage, and all I’m going to say is you haven’t really seen Tim Russert until you’ve seen him on a jumbotron. This was how much of the crowd seemed to pass the time while waiting for the rest of the arena to fill out, since for some insane reason they weren’t selling beer. Then again, considering this is one of only six states that actually forces stores to stock 3.2 beer (if you don’t know what that is, you’re lucky,) it’s not that surprising.
But even so, people were fired up. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak got loud ovations from the crowd, who the scoreboard was constantly telling to get “fired up.” When MSNBC showed a map of where some of John McCain’s possible running mates might come from, people cheered for about thirty seconds when Minnesota was shown (Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a long-time McCain ally,) until they realized exactly what the pundits were talking about.
Even though we were an arena full of people who were technically watching nothing, it had the feel of a sporting event. Vendors roamed the aisles selling overprices soda and popcorn, fans held up letters spelling out “CHANGE,” the camera panned the audience putting people on the scoreboard (most common reactions on the scoreboard were, in order: waving, throwing a peace sign, giving the double thumbs up, flashing devil/metal horns, and one guy in a maroon U of M shirt who threw up the ROC.) At some point, people even started doing the wave. All that was missing was the annoying clamor of Thunderstix.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to point out the Xcel Center’s brilliant crowd manipulation. During John McCain’s speech, which the crowd initially booed but soon got bored with, they cut to a scoreboard shot of the quickly-filling-up arena, which led to a loud cheer. They quickly cut back to McCain (booooo) but then back to the crowd (hey, that’s us! Yaaaaaaaay!) People who have been waiting all day for something are not hard to draw a reaction out of.