November 8, 2016, was a night that swelled with optimism. Women clad in colorful pantsuits took their daughters to the polls to cast their ballots so that, years later, they could share in the memory of this historic moment. Thousands of people flocked to the Javits convention center in New York, awaiting the arrival of the woman who would break America’s highest and hardest glass ceiling. Champagne bottles sat on ice, waiting to be consumed in celebratory toasts.
But as that dreaded New York Times needle started to swing ominously in the other direction, celebratory events turned funereal, and those optimistic Champagne bottles were quickly repurposed into sad binge-drink fodder. Ahead of Election Night 2020, we spoke to ten people about their memories of the night that didn’t go as planned, and the experiences they hope not to relive this coming Tuesday.
“That’s what I remember: these poor people lying on the ground trying to stay still being covered in red paint.” —Bailey Kircher, social-media editor at New York
For the magazine, we were doing a livestream on Facebook Live of body-paint artist Trina Merry filling in the map as the results of the Electoral College rolled in. The artist came into the office, and she had all of her models — there were like nine or ten of them — and they all stripped down, and she outlined a map of the United States on their bodies and then went to town painting. As the night went on, it just became a lot of red paint. That’s what I remember: these poor people lying on the ground trying to stay still being covered in red paint and the atmosphere in the room sinking. And at the end, they just all got up off of this map covered in red and blue paint, and the ground was covered in red. It looked like a war zone.
“I felt a need to banish the demons of despair by getting as fucked up as I could.” —Ben*, lawyer
I was watching the results at a friend’s place. Things were fine for the first little bit and then they started taking a turn for the worst. Everybody started crying. We were drinking a lot. We had Champagne that we were going to pop when Hillary won. We were ready to get all excited. I remember my mom texted me, like, “Going to bed. Can’t wait to wake up to the first female president.” And then again, two hours later, awake: “I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve lost faith in humanity.” The mood was so bleak at my friend’s place. I asked if anybody wanted to go out, but nobody did. So I left. I felt a need to banish the demons of despair by getting as fucked up as I could. I called my coke dealer and waited for him outside. He got there superfast.
I met up with another friend, who’s a Hillary voter, and we went to a bunch of bars and kept drinking and doing blow. We were like the last people in the bar at 4 a.m. I was so drunk I left my backpack with my laptop in it at one of the bars. I spent the whole next day trying to figure out what bars we’d been at and trying to find it.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what to say to you guys.’” — B.A. Parker, lead producer at The Cut podcast
I was living in Baltimore with my mother and my 93-year-old grandmother, and I could see the numbers for Clinton getting worse and worse. My mom and gran were stressing out. I was pacing. And around like 11 p.m., I was like, “We need to do something. Should we get something to eat?” So we just drove around in my little Ford Focus looking for an open Sonic to get mozzarella sticks and milkshakes. At Sonic, they roller-skate over with your meal, so I was like … if they’re open, that could potentially be nice?
The next day, I had to give a film lecture to a bunch of Black teenagers who were first-time voters and were so distraught and disheartened about their first entry into the voting field. I was like, “I don’t know what to say to you guys,” so I just turned on Steve Martin’s The Jerk for them. Most of them had never seen it, and I was like, “At least this is a kind idiot, as opposed to the idiot we elected.”
“I think it was sort of like, Well, at least we can do this.” — Mia*, musician
My boyfriend and I ordered BBQ and watched the news, like everyone else, expecting Hillary to win and thinking there was no way Trump would. We just felt progressively more depressed and in shock throughout the night. Once we realized he had won, we stopped watching and went up to the roof and fucked. It was on a picnic table. I remember it being intense and good, but also sad. I think it was sort of like, Well, at least we can do this. It was a statement fuck, a freedom fuck.
“The celebrities were starting to get really upset, and all the government people, myself included, were like, Oh, this is expected.” —Ellyn Canfield, head of event coordination for the NYC mayor’s office
At the time, I was working in events for the office of the mayor. For Election Night, I had actually been working with both the Clinton and the Trump campaigns to coordinate with the NYPD and Secret Service for any dignitaries or celebrities. Election Day, I was there at the Javits Center to help coordinate that event. I ended up accompanying the mayor to the very small — for lack of a better word — VIP party. Very quickly, the small room starts filling up with all of the elected officials and an inordinate amount of celebrities. Gaga was there, Cher, Jennifer Lopez, Orlando Bloom, Busy Philipps. And the returns started coming in, and I think it was Florida that went red first, and it was the frumpy government people around the edges in suits and then this swell in the middle of the A-listers. The celebrities were starting to get really upset, and all the government people, myself included, were like, Oh, this is expected — it’s gonna start out bad, kind of rolling our eyes, saying it’s going to be okay.
And then it just got worse and worse and started settling in for everybody. I was sitting with the mayor, and Katy Perry was fully dressed in makeup and this crazy red gown because she was supposed to sing before Hillary. And she was just sobbing. And Orlando Bloom was consoling Katy Perry, and he started giving hugs to everybody.
