In the last four years, I’ve been asked about my 2016 election night story at least half a dozen times. Where were you when you realized everything was going horribly wrong?
I was in the newsroom of a digital startup that, to my knowledge, had not prepared a single article for the possibility that Donald Trump might win. Wolf Blitzer was on one of several televisions calling “key race results,” and I had a tab open on my laptop of the now much-dreaded New York Times needle. My most vivid memory, however, is of two novelty Chia Pets: one of Trump and the other of Hillary Clinton. They had been sitting in the corner of the office for weeks and only Hillary had been watered, she had a full head of green hair while Trump had none. The visual was striking, Hillary bloomed even though Trump had just won the presidency in a surprise victory.
I left the office in a cab around 1:30 a.m. and signed on a few hours later for my shift at 5:00 a.m.
This is not at all how I’ll be spending election night 2020. I was completely wrecked by 2016, and while I was able to process those feelings alongside my coworkers, I would have preferred to be at home with my roommate, or at least somewhere I could have a drink.
Others I interviewed felt similarly: However they spent the night of November 8, 2016—and, crucially, the day after—it wasn’t particularly well-suited to a Trump victory. Some watched the news in a bar packed with strangers, or at house parties with 30 people. Some stayed up until early in the morning, on the slim chance that the outcome would change. The next day they went into work like me: emotionally hungover.
Thinking back to the shock and anxiety of those 48 hours, some are rethinking their election plans for this year, turning their phones off, abstaining from cable news, taking days off of work, or (and I think this is very smart) fleeing to the woods.
“This year I’m planning to be fully disconnected from the news,” Caroline Brown, a 26-year-old based in Dallas, wrote in an email. “I might go for a drive or just order an ungodly amount of takeout and watch Paddington 2 again.”
Brown and her long-distance partner began discussing their respective Election Day plans nearly a full month in advance. She said they often have completely opposite responses to upsetting political news—whereas she prefers to disengage, her partner likes to get all of the information they can and discuss every angle on the news. After having a conversation about it, they decided it would be best to spend election night apart, so though Brown’s partner will be visiting her over Halloween weekend, they’ll return home before November 3.
“It wasn’t a super serious conversation or anything,” Brown told me later on the phone. I just knew they would want to be very connected and I would want to be very disconnected. I’m probably going to delete Twitter from my phone and just go into my own world.”
Washington, D.C.-based Kaianne Sie-Mah, 30, and her partner are thinking more along the same lines. Neither of them plans to watch the returns come in on election night; in 2016, they watched Chuck Todd call the results on NBC. “I don’t think I will watch the live results, period,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever watch live election results ever again, period.” (Sie-Mah told me her boyfriend shook his head no in the background.)
She’s also arranged to take the next day off from work. She happened to be on a staycation at the time of the 2016 election, and was relieved when she didn’t have to go in to work the next day. “We’re working from home now, but I still can’t imagine needing to talk to other people,” Sie-Mah said. “Even if it goes well, I don’t think it will feel like a celebration. I don’t mean that as shade to Biden, but I think of it as like, the day after you finish all of your exams for school and you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
Some people I spoke to planned to give themselves a lot of space, partly because they don’t anticipate having definitive results the night of or even the day after the election. It takes longer to tabulate mail-in ballots than it does with in-person ballots, and some states don’t allow mail-in ballots to be processed before Election Day, including key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Not even the experts have a good guess as to when we’ll know the definitive result, but it’s looking tighter, it could mean days of uncertainty.
Jennifer Baker, a New York-based managing editor in publishing, scheduled the entire week of the election off work. “I’m really thinking we won’t even have firm (or uncontested) results on November 4th if there’s no clear landslide,” she wrote to me. “So we may be in a tailspin for a bit in November (hello 2000 Election!).”
Baker laid out her multi-week plan for me, which included staying off social media for all of November, turning off push notifications the week of the election, and organizing events for BIPOC friends to gather (virtually) and take their minds off of whatever chaos and uncertainty may follow Election Day.
“I knew, essentially, if results skewed towards the GOP again that I wouldn’t be able to work and that I wouldn’t want to be at work,” Baker said, recalling how in 2016 she found herself comforting many of her white coworkers who were experiencing “the biggest shock of their lives.”
“Now I know I have to break away from anything that isn’t helpful because I’ll need to conserve energy for all that’s to come,” she said.
Taking a page from Hillary Clinton’s post-election self-care handbook, Leeja Miller, a lawyer based in Minneapolis, told me she’s going to the woods. Specifically, the woods in a small town in northwestern Wisconsin, where she and her boyfriend booked an Airbnb for five days. In 2016, she had found out that Clinton lost at an election-night party with 30 other people. The next day, her boss sent her home from work because she was so upset.
This year’s election get-away plan had been a “happy accident,” she said: “It was something my boyfriend and I had wanted to do anyway,” Miller said. “We scheduled the Airbnb and when we realized after that the dates fell on the day after the election, we thought, This is perfect.”
Like most of the people I interviewed, Miller admitted she won’t be able to completely unplug from election news, especially if it does drag on for days and weeks after. When one person wrote to me that they planned to lock their phone somewhere in the house where they can’t get to it and keep Bluetooth headphones on all day so they can’t hear their family members listening to the news, I wondered—when and how will they finally decide to find out who won?
Miller will have to tune back in at some point. But at least she’ll be in the woods.