How TV Networks Called the Obama Victory

Nov 4, 2008  •  Post A Comment

At 11 p.m. EST, just after polls in the Western states had closed, Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was projected the 44th president of the United States by all the national TV news organizations covering the general election.
Inside the “Good Morning America” studio, where ABC’s election night coverage originated, someone clapped twice. Outside in Times Square, in a huge crowd watching ABC’s coverage on big signs, people began hugging and cheering.
On other streets in Manhattan, cars began honking at the news that history had been made with the election of the first African American president.
The tens of thousands of Obama supporters, among them talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, waited for president-elect Obama to speak in Chicago’s Grant Park, turning the campaign cheer of “Yes we can” into “Yes we did.”
A lot had happened in the last few hours leading up to announcement of the results.
Just before 9 p.m. EST, when polls were about to close in 15 states, “CBS Evening News” Katie Couric quoted an unnamed aide to Republican presidential candidate John McCain as saying, “At this point, we need a miracle.”
On Fox News Channel, Republican commentator Bill Kristol had been speaking somberly since shortly after 8 p.m., referring to what was to become back-to-back losses for Republicans in general elections.
Shortly after 9 p.m., when polls had closed in 15 more states (seven of which were adjudged too close to call) MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann asked NBC political director Chuck Todd if there was any surprise two hours after the first set of polls had closed.
“The surprise is this thing is going, it looks a lot more like 2000 and 2004 than anybody thought it was going to at this point in time,” Mr. Todd said. “We haven’t seen a state flip. Are the margins narrower, or is Obama already out-performing in pretty much all of these states? Absolutely. He’s certainly over-performing in the blue states, but this right now looks like a very competitive presidential race. So I think where folks thought this was a couple of hours ago is not where this race is right now.”
Just a few minutes later, ABC News interrupted what was to have been time for local stations to do their own election coverage to present a “special report” in which “World News” anchor Charles Gibson said ABC was projecting Barack Obama would win Ohio with 12% of the precincts reporting.
“Unless something staggering happens later during the evening, it’s hard to see how he gets to 270” electoral votes, “This Week” moderator George Stephanopoulos told Charles Gibson.
The electoral college count stood at 195 for Sen. Obama and 76 for Sen. McCain.
“If Obama just holds serve now the rest of this evening, just wins states that John Kerry won four years ago, he becomes the next president,” Rick Klein, the senior political reporter who edits ABC News’s political briefing “The Note,” said during a glimpse of coverage on digital platform ABC News Now, which New Yorkers saw instead of local coverage. “This is as big a win as you could imagine for Barack Obama.”
ABC News Now co-anchor Sam Donaldson turned to the camera and said, “Let me just repeat again, if you just joined us, what I said earlier: We’re not calling this election. We’re not calling an election until we can project 270 votes for one or the other candidate. But we’ve got to tell you what the facts appear to be.”
Caution took many forms early Tuesday night as the first exit polling data (from key states Ohio, Indiana and Virginia) was cleared for release at 5 p.m. EST by the news organizations that comprise the National Election Pool, formed in 2003 to replace the Voter Research Service that was one of the casualties of the 2000 miscalls, most notably in Florida.
ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC/MSNBC and the Associated Press all receive the same information at the same time and the news organizations’ decision desks make their own calls on when to project winners.
The common pledge was that no state would be called until all polls in the state were closed.
Around 6:30, conservative commentator Bill Bennett was urging restraint by his colleagues on CNN. “Let’s hang on a few more hours if we can, please,” he said. “He’s not dead, guys.”
On Fox News Channel, former Bush White House advisor Karl Rove was asked to imagine himself in charge of the McCain campaign at that point in the evening.
“If you’re losing, you suspend disbelief,” Mr. Rove said. “I mean you can convince yourself of anything. Remember: these people are living on caffeine and adrenaline and they’re about out of both. And they’ve been high-emotion for, in this case two years.”
Even after polls closed in the Florida Panhandle, which is in the Central time zone, the Sunshine State remained un-called by anyone until after Sen. John McCain made his concession speech in Phoenix, Ariz.
While there was unanimity to many of the flurries of calls as soon as polls closed, the networks weren’t always in lock step. The projected electoral college vote totals didn’t always match as a result of slight lags at one network or another in projecting state wins for no apparent or expressed reason.
However, by, shortly after 10 p.m. EST, with West Coast states still voting, there had been an unavoidable tone of inevitability to conversations, no matter which network one was watching.
On CNN, which was showing Sen. Obama with 206 electoral college votes to Sen. McCain’s 89, Anderson Cooper asked Wolf Blitzer: “When [Sen. Obama] gets to 270, what do we do?”
“We report it,” Mr. Blitzer replied.
Pundit David Gergen, sitting on the front line of CNN’s populous set, said, Sen. Obama “is now looking like he’s going to sail well past 300 … that is a big victory for Democrats.”
Back at Fox News Channel, out-going anchor Brit Hume, former Bush White House advisor Karl Rove and “Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace were discussing how Sen. Obama might re-prioritize his campaign promises and pronouncements.
Even as the news organizations and crowds in Chicago waited for the Obama victory speech at 11:30, David Gregory on MSNBC announced that Nevada had been called for Obama, and by then Florida also had been moved into the winner’s column.
(Editor: Baumann)


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