Euronews’ European Affairs Correspondent, Paul Hackett, travelled across the US and covered election night in Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s headquarters in Boston. Here is a personal account of his trip and what it meant to cover the final hours of the election live on Euronews as the results came in.
If somebody had said to me just over a month ago, ‘’Paul, you will be travelling across the US to cover the elections and Mitt Romney’s presidential bid,’’ I think I would have told them to work on their sense of humour. So when the chance came about, it really was a surprise. To be honest, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I’ve just become a father for the first time and my partner and I had planned to leave Brussels and move to Lyon in France the exact same moment the election was being held. Let me just say, Journalism, changing nappies and moving house and country all at the same time are not a great combination. However, when you get the call asking you to cover such a huge story – there is only one answer. ‘’Yes, of course!’’
My American election journey would begin in Washington DC and take me to the key battleground states of Virginia and Florida, finally finishing at Republican headquarters in Boston on election night – more on Romney HQ a little later. Carefully planned with our close contacts at the US mission to the European Union in Brussels, my trip was almost blown off course from the very start by ‘Superstorm Sandy.’ Unlike thousands of other trans-Atlantic passengers, however, my flight was not cancelled or even delayed and arrived, albeit with a little turbulence, in Washington on time. Looking back, one can only speculate on how crucial that three day pause in the campaign was for the final outcome just a week before election day. While we’ll never know the exact political impact of Sandy, it’s clear the scenes of President Barack Obama visiting the devastation wrought by the hurricane on the US east coast and the praise heaped upon him by Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie certainly didn’t dent the Democrat’s chances. I wonder if Mitt Romney now looks back and thinks that’s where he lost the race to win the White House. It is clear the timing was awful for the Republican candidate who was forced to sit on the side lines and watch his rival take charge. Certainly, Romney’s campaign seemed to run out of steam and never saw anything like the momentum enjoyed immediately after the first presidential debate.
Europe – How important?
As euronews’ European Affairs Correspondent based in Brussels one area I was keen to focus on during my trip was the state of US-EU relations, especially given the fact that Europe had hardly been mentioned at all by either candidate throughout the campaign. What would a Romney presidency mean for Europe if he won? Did it really matter all that much? According to the EU’s ambassador to Washington, João Vale de Almeida, the short answer to that last question was, not really. He told me the EU would work well whoever the winner was and the fact that Europe had received so little coverage, not counting the eurozone crisis, simply showed how solid relations were. The EU wasn’t a problem for Washington and that’s why it hadn’t featured much.
Others were much less diplomatic. Most notably Dr. Ted R. Bromond from the strongly conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Not shy when it came to putting forward his hardline views, he simply said the sooner the US stopped dealing with the EU as a single entity the better. For him the euro and European integration as a whole had proved to be a complete disaster both from an economic and democratic perspective.
With Dr. Ted’s words ringing in my ears I left Washington the following morning and headed to neighbouring Virginia to see for myself an Obama campaign rally. While all the talk was of Ohio as the key battleground prize, Virginia with its 13 electoral college votes was also critical. Both sides had spent millions of dollars locally trying to woo voters through a litany of negative TV ads and cold calling. Obama had captured the state in 2008 – the first time since President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 – so Romney knew he would almost certainly have to win the state back for the Republicans if he was to have a strong chance of becoming president.
The Democrats at the grass-roots level though were fighting hard, a factor which would prove decisive. Former President Bill Clinton had also travelled with Obama for the Bristow rally to win over the undecided.For me, this was probably the most bizarre moment during my whole trip, watching thousands of people queue for more than six hours in absolutely freezing conditions to hear the president speak for about 30 minutes. Armed with blankets, hot drinks and snacks the whole event had an atmosphere more akin to a football match rather than a political rally. I realised quite quickly I was witnessing something uniquely American. I’m pretty certain there’s no way Europeans would happily wait in bitterly cold temperatures to listen to a politician.
