The gifts of Election Day

Christmas. Birthdays. The Fourth of July.

Such red-letter dates are important to most people, although birthdays are less of a treat with each passing decade. It’s still fun, but also a reminder that the curtain is drawing closer to coming down on your personal play.

For me, Election Day has always been on that short list. It’s the culmination of months, and even years in the case of presidential campaigns, of effort, anticipation and hopes. This year will be especially interesting, since I worked on a campaign in South Dakota and had Tuesday, Nov. 6, marked on my mental calendar for months.

Still, even if I was either covering the election for a newspaper, as I have done for many years, or sitting on the couch watching the returns, I find Election Day compelling. It’s the final chapter of the story, the last page you both longed to read and hated to see arrive.

I first remember being fascinated by politics on Election Day 1968. Not sure why that election 50 years ago was so interesting to me, and I think my political wisdom at 10 wasn’t noteworthy. In fact, Dad told me I was supporting the wrong candidate and should sit down and shut up.

Not the last time I would get that advice.

On Election Day 1972, as we wrapped up chores in the barn, I asked Dad if George McGovern had any chance in the presidential election that night. No, he said with a shake of his head.

Dad had been reading the papers and saw all the reports that President Richard Nixon had a big lead over the South Dakota senator. It was all too true, as we learned that night shortly after the polls closed.

Four years later, as an 18-year-old SDSU freshman, I cast my first vote for president at a rural polling place in Deuel County. I returned to Brookings to watch the returns with my friend Kelly Konop.

The Election of 1976 should be remembered for its close, dramatic finish. Kelly and I watched returns until the middle of the night, when it finally became clear that Jimmy Carter, having blown a huge lead, was going to slip past President Gerald Ford.

On Election Day 1980, I was in Sioux Falls, knocking doors for McGovern, who was seeking a fourth term in the Senate. It was a long day that started and ended in the dark, and McGovern was crushed by Rep. Jim Abdnor.

I remember McGovern being in a cold rage as he gave his concession speech. He was aware the odds were against him, but the size of the margin was hard for him to take. His top staffers drowned their sorrows and told bitter but hilarious stories as the night wound down.

My friend Celia and I decided to go to a different hotel, where Rep. Tom Daschle was celebrating a victory in his bid for a second term; former Gov. Harvey Wollman was kind enough to give us a ride. The mood was, as you might imagine, a lot more festive, although Democrats weren’t doing too much celebrating, since Ronald Reagan had swept to victory and numerous prominent liberals around the country were defeated.

Years later, I told McGovern he had won both precincts I had worked in that night. 

“You shoulda worked more precincts,” he replied.

I covered Election Nights for the Argus, pestering Rep. Tim Johnson in 1994 to see if he would challenge Sen. Larry Pressler in 1996, as was widely expected. Johnson expertly deflected my questions, as I was sure he would, and instead noted his win for a fifth term. He would in fact, take on and defeat Pressler in two years, but he wasn’t talking about that in 1994.

My editors were disappointed, but I couldn’t get Johnson, a smart, cautious politician, to spoil his story by announcing his plans that far in advance. I also stopped by Bill Janklow’s party that night, as he made a triumphant return to the governor’s office after eight years in private life.

Janklow wore a broad smile and accepted congratulations from people as he strode through the hotel. It remains an enduring image of him for me.

In 2000, I was editing a newspaper in Montana. The internet was a new toy then, and we had promised our readers all results before we shut down for the night. It all went far more smoothly than we could have expected until the presidential election went sideways.

Once Al Gore withdrew his concession, the final results were up in the air. We reported all local, state and national results and finally, as dawn approached, conceded that the few people still monitoring our site that time of night weren’t going to learn who was the next president from the Whitefish Pilot in northwest Montana.

On Election Day 2016, like most people, I was stunned to watch the forecasts of a Hillary Clinton victory, which started in the 90-percent range, slowly fade. It was fascinating to watch the Republicans exult at their unexpected victory, and the Democrats, especially women, slump and sob in defeat.

What will this year bring us? It’s like Christmas — we have to wait to unwrap it to find out what’s in the package.

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