At the Capital Grille, an expensive wood-paneled steakhouse at the foot of Capitol Hill that is a favorite gathering place for Republican power brokers, few were in the mood to chat about the presidential race Tuesday. Exit polls showing a strong performance for John Kerry had left an ungracious sense of pessimism.
In the corner at the restaurant's sparsely occupied bar, two young men, dressed like congressional staffers in cheap shirts and loosened ties, slouched in their seats. They declined to talk about the campaign, keeping their eyes on their mixed drinks. They only thing they would tell me -- other than the name of the vodka-based juice drink that one was swilling -- was that, yes, they were Republicans.
Two jowly men at the bar, watching the TV and hunched over what looked like or Scotch or another whiskey, also brushed me away. Dressed like lobbyists in expensive shirts and suspenders, they shook their heads emphatically: No, they did not want to talk. No, they would not say if they were Republican. No. Go away.
The scene was much the same in another part of town, at the Palm restaurant near Dupont Circle. Except here, at this famed hangout for political types, lobbyists and journalists, the patrons were more bipartisan. The Democrats were chatty. The Republicans -- on learning that I was a reporter seeking reaction to the exit polls -- fled. Literally.
"You might want to record that," said a laughing Greg Schneiders, a Democrat and partner in a polling firm, when the three Republicans he was sitting with abruptly left the table upon my approach. "They ran for the hills!" Schneiders exclaimed.
Director of speechwriting in the Carter White House and a former press secretary to now-retired Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, Schneiders leaned back and pointed to a table that had been occupied when I came into the restaurant. It was also suddenly empty. "They left, too," he said, chuckling about the quick exit of a group that had included former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf.
Every four years for the past 16 years, Schneiders has convened a bipartisan group of friends at the Palm to watch the presidential election results. By late afternoon, as the red wine flowed, the Democrats at his table were increasingly giddy. Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, said she was beginning to believe that Kerry might actually win. Ben Goddard, who owns an issue advocacy firm, said that the exit poll numbers reflected angst among young people, who were voting out of fear that George W. Bush's policies would lead to a resurrection of the draft. "Talk to anyone in this restaurant, and they'll say, 'Impossible! There's not going to be a draft.' But that's Washington for you. Go online and you'll see a lot of people feel that there is," Goddard said.
At that point, one of the stricken Republicans from Schneiders' group returned. "I just had to use the bathroom!" the young man insisted. And he may have been telling the truth: 28-year-old Wen-Tsing Choi, who works at a polling firm, was the only Republican in the bar to give me his name. "Well, exit polls are not always right," Choi said tentatively. "I'm still hoping. But some of those numbers are pretty wide." Asked if he was surprised at how strong Kerry was appearing, Choi said, "A little bit surprised, yes."
One of the other Republicans -- a man everyone called Scott -- bounded back to the table holding his Palm Pilot aloft. "Look what Drudge has! Those early numbers were based on a 59-41 [percent] female-male split! I knew it! How else would you get a 17 percent spread in New Hampshire [for Kerry], which is a bunch of crap." But no one else seemed too excited about the conservative-leaning Drudge Report's unsourced "scoop" that the exit polls were weighted toward women, who tend to support Democrats over Republicans. Scott shrugged. "Well, I'm must reading from Drudge," he said.
For the second time, I asked if he'd give me his name and an interview. And once again, he just shook his head.