In This Town, bars name cocktails after Cabinet members and open early for big congressional hearings. Needless to say, presidential debates are basically the Super Bowl.
This year, though, Washington’s favorite spectator sport is having an off season. Fewer bars are hosting debate festivities—assuming they’re even open. (Capitol Lounge, a go-to watering hole for politicos, permanently closed last week after 26 years.) Pandemic restrictions mean no bar seating, reservations for socially distanced tables, and earlier closing hours. On top of that, humor and revelry just don’t seem to fit the mood this election cycle.
Union Pub is one of the handful of establishments that will still host a viewing this Tuesday. “It’s not actually a party… We’re really just staying open later to let people watch,” says Union Pub Director of PR and Marketing Sam Sanchez. By that, he means the bar will close at 11 instead of 10 PM, which is still way earlier than the pre-pandemic 2 AM weekday last call.
In 2016, the Capitol Hill spot was standing room only when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off, and people craned their necks in from the gate when the space reached capacity. Bar-goers played drinking games, taking glugs every time a candidate spoke over the moderator, used the word “rigged,” or mentioned “her emails.”
This year, there will be no drinking games at Union Pub. In fact, there will be no food or drink specials at all. “Everything is just so sensitive,” Sanchez says. (That’s not to say such tradition is totally dead: Provision No. 14 on 14th Street will host a drinking game and candidate-themed cocktail specials this year.)
Big political events, such as inauguration or Super Tuesday, are historically some of Union Pub’s biggest business days. And these days, they could really use that business. “Anything helps right now. We’re struggling like everybody else,” says Sanchez. To help boost sales, the bar will sell “Union Pub 2020” T-shirts on-site with logos inspired by the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign and the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign.
The debate viewing event has also been a bit of a media spectacle in years past. But given the need for everyone to stay seated and socially distanced, Union Pub is asking reporters not to interview patrons. Then again, bars aren’t necessarily going to be the center of the action anyway this year.
“Just [hearing] from my own colleagues and friends, they’re either not watching it at all, they’re over it,” Sanchez says, “or they’re doing Zoom parties and doing their own drinking games at home.”