Among the Losers

LOS ANGELES—When you watch the convention on television, you see the joyful mob in front of the podium: a battalion of frenzied Tennesseans, the sign-waving Liebermaniacs in the Connecticut delegation, the huge crowd of home-state Californians. But the cameras rarely pan back to show the suburbs of the Staples Center, the delegations shunted a full ZIP code back from the convention floor.

At the convention, as in real-estate-mad Los Angeles, where you live is who you are. These distant delegations form a semicircle of Democratic irrelevancy. These are the far-flung territories and the states that are too small and too Republican or too both to matter in November, from Wyoming to Oklahoma to Alaska to Idaho—states that would not elect Gore unless Bush announced he was a gay, pedophilic trial lawyer. As the convention started yesterday evening, I took a tour through these pointless delegations to learn what it’s like to be a guest at a party that doesn’t care if you’re there. How do you keep your spirits up? How do you make yourself relevant? As they say in Hollywood: What is your motivation?

The first strategy, it seems, is denial. Some delegates insist that they really live in a Democratic state and that Gore really could win it in November. Indiana delegate Jeff Fites concedes that Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win his state, but he attributes that 36-year drought to “temporary insanity. We have a Democratic governor, a Democratic senator, a Democratic mayor of Indianapolis: We couldn’t be any more Democratic!”

Oklahoma has the most conservative congressional delegation in the nation and a wildly popular Republican governor. George W. Bush is a next-door neighbor—and a beloved one. But Oklahoma delegation chairman Mike Mass insists that Al Gore may win the Sooner state: “Oklahoma could very well shock the nation in November.”

Other delegations take pride in their embattled hopelessness. When Alaskan Don Carter tries to tell me Gore might win his state, the delegate sitting behind him mouths, “No chance.” Idaho State Sen. Clint Stennett shrugs: “No way we’re going to win in November. But it would be great if we drew in the high 30s.” Wyoming’s Jim Calhoun can’t remember the last time a Democratic candidate won his state and concedes that “it’s impossible” for Gore to win. Calhoun and Nebraska’s Chris Beutler both claim with pride that his is the only state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats. (Question for Michael Barone: Who’s right?)

The delegates also cling to their tenuous connections to real power. Idaho’s Stennett notes that his state stays close to the Oval Office because Clinton adviser Bruce Reed is Idahoan. Oklahoma’s Mass is hoping for a campaign visit from Joe Lieberman because “his sister lives in Norman.” The Wyoming delegation is thrilled about Dick Cheney’s selection as Bush’s running mate, because it gives the Wyoming delegates a (quasi) important convention role: “Our job here is to get out the truth about Dick Cheney,” says Calhoun.

These peripheral delegates are, above all, party enthusiasts. They don’t express the least bitterness about their distant lodging. (The Tennessee delegation is occupying the Regal Biltmore. Nebraska is staying at the airport Marriott.) They don’t whine that they are not hosting glam parties: “We are mooching,” says Beutler.

Nor do they complain about their poor seats. “We’re from the far northwest. We like being far away,” says Alaska’s Carter. “Besides, we could be Wyoming.” Over in the distant Wyoming corner—right next door to the “Democrats Abroad” delegation—Calhoun is happy: “I really like the elevation.” Across the floor in Idaho, same story: “We’re elevated a little bit. I like that. It’s much better than down there,” says Stennett, pointing at the California delegation’s primo real estate.

“These are great seats,” waxes Oklahoma’s Mass, as his seatmate pulls out a pair of binoculars. “Heck, we’re in the building. If they hung me up on the rafters over there, I would be happy!”

Abject self-flagellation: Yesterday I gushed about how peaceful and cheerful the protestors were during the daytime marches. Sure enough, several hours later a battle broke out between anarchists and cops outside the Staples Center. After a Rage Against the Machine concert in the protest “zoo,” the anarchists chucked bottles and rocks at the cops. The cops—with that famous LAPD restraint—responded with rubber bullets and pepper spray.