In the low-lit basement of Cavanaugh’s in University City last week, there was one beer tap and several TVs turned to Fox News providing the night’s entertainment for about 30 Philadelphia Republicans: the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Organized by ward leader Matt Wolfe, the Republican watch party was the place to be for the city’s unelected conservative activists and Romney camp officials.
So, naturally, I had to go.
My seat was in a booth across from a middle-aged guy named Mike McLaughlin. A South Philly paralegal, it became clear early on that he was probably the most staunch independent in the room. And not just because of both parties’ tendency to sell out to large cash donations. He says the partisan media often give just half the story. He immediately noted that though he’s friends with most of the people here tonight, he’s gone back and forth over the years with his political affiliation. “I’m a little more Democrat, now,” he said. Still, he’s supporting Romney.
The debate began with the crowd cheering for the Republican candidate and booing Obama. “Retire!” yelled a woman behind me as Obama gave his opening statement.
As we now know, Romney was declared the winner of the debate by, who else, the pundit class. We also know that the Republican repeated several falsehoods, changed his previous positions, accused Obama and his running mate of making myriad bad decisions, and was never called out by the president for any of it.
But that didn’t matter. Romney mentioned the term “trickle down,” and there were hoots. He compared Obama to his sons—he claimed they were, like Obama, liars—and there were hollers. If the Cavanaugh’s crowd claimed any doubt concerning their candidate before the debate, it ended an hour into what Fox News personality Sean Hannity would later coin, “The Rocky Mountain Beatdown.”
McLaughlin’s fiancé, Katherine Heid, showed up about halfway though the debate and took a seat next to him. Her somewhat cheerful disposition was in great contrast to others in the basement who, at the very least, shook their heads disconcertingly every time Obama spoke. A Romney supporter, Heid later said she was satisfied with the way things went for her candidate, but not in an overly enthusiastic sort of way. “Romney was just fresher from a deliverance standpoint,” she said. “It didn’t look like [Obama] brought anything new to the table. I thought he’d have been more cutting-edge on content and delivery. Instead, I saw that with Romney.” (As we now know, the debate gave the Republican challenger a bump in the polls.)
Wolfe, for his part, seemed weary about Romney’s victory immediately after the debate. He said it may just have seemed like a big win because we were in such a partisan atmosphere.
I offered the perspective that Romney’s talking points during the debate, while simplistic and lacking detail, got one point across: Economically speaking, things are still shitty in the United States.
“Exactly,” said Heid. “Why is Obama so cool and calm and collected when things are so shitty?”
Later, when Fox offered some true partisan declarations on behalf of Romney—with the implication that he now had the election in the bag—McLaughlin said he wasn’t convinced. (He rarely is, he said, given the partisan noise coming from both Fox and NBC News.) “I wish we could switch to MSNBC right now. “It’d be—what’s the girl’s name?—Rachel Maddow. She’s probably on right now calling Romney the Rich Fat Cat.” (Actually, Maddow admitted that Romney crushed Obama—but McLaughlin’s point was taken.)
“Republicans and Democrats are so alike,” he continued. “We’re in a city that’s so liberal that they think Democrats are the best thing since sliced bread, and Republicans are so evil. I think that’s a really naïve way to look at things.” He took out a wrinkled, coffee-stained copy of the Constitution. “If they could stick to this, we wouldn’t go too far off course.”
Anne Sutherland, 22, is not your typical Romney supporter. And it’s not just because she’s in the largely Democratic Philadelphia. Or because she’s young. Or a woman. It’s because she’s not even American. Sutherland traveled from her native Scotland to be here for the campaign season.
According to Twitter, last week’s debate was the most tweeted-about event in U.S. politics, with more than 10 million tweets in a span of just over two hours. The highest spike, 160,000, came when moderator Jim Lehrer replied, “Let’s not” to Mitt Romney’s attempted segue into a new topic. With a close eye and a finger on the refresh button, PW brings you some memorable tweets from the local and national peanut gallery.