By the time I got to the Beverly Hilton in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the party was winding down. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
had already given his speech to 1,000 cheering Republicans. His friend, Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat and mayoral candidate, had swung by from the Dem's San Fernando Valley gathering to take in Arnold's speech.
"This is some night," said Hertzberg, his expression reflecting shock and awe. But Hertzberg at the Hilton may have been the only example of bipartisanship on display this week, in the city or the country.
Earlier that night at the Marriott in Manhattan Beach, where 1,000 local Kerry supporters, campaign volunteers and media gathered in a ballroom off the lobby, spirits started high and turned increasingly dispirited. As President Bush moved closer to re-election, one Kerry fan said he already had a new bumper sticker in mind for his car: "Hey, We Tried to Warn You."
Speaker after speaker tried to keep the young, diverse crowd fired up: L.A. Mayor James Hahn, state Assembly Speaker Fabio Nunez and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who launched into a conspiratorial rant about rampant voter fraud. The more electoral votes Bush racked up, the more fervid the speeches, the louder the cheers.
People had signs and they wanted to wave them. After all, like most Democrats, they walked into the ballroom believing their guy was rolling toward victory.
"We're gonna do it!" Rep. Jane Harman (D-El Segundo) declared to wild applause. The election will prove that national security is a Democratic issue, said the Congresswoman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
I gravitated to some Jewish supporters, who didn't seem to be succumbing to the pep rally. They had spent days walking precincts in Nevada and cold-calling voters in Ohio. It was slowly dawning on them that their massive, well-organized and passionate efforts had come to naught. If they were delusional, it was toward the pessimistic side of things.
"They'll be shipping us all off to Israel," said one woman, "so that we can be killed there to make way for the messiah."
Two huge TV screens beamed CNN's coverage into the room, and held most of the crowd's attention. The biggest ovation of the night came when CNN's Jeff Greenfield gave Sen. John Kerry enough electoral votes to win. But word quickly spread that Greenfield was just speculating.
"Pay attention, people!" a man yelled, and more air went out of the room.
"Who are these people?" a Kerry supporter asked as Bush chalked up more votes. The idea that millions of people could vote for a man she and her friends despised genuinely baffled her. "Where did they come from?"
I noticed a wave of people hitting the bar as midnight approached -- a kind of last call for Kerry. An aide to a major Jewish politician grew philosophical, saying it might just be poetic justice for Bush to try to get us out of a war he had botched.
"You know what the difference is between Vietnam and Iraq?" his friend added. "Bush had a plan to get out of Vietnam."
I drove to the Beverly Hilton close to midnight. Schwarzenegger's party was breaking up, and spirits were high. The TV screens were turned to CNN and Fox News. Proposition 71, the stem cell research funding initiative that the governor supported, was an early winner. Proposition 66, the rewrite of the three-strikes law, which the governor opposed, looked to be heading for defeat. And Bush, whom Schwarzenegger had finally stumped for -- in Ohio -- was one electoral vote from victory. A good-sized knot of Bush supporters took their revelries to the lobby bar a few hundred feet away.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson was among those on the way home. It was 1 a.m. when I asked Wilson if he believed the election was over.
"God," he said, "I hope so."
Is it possible, I asked him, that the margin of Bush's victory in Ohio could have been tweaked up by the additional Jewish votes he picked up in the state?
"Could be," he said.
Wilson, who garnered a relatively high 33 percent of traditionally Democratic Jewish voters in the 1994 governor's race, said an increased number of Jews responded to the president's vocal support of Israel, and initial CNN exit polls bore that out. Jews still voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, but Bush gained a few percentage points among them. But at the end of the day, Bush got more votes of all types, and the Democrats were left to wonder why.
Back at the Marriott, a good-sized crowd was still waiting for hope to be on its way. The party atmosphere was waning, but the Dems were still talking excitedly among themselves.
Which, come to think of it, might have been their problem all along.