Gwyneth Paltrow invited me to her party.
All right, she didn't actually name-check me. Anyone could go to this party, sponsored by the London chapter of Democrats Abroad, ornamented by the likes of Paltrow, and held at the home of celebrity chef Ruth Rogers, the American wife of British architect Richard Rogers. Anyone, that is, who'd swear to being (1) a citizen of the United States; (2) neither a lobbyist nor agent of a foreign government; and (3) prepared to pony up a minimum donation of $1,000 to help Barack Obama win the White House.
Since lunch with Al Gore cost 10 grand, you could call it a bargain.
London may be 3,600 miles from Washington, but American partisanship, a tough old weed if there ever was one, flourishes here in foreign soil.
Both John McCain and Barack Obama have visited London and send surrogates ranging from Rudy Giuliani to Bill Clinton to whip up the faithful. Based on IRS estimates, more than 300,000 Americans live in Britain, mostly in or near London, mostly well-off, too, and certainly more than enough to swing a presidential election. "The last couple of elections show that the expat vote really matters," says Miki White Bowman, chair of Republicans Abroad UK.
Democrats hardly need reminding that every vote counts. According to Bill Barnard, chair of Democrats Abroad UK, the past eight years have guaranteed that "the level of anger is up and the level of interest is up."
Barnard says that his membership doubled during this year's primary season. He won't reveal exactly how many people belong to DAUK; Republicans Abroad doesn't publish exact figures, either. But Miki Bowman claims an e-mail list of more than 500, and Barnard says that recently the DAUK "got 1,100 new members in one week."
I met some of those new members, right where you'd expect to find psyched, true-believing political activists — in a pub. The Yorkshire Grey is the local for BBC worker bees (the great art deco edifice of Broadcasting House is just around the corner), but tonight the upstairs bar has been colonized by Americans, one of whom is Hans Pauley, a management consultant originally from St. Petersburg. He says he used to follow British politics more than American. But "having to spend a lot of time explaining to people how we could have elected George Bush" impelled him to get involved in the Obama campaign.
The 15 volunteers (plus a reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., a documentary maker with videocam glued to her eye, this Florida writer and one British guy accidentally trapped in the corner) settle in with their pints of Sam Smith's ale to learn how to register Americans to vote.
Grass roots organizer Rob Carolina, a "Barack the Vote" T-shirt pulled over his lawyer's button-down, starts handing out leaflets just as the trapped British guy tries to sidle gracefully out of foreign territory. "I'm not American," he says, taking his beer to the other end of the bar.
Another night, in a different pub, Republicans Abroad UK discuss election strategy. RAUK vice chairman Marca Joelson is "feeling quite good about the election." She has lived in London for 10 years, working in financial marketing. "Get yourself a drink," she says.
The Two Chairmen is an 18th century inn near Parliament — the name refers not to the last solvent guys on Wall Street, but to the servants who would carry the gentry about town in a sedan chair. The light in here is dim and nicotine brown, but Sidney Geiser's bright red and blue Confederate battle flag tie lights the joint right up. "I got it in New Orleans," he says.
Geiser, a publisher of shooting and fishing magazines and 35-year resident of Britain, says the tie is "an expression of my solidarity with the South and its traditions." This despite having an accent that sounds more Flatbush Avenue than Natchez Trace.
I point out that one of the South's strongest traditions was membership in the Democratic Party. Geiser doesn't miss a beat. The Democrats are "left-wing fascists. They have too much affinity with the Arabs."
John McCain was not the candidate of choice for many among the 20 or so Republicans in the room. "I wanted Condoleezza Rice," says Geiser. Others admit to a first preference for Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. Sarah Palin they like. "She's a straight-talker," says Marca Joelson. "She's so alive!" says Geiser. "She's a hunter and fisherman, too."
His wife, Nedra, smiles. "I'm not too fond of her," she says quietly. "The antiabortion thing and the anti-stem cell research. But yes, she's lively."
"She's energizing the party," says a woman from Georgia. "Everyone is talking about her."
Republicans scoff at the Dems' showbiz predilections — the debate screenings held at the swank British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the movie stars. The Republicans don't do movie stars. Their black-tie Lincoln dinner, held recently at one of London's leather-chair-and-old-brandy gentleman's clubs, featured Jim Nicholson, famous (if that's the word) for presiding over George W. Bush's scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs. Not exactly Gwyneth. Not even Fred Thompson. Still, sniffed Charlie Wolf, director of communications for RAUK, "You'll hear more on policy from Jim Nicholson than you'd ever get from Gwyneth Paltrow."
Republicans suffer from being smaller in number than their Democratic counterparts. Their group is all-volunteer, while DAUK is an official arm of the Democratic Party. Still, both say they're busy, busy, busy raising money and registering voters in American-rich areas such as Wimbledon, and the Texas Embassy, a restaurant near Trafalgar Square that shows American football games on its big TVs.
There's a bit of competition, too: "I would call it a friendly rivalry," says Miki Bowman, the RAUK chair. But sometimes raw partisanship runs amok. Bowman cites a debate between Young Republicans and Democrats at which "even when someone presented a factual answer, the Democrats booed." She said they won't be having a joint event like that again until "we are guaranteed some level of decorum."
For their part, Democrats point to an incident when they were canvassing outside the Whole Foods store in Kensington High Street. As shoppers came out with their $10 pots of Greek yogurt and $20 heads of broccoli, the Republicans got abusive, demanding that the Dems be moved off the sidewalk.
It's not easy being foreign in foreign parts. Dinner parties can be a challenge. "I'm an American first and a Republican second," says Marca Joelson. "It could be Mickey Mouse in the White House and I'd still defend him."
Democrat Hans Pauley, tired of having a dumb-and-proud-of-it administration, says, "Why do we elect people on the basis of who we'd like to have a beer with? Other countries expect their leaders to be exceptional, even brilliant."
But come Nov. 4, both parties-in-exile will be staying up all night, nervous, alternatively filled with hope and dread, watching television, knocking back drinks, praying. Then, on Nov. 5, they'll go back to being just Americans. "Unless it comes down to Florida again," says Bill Barnard of DAUK. "Oh, Lord."
Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is spending the fall in London.