CHICAGO — In the basement conference rooms of the posh Fairmont Hotel, President Obama’s top donors gathered before making their way to the election night party at McCormick Place, loosening up with a few drinks and wondering what a second term would bring.
The so-called bundlers — those who’ve raised over $50,000 for the president — and their close friends said that Obama’s reelection was a “vindication” and gave him a “mandate” for the next four years.
“He doesn’t have to play to get reelected anymore, which is huge,” said Chicago supporter Jim Slama, who first met Obama in 2001. “It frees him to be who he is.”
Slama attended the evening's festivities with a group of Chicago businesspeople who’d all known and supported the president since he was a state senator in Illinois.
“I’m hopeful,” said Slama. “He’ll try to play to the middle, but he’s got the Tea Party to deal with, and he can take out his baseball bat and wail away and he won't have to worry about the implications of reelection.”
With the election of progressive Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Obama’s longtime backers feel the liberal spirit inside the president could be unleashed: climate change, gun control, and immigration reform perhaps heading to the top of the agenda. (After, that is, the “fiscal cliff.”)
Criag Sieben, another longtime Obama supporter, who once served on the campaign’s finance committee, reminisced about the 2008 campaign, what he called an “insurgency.”
“It was early April in 2007, and we were invited to a staff meeting at the headquarters in Chicago,” Sieben told BuzzFeed. “David Plouffe gave a briefing — he said, ‘The airplane is already taking off, and we’re building an airplane as we fly.' It was one of those pinch-yourself moments, that you had the sense [it could happen.]”
Another bundler agreed — they were proud of what Obama had accomplished, and being from Chicago, felt protective of the president and his legacy.
At the Fairmont, the bundlers jumped on a bus from the hotel, outfitted to look like a trolley, as it made its way across town.
Also on board the trolley, the winner of the "spend election evening" with President Obama contest, Doug Hurst, a 32-year-old firefighter from Boulder, Colorado.
Hurst was selected to come to Chicago after he donated money twice.
How much did he give?
“Not much,” said Hurst, who was accompanied by his father. “I’m a firefighter.”
Hurst, who’d been put up at the Waldorf Astoria, met the president Tuesday morning at the Fairmont.
“I told him thanks for everything that he’s done,” Hurst said. “I appreciated everything he’s gone through the past four years.”
The donors got off the bus and walked through McCormick Place, entering two separate entrances: one for “special guests,” another for “honored guests.”
The rest of the evening was taken up with trips to concession stands and shouts of joy as each state was called out, the half dozen or more large televisions screens live-streaming CNN and MSNBC.
Inside the massive conference center, many Obama staffers frantically moved from one task to the other—staffing VIPs, escorting advisers up the risers to do cable hits, no time even to see if they were winning or losing.
“I haven’t had anytime to check,” said one staffer. “But I’m feeling really good about it.”
For many staffers, it was the first time they’d left the Obama campaign headquarters all day — on virtual lockdown, meals delivered from a local spot known as Manny’s.
Other White House and campaign officials stood around chatting, feeling more and more confident, not quite knowing what to do as one state after another was called for Obama.
After NBC declared Obama the victor, the convention space erupted in sustained cheers that lasted for at least four minutes.
Campaign spokesperson Ben Labolt, who’d been in the trenches on each day of the election cycle, calmly looked down to check his smartphone as the noise engulfed him.
“It came in a little bit earlier than expected, but the one thing that was notable today: There weren’t any big surprises, we never had to do some last minute redeployment of resources. The model that we had this thing on, young people showing up, the more diverse electorate than ever before [worked].”
After almost 18 months of campaigning, what was he going to do tomorrow?
“I’m going to start with a long nap,” Labolt said. “I guess if you can take naps in the morning, I’m going to take a nap.”