Invitations to partisan partying

By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2008
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Chad Ellis hosted a presidential debate party last Friday, but he didn't invite any of his friends. Instead he filled his home with strangers who found his party listed on Barack Obama's website.

"A lot of my friends aren't as into politics as my wife and I, and we were very interested in the idea of meeting new people with strong views, even if they were different from our own," said Ellis, a game designer from Brookline. "We ended up with 15 guests we'd never met before, and just had a really interesting party with them." They had such a good time, in fact, that several of the guests will return for another party at Ellis's home tonight to watch the vice presidential debate.

Welcome to the 2008 debate season, Internet-style.

This election cycle, the candidates have harvested the social-networking power of the Internet to create a new type of political gathering: the Debate Watch Party.

Having friends over to yell at the television during a debate is nothing new, but both Obama and John McCain are using their websites to encourage supporters not just to host parties, but to open their homes to other supporters in the area. For tonight's much anticipated debate between vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, McCain's website lists eight parties within 100 miles of Boston, while Obama supporters have posted 17 parties within 50 miles of the Hub. For last Friday's debate, Obama's website listed 86 open parties within 50 miles of Boston, while McCain's listed 37 parties within 100 miles.

Thirty minutes before Friday's first presidential debate, Skott Wade sat in his Allston apartment with a half-dozen friends when the doorbell rang and a young couple walked in.

"Strangers!" Wade said, his eyes wide with excitement.

As he leapt up to greet his guests, Wade, a heavily tattooed 37-year-old who was wearing an Obama '08 stocking cap, found two people who would fall on the preppier side of Team Obama. Ed Roggenkamp, a Harvard law student, and his wife, Thalia Goldstein, a PhD candidate at Boston College, don't have a television, so they searched the Obama website. Like Wade, they said they saw the parties as a way to meet new people from different backgrounds whose only certain commonality was in the lever they would pull on Election Day.

The debate watch parties posted to the candidates' websites are strictly partisan affairs. "If you were already an Obama supporter, it wouldn't make much sense for you to come to my party," said Avi Fogel, who had used the McCain website to link up with 40 other supporters for a party at his home in Brookline. "We don't want it to be contentious. The debate is going on elsewhere. This is an opportunity for people to listen together and kibitz about things and raise questions, a good old neighborhood parliament."

No party is complete without food, and while Fogel said he would not be serving "chips that look like bailout packages" or "fruits that look like foreign policy," many others were going for politically themed menus. The League of Women Voters' website offered patriotic recipes (and even a suggested playlist that included Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down"), and the Obama-McCain Comparisons website listed what it said were the candidates' favorite foods. McCain is said to like shrimp, enchiladas, pepperoni and onion pizza, and baby-back ribs; Obama is partial to chili, pumpkin pie, and pizza from the Italian Fiesta Pizzeria outside Chicago.

Anna Berezina, a 28-year-old Cambridge resident who posted her debate party on Facebook, the social networking site, wanted to get creative with her menu, so she posted to a couple of online cooking communities looking for suggestions. "I got a ton of responses from people who said they were hosting debate parties, too," said Berezina, who received suggestions for "Sloppy Joe Bidens," baked Alaska, a McCain drink (aged Scotch straight up), and one poster who suggested she serve moonshine and "hope everyone goes blind and deaf before the moderator shows up." Ultimately, Berezina went for a more topical approach: lipstick-pigs-in-a-blanket and elitist arugula, washed down with a dirty (politics) martini.

As the debate got under way on the television in Wade's living room, 15 people - including five strangers - crammed into every inch of couch and floor space and prepared to root for their guy. Over the course of the 90-minute debate, they let out their share of cheers, groans, and laughter (especially following Obama's "orgy of spending" line). It was, many of the guests noted, an almost cliché Obama event - the cuisine was vegan, there were two same-sex couples, and it was in a triple-decker in Allston in the center of the bluest state in the union.

As the event wrapped and the guests began to rise, Wade made sure they all signed sheets that had been supplied by the Obama campaign. "Or else the campaign will come down on him," a guest quipped (the Obama website offered a detailed guide on how to host a party, complete with a minute-by-minute agenda that advised hosts to "make sure you have some contribution forms on hand" after the debate).

The post-debate analysis was not surprising, as the Obama crowd declared Obama the winner. But Meghan Day, who lives in Watertown and had found the event online, said it was more than just preaching to the choir.

"Nothing was going to happen tonight that would change my mind about the candidates, but the idea of watching it with other people who are engaged in the election is appealing," she said. "It's an old cultural tradition done in a new way."

And for many at the Allston party, the first presidential debate was just a warm-up for the question of how Palin will do against Biden.

"Usually we host a party for the presidential debates, but we skipped that this year because there's a lot more interest in seeing how Governor Palin may do," said Richard Wheeler, the chairman of the Massachusetts Federation of Young Republicans, who posted his VP debate watch on the McCain website.

"We thought about trying to get moose stew," Wheeler joked, "but we couldn't find the moose."

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