Lady Gaga seemed to be sort of the calmer-downer of the group. There was definitely a wave who left early. Once it was obvious that, like, it was no longer a celebratory party, a decent number of them left. But I think Katy Perry, Busy Philipps, and Orlando Bloom were there until the bitter end, just sobbing and consoling everybody.
“People passing by told me they were sorry, even before the election was called.”—Susan Margolin, writer
Election Night 2016 was my morning. I lived in Singapore with my family, preparing to move back to the U.S. in December after ten years overseas. I was homeschooling my 8-year-old son at the time, so I thought we’d use the election as an opportunity to learn about U.S. politics, geography, while using math as we calculated Electoral College votes. I remember how stunned I was as we colored more and more states red, my son narrating calculations as Hillary’s path to victory narrowed. I took a break to drop off my son at an art class, where people passing by told me they were sorry, even before the election was called. We were in shock with the results. My kids, American citizens by birth, had never lived in the U.S. My son was worried that we had to fly soon, “before Trump built the wall and wouldn’t let us in.”
“At the turn of every hour, we slowly questioned our safety.” — Khadijah Johnson, writer
I’m a first-generation born and raised American in a Caribbean home. Every day, my mother plays the news in our house — it always felt like an entertaining way to get updated to her. There was always a grunt, a sigh, or a random scream that followed a new headline from CNN or MSNBC. We found the polls to be a reassurance; for every debate, town hall, and general election up to this moment, I prepared snacks for my family. Election Night 2016, I prepared fudge brownies with nuts for my mother, as she liked. I sat in a chair across from my parents’ bed as we held our napkins and stuffed our faces. At the turn of every hour, we slowly questioned our safety.
My parents migrated here from their islands and found home in Brooklyn. They have been citizens forever, but with state after state that turned red, it felt like a rejection of a sort. Our “Americanness” had been called into question. My mother saw the final state Trump needed to win, took a final bite of brownie, and said that Russia must have hacked us. Her intuition is a fixture to be praised, not because of her ability to sniff out suspicion but because this seems like the first time she recognized her new homeland had rejected us.
“It took embarrassingly long for me to realize the race was going to be called for Trump.” —Emily Eckelbarger, writer
I was working at my student newspaper at the time as a photographer and had driven up to Indianapolis to cover the Indiana Republican watch party. In terms of Election Night coverage, it was the short straw — everyone wanted to cover the Democratic Party end of things, since Clinton was favored to win. I walked in underdressed and overheated in a khaki jacket and duck boots, anxiously taking photos of the Indiana Republican A-listers. I remember my easy optimism that Clinton would win souring into dread as Evan Bayh, an incumbent Democrat senator, lost his race to Republican Todd Young and then as state after state was called for Trump. I was smug at first! It took embarrassingly long for me to realize the race was going to be called for Trump. When it finally dawned on me that I was the loser in the crowd of winners, I just wanted to get out of there — strong flight response.
“This is going to be a night I’ll remember the rest of my life.” — Maggie Downs, author
I wore a pantsuit deliberately. It was a bespoke gray suit that I got from a custom tailor during a visit to Vietnam. I only wore it for very special occasions — and I thought nothing would be more special than the election of our first woman president. I added some pins to the lapel: “I’m with her,” “gun sense voter,” “Maggie Downs for Hillary Clinton,” that kind of thing. It was very clear why I was wearing a pantsuit and who I supported.
On my way to a friend’s party across town, I made an unplanned stop at Trader Joe’s to pick up a few bottles of Champagne. In the checkout line, the clerk gave me a once-over, rang up the bottles, and said it looks like I’m going to be celebrating. “You know it,” I beamed. “This is going to be a night I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
On my way out, she winked and said, “Have fun tonight.” I held the bottles in the air and said, “Oh, I will!” That moment haunts me — not just because I was completely oblivious to what was about to happen but because I know I’m part of someone else’s Election Night story now.
“I have not made or eaten a whoopie pie since.” — Jennifer Foote, lawyer
We went to my friends’ house for an election-results watch party. I baked dozens of whoopie pies to share — chocolate with vanilla-cream filling, and pumpkin with ginger-cream filling.
My friends’ house was small but full of people with TVs blaring. We’d crowded into that tiny living room many times before to watch World Cup games, but that night the room quickly felt suffocating — way too loud and way too bright, a creepy fun-house-mirror facsimile of a good time. We left early, feeling queasy, and came home to our quiet house to continuously refresh the news, saying hopefully — hollowly — well, she could still win X, and if she does, then maybe …
By the time we crawled into bed around midnight, I was an anxious wreck. Around 2 a.m., I forced myself to try to go to sleep because I had to take a deposition the next morning. I was only able to calm down enough to go to sleep by watching a little anxiety-breathing GIF repeatedly. I woke up several times in the night to check my phone, to see if some miracle had occurred. It did not. I have not made or eaten a whoopie pie since.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity, and some names have been changed.