Forward Thinking

Watching the Debate in a Swing State

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

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Josh Nathan-Kazis
Joan Waitkevicz and her wife Shirley Herman watch the presidential debate together in West Palm Beach, Florida.

At the Republican debate watch party in West Palm Beach, Florida, Romney supporters were exulting. At the Democratic debate watch party ten minutes away, Obama supporters were getting into shouting matches with Republicans.

The Democratic event, hosted by the Obama campaign in Florida, was held at a sports bar on a main drag in downtown West Palm Beach. A couple of tables full of Romney backers had taken over a corner of the Obama group’s room, laughing at Romney’s zingers and applauding at his applause lines.

At first the thirty or so Obama volunteers and minor Democratic dignitaries didn’t notice. But the Romney tables got louder, and the Obama people started shouting back.

The scene, said Obama supporter Joan Waitkevicz, 65, was “like a sports match.”

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County Republican Party’s debate viewing at another nearby sports bar was like a boxer’s dressing room after a knockout.

“I thought Romney cleaned his clock,” said Sandra Tenace, a part-time South Florida resident attending the Republican event.

“I think Romney totally smoked him,” said another Romney supporter at the GOP event who would only give his name as Dave.

The two debate watch events, in the heart of heavily Jewish Palm Beach County, weren’t great places to get a sense of how the debate may have played with undecided South Florida voters. But they were useful spots to measure the confidence of each party’s core volunteers in this critical district. And while the Democrats were eager, it was the Republicans who seemed most assured at the end of the night.

The Democrats met at a new-looking bar in downtown West Palm Beach. Duffy’s Sports Grill had about a million flat screens tuned to a baseball games and auto races and whatever else was playing. At 9:00pm the screens were slowly switched to CNN, and Jim Lehrer’s face was projected on every wall like in a house of mirrors.

Waitkevicz and her wife Shirley Herman, 71, ordered a plate of deep fried mushrooms and drank a few beers. Herman, who is Jewish, said that she was pleased with the Democrats’ support of gay marriage. She and Waitkevicz had been volunteering for the campaign, registering voters and waving signs.

“Last time I felt enthusiastic,” said their friend Roselle Gibbs, 67, of the 2008 presidential race. “This time I feel confident.”

The Republicans’ bar was in strip mall a few miles away. Their spot, the Palm Beach Ale House Sports & Raw Bar, was older and tackier than Duffy’s, but less kitschy. Not every TV was a flat screen, the neon side outside was a decades-old relic, and the place had a clubhouse feel.

TV’s here were tuned to Fox News. Someone had handed out plastic straw boater hats and Romney lawn signs.

“It seemed like Obama was a little nervous,” said Wilda Tashof, a Jewish woman in her 70s who moved to nearby Boynton Beach less than a year ago. “Obama hesitated a lot, Romney was very straightforward, very specific.”

Tashof and her husband carried an armload of Romney signage as they left for their car.


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