Campus & Community

At the Harvard Kennedy School

7 min read

Early warning

The interest in this contest on the Harvard campus was apparent early at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Their election night gathering, featuring returns showing on the forum’s large screen, was ticketed for the first time. Forum officials said that 1,500 applied for the 1,000 tickets available.

Catherine McLaughlin, executive director of the Institute of Politics, which runs the forum, said they limited access because they feared they would reach capacity for the space and have to turn people away.

“We didn’t want to turn people away at the door and have them not have anywhere to go,” McLaughlin said.


Barack Obama and John McCain greeted visitors to the Institute of Politics’ pre-election night dinner — in a way. Just off the forum’s main floor, guests were treated to a buffet-style dinner, while early election-night coverage played on surrounding television screens. Life-size cardboard cutouts of the two major party candidates stood in the entry hallway, hard by a photographer who shot pictures of guests who wanted an election night memento.

And just in case somebody has really not been paying attention over the last two years — both cutouts were sporting name tags.

Red, white, and blue

Red, white, and blue were the colors of the night at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Tuesday night. The forum was festooned with decorations for the evening’s celebration. Red, white, and blue balloons floated from railings where they were tied. The regular chairs that fill the floor during the many speeches and discussions that take place there were gone, replaced by open floor space and a few cocktail tables. Patriotic bunting adorned the walls, which had placards from the various campaigns posted alongside. Even the candy got in on the act, with piles of mints in flag-designed wrappers in piles on the tables, together with colorful beads and sparkly glitter scattered on wooden chairs and railings.

As the evening wore on, the fare became more substantial. Snack foods appeared on tables on the main floor, followed by hotdogs, pizza, and, finally, cake.

A 7 o’clock ‘woo!’

In a night that became increasingly exciting for Obama supporters — the clear majority in the forum crowd — the initial thrill came just seconds after the first polls closed at 7 p.m. when CNN projected an Obama victory in the first state they called: Vermont, sending up a rousing cheer, which not reprised moments later when CNN projected their second state, Kentucky, for McCain.

Early returns showed no clear leader for some time, however, with tallies in states not called yet showing McCain with some early strength, causing one worried Obama supporter to remark: “Should I have a nervous breakdown now? I don’t like Virginia!”

Keeping the kids up late

Nupur Parikh, a master’s in public policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School and an Obama supporter, decided the night was too important to go to bed early, even for a baby. Parikh and her husband brought their 3-month-old son, Azad, to the forum to watch election returns. Azad may not know it now, Parikh said, but he will some day find out he was an observer of a historic election.

“I really think it was a historic election. It’s important for him to see it and be a part of it,” Parikh said, adding, however, that there was a limit to how long they could hang on. “We’re hoping we can hold out until 9 p.m.”

Old-fashioned visual aids

At the front of the forum, under the big screen where pundits used the latest in technology to illustrate what was happening in voting booths across the country, stood a decidedly low-tech instrument: A large map of the United States stood on a stand as students were hand-coloring red and blue to indicate states that went for McCain and Obama.

Nicole Poteat, a sophomore from Eliot House who sits on the Forum Committee, which helps plan forum events, was one of the colorers, wielding a Republican Red marker to color states that went for McCain. Poteat, an Obama supporter, was asked whether she regretted the low-tech approach.

“Oh no, I like coloring,” Poteat said.

11 p.m. and pandemonium

The overwhelmingly Obama-friendly crowd cheered louder as the night wore on and the electoral votes mounted toward the magic 270 needed to secure the presidency. Ohio going to Obama a little after 9:30 drew chants of O-Bam-A! O-Bam-A!

As Obama’s victories mounted, CNN correspondents reported that the feeling was grim in the McCain camp. Though McCain victories in Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas increased McCain’s electoral vote tally late, it had become apparent that those victories wouldn’t be enough to push him into the White House for another Republican administration.

As 11 p.m. neared, with polls closing in the far west and the prospect that network prognosticators would call another suite of states for Obama, it became clear that California, Oregon, and Washington very well could push Obama into the White House without waiting for earlier, undecided contests to be called.

“5!” … “4!” … “3!” … “2!” … “1!” The crowd chanted as the CNN countdown to the 11 p.m. polls closing neared, followed immediately by CNN calling the race for Obama.

The forum crowd broke into cheers and wild applause, some folks with tears in their eyes, and others shouting, “Yes, we can!” The life-size Obama cutout, which had stood at the front of the room for most of the night while people posed for pictures with it, went crowd surfing.

Leshika Samarasinghe, a Harvard Business School student from Pennsylvania, said she was “ecstatic” at the Obama victory. She had campaigned for Obama in York, Pa., and had been at an event for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry earlier in the evening but returned to celebrate with fellow students.

“I’ve been a mess all day, my stomach has been in knots,” Samarasinghe said. “It feels so good.”

A believer in the impossible

Wei Chen, a research fellow at the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation who hails from mainland China, said that until a few weeks ago he didn’t think it was possible that the United States would elect an African-American president. Chen said he prefers John McCain, but added that he started to change his mind when Colin Powell endorsed Obama.

Chen said he decided to visit the forum to view election returns because, even though he’s not from the United States, the election is a big event.

“It’s a big show, you can’t miss that,” Chen said.

‘O, Say Can You See!’

Devin Smith ’09, of Currier House, was with a small group of a dozen or so students from the Spee Club, one of Harvard’s finals clubs, celebrating Obama’s election on Mount Auburn Street shortly after 11 p.m.

Smith and his friends sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and greeted passing cars that honked and stopped for handshakes.

“This represents America in a really good way, not just because he’s black, but because America is ready for change,” Smith said. “It’s one of the most unbelievable things happening and it gives me a lot of pride in my country.”

The celebration by Harvard students spilled into the Yard, where several hundred gathered around the John Harvard Statue. It soon became a moving celebration as students cascaded in a joyous stream onto Massachusetts Avenue, where they briefly stopped traffic before again moving on to “the Pit,” near the Harvard Square T-stop. Once there, students climbed up the entrance shelter and led chants of O-BAM-A! and, right around midnight, a spontaneous singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”