Well and truly frozen to the bone and with only about three hours sleep I was very happy to leave Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, knowing that the next leg of my journey would take me to the Sunshine State. Like Virginia, the race in Florida with its 29 electoral college votes, the biggest of the swing states, was desperately close and key to both candidates chances of success, particularly Romney’s. There had also been reports of problems at the polls and claims by Democrats that Republicans were trying to prevent early voters from casting their ballot. As one US daily amusingly put it. ‘Florida is working damned hard to become the next Florida,’ a reference to the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential victory of George W. Bush.
Interested to find out what exactly was happening I got myself down to a polling station near Tampa to speak with some locals. The electoral authorities had creatively got round the problem by allowing people to fill out and hand in so called absentee votes (postal votes) in person. While technically not the same as early voting, the end result was essentially the same. Despite fairly long queues those I spoke to seemed determined to cast their vote. At the time of writing this, Florida has still not yet been called.
In search of Mitt
In the final analysis because of the peculiarities of the US political system and its winner take all nature the end result wasn’t that close. On paper President Obama crushed his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning 303 electoral college votes compared to Romney’s 206. During election night, however, the margins for victory weren’t so clear cut. By now I was in Boston having arrived from Florida around midday on election day Tuesday.
Getting inside the Romney/Ryan HQ both leading up to and on election day was to prove a real headache. The Republicans had denied all foreign media access to the venue and only changed their mind in the 11th hour after probably realising it might not be such a great idea to upset so many TV networks. Despite that, the lack of accreditation and space for camera crews made for a fraught atmosphere among the journalists who were forced to share the installations. Our spot, which changed several times throughout the evening, was provided by our US partner ABC News.
Inside the main ballroom, a live band and free drinks created a festive and electric atmosphere. Many Republican aides were confident of success. One Romney advisor I spoke to live on-air was convinced the numbers would go their way. He failed to return my call later in the evening when the writing of Obama’s victory was on the wall. Up until that moment however, there really was uncertainty over which way the key battlegrounds would go. Florida was swinging like a pendulum, back and forth between both sides. In Ohio, Obama had a commanding lead, but Romney was slowly but surely clawing his way back. There was a big cheer when North Carolina went Republican. While things would change later in the evening, Virginia also appeared to be well and truly in the Republican camp.
Then the picture changed dramatically within the space of about half an hour. With only a few counties left to count in Florida the state seemed to be going Democrat. The tables had also turned in Virginia. Then Ohio was called. There was silence in the room. It had gone to Obama by a whisker. There was a huge groan from the audience. Everyone in the room knew no recent Republican candidate had won the presidency without the Buckeye state. And then suddenly, just as I was about to go live with my colleague Jon Davies in Lyon, Fox News declared Obama the winner. There was disbelief in the crowd. Despite a small glimmer of hope that there might be a recount in Ohio, most knew the game was up. For myself, everything that I had spent the last 45 minutes planning to say suddenly became redundant. Normally, I’d probably panic knowing I’d got about a minute to come up with something but the moment was so historic it just didn’t seem to matter.
For the Republican supporters themselves the result was bitterly disappointing. If they couldn’t beat the Democrats with the economy in its worse shape for 70 years, when could they beat them? Mitt Romney had made a point earlier in the evening of not writing a concession speech. Despite such bravado, he was gracious in defeat, warmly congratulating the President on his victory. Even so, Romney had won more white votes than both George W. Bush and John McCain, but still not enough to take the White House. This result probably said more about how America had changed demographically over the last decade than anything else.
And what of Obama? Will his victory be able to heal the divisions that currently seem to dog American politics both inside Washington and more generally across the country? Sitting on my connecting flight out of Boston I got chatting to a woman, who was a teacher, the perfect demographic to be an Obama supporter. I asked her about what she thought of the election result and the president himself. I was slightly surprised by her answer. ‘’I don’t trust Obama,’’ she told me. ‘’We don’t know where he’s from.’’ It’s unclear whether he’s really American.’’
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