Two women sat behind a ticketing table at the entrance to the debate collecting tickets. They checked spectators off the list while armed police officers guarded the escalators to the set above. I entered in a formal business dress and jacket, expecting a rigid sign-in process, security shakedown, and long line. Instead, one woman greeted me warmly, and pointed out the books for sale (Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny and Not Invited to the Party: How the Demopublicans Have Rigged the System and Left Independents Out in the Cold). Other spectators milled about, some in formalwear as myself, some in jeans, others in emphatic party symbols; many wore Ron Paul shirts, others waved around Jill Stein posters all night, and one man wore a stegosaurus hat with too many buttons to count. The crowd, to say the least, was an eclectic mix of conservatives and liberals, weirdos and average Joes.
Upon entering the set, I was struck by the shear number of seats set out—had third party politics really drawn so many Chicagoans?—and the high quality of equipment prepared for filming. I quickly rushed to the second row and settled into an aisle seat while a woman carrying a bucket asked a man to draw names to decide the order the candidates would be placed on stage (indeed, it was mere chance that the more liberal candidates were grouped on the left, and conservative on the right). Jill Stein made the first appearance, fussing over her podium to place her notes, while smiling and waving emphatically to the excitable and growing crowd. A man called for quiet on the set—the demand for quiet, we later found, did not extend to spectators—and the pre-debate commentary began on the left side of the room.
Surrounding the commentary set, Gary Johnson appeared. I quickly grabbed my camera and shuffled to finally meet the man who I came out to see. He was taller and tanner than I had originally expected, and he looked very tired. People were swarming around him, grabbing at his hand, dropping a sentence, and then demanding a picture. A part of me felt disappointed in the brevity of our would-be interaction, while another part of me still felt elated that I would finally meet my candidate for president. Governor Johnson coughed into his elbow and apologized, “I’m sorry. I’m so sick.” Oh no. An aide came and pulled him aside before I could meet him to interview before the debate. I watched him leave and recess into his phone. He needed “introvert time.”
In that moment, my heart went out the Libertarian candidate; he was sick but had to seem upbeat for the campaign and had likely lived that life since he had announced his candidacy. While he huddled on the side with his phone, everyone, including the press, left him alone. Running for president is no easy task.
As I watched him walk up to his interview, more people began surging into set. I met a couple who aspired to work for the Ayn Rand Institute, and a gentleman who makes a living writing operas, and who was attending the debate to feel the candidates’ auras. I met young people who were hoping for their debts to be bailed out and young people who had worked for the Ron Paul campaign. I was introduced to some of the few but passionate members of the Justice Party for the first time. Everyone was excited to be there, and the debate had not even begun.