NEW YORK — Meyera Oberndorf thought she had just been elected to the Virginia legislature. At her campaign headquarters, there were hugs and kisses. The governor called to congratulate her. The only problem: There was still one precinct left to count - and that precinct gave her opponent a narrow victory.
"It was very embarrassing, and I still worry [some 20 years later] about not looking the fool on election eve," says Mrs. Oberndorf, now mayor of Virginia Beach.
Tonight, amid acres of red, white, and blue bunting, candidates across America will be in the same position as Oberndorf - hosting what they hope will be a victory party. There will be bowls of soggy pretzels, roast beef roll-ups, music that's too loud, and TV crews waiting for the candidate to appear.
In many ways, each celebration is an expression of its candidate - with fastidious finger food or down-home barbecue. Beyond that, though, they are also a time when all the emotions of months of campaigning can come to the surface - yielding tears, political deals, and even romance.
Of course, there are parties and there are parties.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush's backers will get more than bowls of nacho chips tonight, as five blocks of Austin are shut down to prepare for whatever happens.
While the returns come in, Bush supporters will be wolfing down fajitas and barbecue. No matter what happens, his campaign says, there will be fireworks. The Gore staff says it plans to work long into the night to get out the vote in the Western states. However, the vice president will address supporters at the war memorial in downtown Nashville. The party, however, won't be as large as the Bush soiree.
That contrast in styles plays out across the United States, from governors' races to congressional campaigns.
For example, earlier this year in New Jersey, after Jon Corzine defeated former Gov. Jim Florio in the senatorial primary, he served shrimp on silver platters, had victory cakes, and a tuxedoed band. Mr. Florio, lacking Mr. Corzine's resources, had no food and a cash bar.
Tonight, Sen. Edward Kennedy's party at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston will probably come down somewhere in between. The fete will feature "nibbles," says Peggy Dray, director of special events and community affairs. "Food is not the big deal."
Whatever the case, tonight is usually a night of high emotion. Rich Cernela remembers working for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as a volunteer. He's seen both victory and defeat.
"They were the highest of highs and the lowest of lows," he recalls.
In many cases, candidates have a pretty good idea whether they have won or lost. But the party must go on, even if the forecast is bad.
Mark Gearan, a member of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, remembers when his candidate lost to George Bush.
"We knew we would lose. We had to put up the best front and game face," says Mr. Gearan.
Most candidates compare losing to a wake. Gearan remembers the morning after with the Dukakis campaign.
"The Secret Service goes, the attendants slip away, the press corps checks out - it's all pretty stark," he says.
IN FACT, a candidate who can make the public feel badly for him on election night can sometimes propel himself into another bid. In 1952, after Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential race to Dwight Eisenhower, his concession speech resonated with the public.
"He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark - he was too old to cry but it hurt too much to laugh. It gave him another nomination," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Winning, on the other hand, presents its own challenges. Paul Helmke, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., recalls seeing people he had never met at his parties. "There are those who would not come unless they sense you are winning," he says.
Just in case, most candidates will have two speeches in their pocket on election night - a victory speech and a concession.
"If a candidate loses they have to figure out how to congratulate the winner - it's real tough since the races can get very personal," says David Schlosser, a Dallas-based former campaign manager.
Mrs. Oberndorf recalls one such hard-fought race. "My opponent called and said, 'I guess you've won.' It was a begrudging concession call."
Once a candidate has accepted his opponent's congratulations, he or she quickly becomes aware that campaign staff members would like to put in a good word for themselves.
"People start to think of the pecking order, they start to posture for potential appointments," says Davia Temin, a public-relations executive who has worked with various campaigns.
And sometimes, good things can happen even when a candidate loses.
Ms. Temin, who had been working with the Dukakis campaign, watched the atmosphere turn sour in Dukakis's personal suite on election night. A man she had worked with went into a separate room and started to pound the wall with his fist in frustration.
"I thought, I really like this guy - he cares," she says. Later, he became Temin's husband.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society