Whoever wins the campaign for president a week from Tuesday, this election night is not likely to resemble 2008 on the streets of Chicago.
Four years ago, Chicago police blanketed the streets of downtown as streams of jubilant Barack Obama supporters — estimated at a quarter-million strong — flowed into Grant Park to see him speak, forming a sea of humanity to mark the historic election of America's first African-American president.
This year, Obama's campaign officials are calling the gathering a "watch party." And it will be set against a backdrop of convention center walls instead of the glittering outdoor skyline.
Instead of the wide expanses of the park, Obama's campaign is headed to the McCormick Place convention center, a smaller, less accessible — albeit more traditional — venue. The campaign announced Monday that the event would be held in the Lakeside Center portion of McCormick Place, the older, black steel-and-glass building east of Lake Shore Drive.
Attendance will be limited to supporters willing to volunteer for Obama's final campaign push, either by going to Wisconsin to knock on doors for two days or by spending three days making phone calls to swing-state voters. Obama campaign officials have been tight-lipped about how many people they plan to accommodate.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration declined to comment on the specifics of any planning.
"After successfully hosting the NATO Summit at McCormick Place and election night in 2008, Chicago is more than capable of safely hosting this historic event, as well as celebrations that may occur throughout the city," read a statement from Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.
There are indications the city is preparing for issues beyond securing McCormick Place, whether it's informal gatherings in downtown parks or incidents in neighborhoods. The Chicago Police Department has canceled days off for officers, ordered plainclothes cops into uniform and is scheduling 12-hour shifts for Election Day, police sources said.
Those moves mirror arrangements for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meetings in May, an event that should have prepared all levels of law enforcement to handle Tuesday, said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who heads the Chicago office of Kroll Advisory Solutions, a global security consulting firm.
"If President Obama wins there's going to be some revelry," Cramer said. "There's always a risk when you have people in a concentrated area of some property damage, but there wasn't that much during NATO, and those protesters were angry. That's not this. ... Police are going to take appropriate measures to allow celebration to happen or, if there's protests, for that to happen too."
McCormick Place offers a space that is more easily controlled by campaign planners as well as the Secret Service, which was in charge of security at the convention center during the NATO conference attended by dozens of leaders from around the world.
"For the purposes of selecting a secure venue, it's probably a good choice," Cramer said.
Familiarity with the venue from NATO might be a plus, but in the peak of a presidential campaign, Secret Service officials are already used to setting up secure venues for Obama on short notice, said Special Agent Derrick Golden, a spokesman for the agency's Chicago field office.
The Lakeside Center is used less frequently for conventions and trade shows because it lacks much of the state-of-the-art electrical and technological infrastructure of the buildings west of Lake Shore Drive, but it's still a very large, flexible space, said hospitality consultant Ted Mandigo.
And the indoor venue could allow planners to tailor the party to the outcome in a way that another Grant Park event would not, some experts said. Lakeside Center has a formal ballroom that is 45,000 square feet and can hold about 3,000 people, Mandigo said. But the center is more than 500,000 square feet, with many options to section off the exact amount of space needed, he said.
"It's limitless," said Mandigo, who evaluates the suitability of such venues for large events.
McCormick Place work crews can alter the room to the campaign's specifications on very short notice, he said. "They'd love to have two or three days, but in an emergency they can do it in six to 10 hours."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times