What It Feels Like to Win an Election as the Underdog

The Philadelphia GOP was supposed to be a minority party in a Democratic-leaning swing state. On election night, something else entirely happened.

Trump supporters in Pennsylvania line up for a rally during the week before the election. (Mark Makela / Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA—They weren’t expecting this. Volunteers for the Philadelphia Republican Party turned out to monitor the polls and serve as election judges; they cast their ballots for Trump-Pence in their city full of Democrats.

They may have hoped Trump would win. But they didn’t start believing it until Florida. Then, things went insane.

Every time a state was called, the entire room would cheer. Volunteers hunched over phones and stared intently at their computers; with each new tweet and Republican victory someone would shout the update to the room. People danced. They sang. They poured themselves increasingly large cups of wine.

This is what unexpected triumph feels like: Nervousness. Excitement. Outbursts. Ecstasy. It’s not just that Trump was behind in the polls going into Election Day. Here in Philadelphia, the Republican Party is used to being the minority party in a Democratic-leaning swing state. Their game was never victory, but margin: Clinton was always going to take the city, but the question was by how much.

The story of Trump’s win could be told in many ways. But the version volunteers, staffers, and their family members excitedly told themselves on Tuesday night started in Philadelphia. In a city of 1.5 million, roughly 682,000 people, or 42 percent, voted. While Clinton won handily with more than 560,000 votes, Trump got his share—105,000 votes, or 15 percent of the total ballots. Long-time Republican volunteers said that’s more than usual for this city—it’s roughly 15,000 more Republican votes than Romney got here in 2012.

While that lift in turn-out helped, it was really their voter-fraud monitoring, they said, that got the attention of the state. When the press covered alleged incidents of electioneering in polling stations, they claimed, other Pennsylvanians turned out—they didn’t want their votes “stolen.”

“Philadelphia was the center of the political universe today,” Joe DeFelice, the chairman of the Philadelphia GOP, declared to the room. “We’re going to make history here.” It wasn’t exactly a comprehensive picture of Trump’s victory. But in the little office on Cottman Avenue, all decked out in Trump signs and American flags, that’s really how it felt.

Fox was the news source of choice for the evening, but even the conservative network got mixed reviews: “You can suck it, Megyn Kelly!” shouted one volunteer as North Carolina was called. The greatest elation came when The New York Times adjusted its predictions to favor Trump. It was really happening. Even The New York Times was saying so. “The mainstream media is going to be the saddest sop in the world tomorrow,” one staffer said. “Can you imagine?” said another. “They’re going to be bawling their little eyes out.”

It was really happening. Even The New York Times was saying so.

As the states ticked by—Wisconsin, Utah, Iowa—the whole room was waiting on Pennsylvania, the “white whale” of this election, as one volunteer called it. DeFelice had taken to pacing in and out, yelling variants on “It’s over!” and “It’s fucking over!” He got calls from the state party chair, updates showing Trump ahead in the internal polls. But they were still waiting for the official word that their state, which only 24 hours ago looked so much like it would go for Clinton, had voted red.

The Republicans around here are union guys, blue-collar voters who live in Philadelphia’s northeast neighborhoods. They’re the “little guys,” as one volunteer said. Many have lived around this area forever, and been in Republican politics here just as long. One volunteer, a 24-year-old Temple student, said her staunchly Republican, over-80 grandpa was out working the polls on Tuesday before heading in for a round of chemo the next day. While not everyone here started out supporting Trump, almost everyone got there by the end—a losing state senate candidate, Ross Feinberg, even created his own version of Trump’s slogan: “Make the great northeast great again.”

Many people waited it out as Trump’s Electoral College count creeped closer and closer to 270. As the hour passed 2 a.m., volunteers trickled out, putting on their coats and heading out into the Pennsylvania cold. After all of that, they never got their final celebration. They knew they had won, but the media refused to give them their official victory.

There were 17 people left in the office when the networks finally announced it, that Donald Trump had become president. It was Pennsylvania that put him over the top.