LEXINGTON, Va. – As Democratic voters went to the polls in South Carolina over the weekend, strange things were happening here: Hard-core Republicans stood and cheered for Jesse L. Jackson, and Barack Obama supporters cast votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It’s the 100th year of Washington and Lee University’s mock convention, an event that has featured elephants, speakers such as Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter, more than a few epic parties and one dramatic death.
The convention predicts the nominee of the party not currently in the White House. It is meticulously researched and not infrequently giddy. And it has a remarkable record for accurate picks – only once in 60 years has it chosen the wrong nominee.
The delegates gathered Saturday to make this year’s call – a toughie. Nothing like decades of pressure and having a national spotlight on you.
Leaders of the student-run convention, who worked on it for 2 1/2 years, have had their share of sleepless nights. Not only are there 100 years of tradition to uphold and the sense that this year’s election will make history, but the field is more unpredictable than it has been for years.
“It’s pretty amazing to have all that on your shoulders,” said political director Wesley Little, a senior from Texas. He said he was sure he would be sweating at the roll call.
Organizers don’t rely on polls but on grass-roots research, said Richard Friedman, a pre-med senior who served as general chairman.
More than 90 percent of the student body participates, about 1,700 people. Each state’s delegation conducts local research – reading newspapers, learning caucus rules and calling campaign staffers, district party leaders, reporters, professors and anyone else they can think of to help them gauge how their delegates are likely to vote.
The accuracy of the predictions doesn’t matter as much as the research, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and one of the project’s advisers for decades. “This is the best system of civic education at any college in the United States. That’s what’s important – these young people will stay active and involved in politics their entire lives because of this.”
The last wrong pick was in 1972, when students deadlocked and then chose Edward M. Kennedy.
By now, the students have the research, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising and the logistics of the convention nailed.
A gym at the school was transformed into a convention hall with state signs on poles, a forest of TV cameras, huge video screens and about 3,000 people, many waving “Hillary” and “Obama” signs. Student delegates wore jackets and ties or dresses and heels and, not infrequently, boater hats.
This year’s lineup of speakers was impressive: Jackson; Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine; Sen. James Webb, of Virginia; former Sens. Max Cleland, of Georgia, and Carol Moseley Braun, of Illinois; former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro; rising Democratic star Harold Ford Jr.; and Charlie Wilson, the former representative whose support of Afghan rebels fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s is the subject of a current film.
After speeches, the roll-call vote was held.
When the final vote was cast, red, white and blue balloons dropped to the floor, and the crowd chanted, “Hillary! Hillary!”
Then Bill Clinton called, his raspy voice echoing through speakers as he thanked voters for nominating his wife.
In the end, the tally was not that close. With 2,025 votes needed for the nomination, Clinton had the backing of 2,117 delegates; Obama, 1,642; former Sen. John Edwards, 288; Sen. Mike Gravel, 2.
“In the opinion of the mock convention, it’s not going to be over on Super Tuesday,” said Southern regional chairman William Waller, a senior from Georgia. “It’s going to be months.”