The weirdest, wildest and maybe longest of election nights is finally here. On Tuesday, the major networks will grapple with what each is describing as the most fraught election night of the television age, and one that promises to be as logistically complex as any in American history. No longer just an event to merely "cover," this has now turned into a high-order math problem to solve, or three-dimensional chess match to play, filled with countless scenarios including, however remote, that nightmare "what-if" one: What if nobody is elected president Tuesday or in the days following because of an Electoral College tie?
"What keeps me up at night?" says ABC News political director (and Babylon native) Rick Klein. "To the extent that it's not going to run into some kind of extended overtime, I would like to get a nap at the end of this. It's not something [that overtime] that I particularly relish but we'll cover the story where it goes."
He adds with scarcely a trace of fatigue, "I'm not spending a lot of time worried about the nightmare scenarios. We're prepared for any of them."
Jon Meacham, the bestselling author and TV commentator — also host of a thoughtful documentary, "The Soul of America" (now streaming on HBO Max), which is based on his 2016 book of the same name about the divided electorate — said in a recent interview that "we're going to potentially have a collision [Tuesday] between what the Constitution envisioned and the news pace we've all become accustomed to."
That pace, however, is the rub, say network officials and other observers. TV news covets speed, scoops and finality on election nights. But not this time. The potholes are too many, the margin of error too great.
'THE CHAMELEON MAP'
Come Tuesday the networks will attempt to explain to viewers an unprecedented phenomenon that could be described as a "chameleon" voter map — one that changes color from Republican red to Democrat blue, or vice versa, as that historic flood of mail-in ballots gets counted. Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state, is expected to be red early in the evening as the votes for President Donald Trump are counted, then slowly turn blue as millions of mail-ins — believed to be for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden — are counted later on. That count, incidentally, will take days.
By contrast, Ohio should be blue after polls close at 8 because the Biden mail-ins are counted first, followed by those likely Trump votes cast in person. That's when Ohio might slowly start to turn red, or at least purple. Final certification isn't until Nov. 28, and who knows what color the state will be by then.
"There are so many moving parts," says Amy Morris, vice president and news director of WNBC/4, of races in the battlegrounds and races here too, including two major ones on Long Island. "We don't even know where the [presidential] candidates are going to be on election night. We're prepared for this to go on for days."
"Expect the unexpected," says Freddy Oldenburg, her counterpart head of news at Telemundo/47, which will be looking closely at how outcomes will affect the fate of the Affordable Care Act, he says, which Telemundo's viewers are especially concerned about.
In one obvious sense, the soul of TV news — local and network — will also be put to the test , as results from 7,000 races around the country and one very big race trickle in. As always, this test will come down to trust. Call any of those races wrong, and that trust will be further frayed. But mess up that big one — as the networks did in 2000 — and it will be shattered. Worse, botched calls could set the stage for legal challenges, TV executives say.
"The test for the coverage," says Meacham, "will be to report with care so that it doesn't create a set of expectations that come to be seen as final."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, explains that "there is only one way around this and if the TV networks have to bore [viewers] for a while, then bore them — they aren't going away — but the networks have to go to extraordinary lengths to explain what is happening."
BETTER EXIT POLLS?
What, then, will be happening on TV Tuesday night? On past presidential election nights, TV had a general idea of the horse race outcome, thanks to state and national polls leading up to the election. Then, on the big night, the networks relied on their own commissioned polls — the so-called "exit" ones that canvass voters as they left the polls. Those were used to refine internal predictions, or guide anchors in explaining why the electorate shifted from one candidate to the next.
That time-honored system came crashing down four years ago, when all these polls underrepresented the support for Trump. Thus caught flat-footed, TV news pushed for a change and got a significant one — a brand-new exit poll system by The Associated Press called APVotecast, which contacts some 140,000 voters by mail, phone and online starting six days before the election.
Fox News, NPR, PBS and others joined this new system, which launched two years ago, while ABC News, CBS News, NBC News/MSNBC and CNN remained with the traditional exit polling firm, Somerville, N.J.-based Edison Research. (Unlike APVotecast, Edison continues to interview people as they leave the polling booth as well as canvas them online or by phone days before the election.)
"We wanted to build a better mousetrap," says Fox News' senior vice president/news and politics Alan Komissaroff, "and they have, by revising for different methods of voting [that] takes into account mail-ins by giving those just as much weight as other kinds" of voting. He said the AP exit poll system, which debuted in 2018, was so accurate it allowed Fox to call the midterm House races that year "a full hour" before competitors.
Likewise, "we had a really good night in 2018," says Edison co-founder Joe Lenski, who has been tracking the exits since 1988. Edison also made adjustments to its sample to account for that Trump voter who went missing in 2016.
If all this sounds like inside baseball, it's not: The promise of better exit polls, say observers, holds out the promise of a clearer picture on Tuesday night when it's needed most, simply because both systems are now engineered to reflect that tsunami of mail-in votes — perhaps the majority of votes cast this year.
"Pollsters have come back and said we've adjusted for the new reality," says veteran Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto, who will also host Fox Business' coverage on Tuesday. "And maybe they have compensated for this quiet Trump vote [they] missed four years ago."
"One of the really important things the networks need to convey Tuesday is this understanding that anything can happen," says Karen Finney, former spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton's campaign, now host of a series of "town halls" for TV One. "Four years ago, early on, there was a foregone conclusion Hillary would win and when she didn't people used that to justify ugly attacks. What the polls are saying is where the art and science of campaigns come in. Yes, polling is important."
A DIFFERENT TONE
What viewers will actually see on election night shouldn't be all that different from past elections, with anchors and pundits keeping the information flowing. It's the tone of coverage that will be so radically different, say the networks. (CNN declined to comment for this story.)
"We need to be transparent with the audience, and not just about the difference in various states in terms of the [vote-counting] rules but also how the pandemic has changed the process of voting," says Caitlin Conant, political director of CBS News. "Everything we've done leading up to election night is to prepare our viewers and our readers — on [the CBS News website] and social media — that we might need to have some patience [Tuesday]. The more we can over-communicate that heading into Tuesday the better, so that if there are [final result] delays, people aren't surprised. It doesn't mean anything nefarious is happening. It's just the process."
Nevertheless, when viewers by the millions begin to tune in at 8, the information overload will begin. Polls in all-important Florida will have closed, along with those in some key battleground Rust Belt states. Florida, say network officials, will be crucial as always.
"There might be more clarity than the stories I've seen elsewhere have suggested," says NBC/MSNBC national political correspondent Steve Kornacki. "I could sit here and tick through 15 other scenarios but we might get one from Florida where Biden wins and that's a devastating loss for Trump [or] it's possible Trump wins Florida which is how it started in 2016."
"I do think" he adds, "we'll have some combinations to play with [but] the noticeable on-air difference is that you will be seeing and hearing a lot about how the ballots were cast — those buckets of votes, telling viewers that we just got half the votes or making clear that you're seeing the early votes, and not seeing yet those cast that day at the polls."
"Those swings," he says, "could be dramatic [and] we want to make people aware of that."
ONE HOPEFUL SCENARIO
Meanwhile, Fox's Cavuto offers reason for hope, or at least finality. "I'm very leery of buying into the line that this is going to drag on into Arbor Day," he says. "This might be wrapped up that night."
"One fun exercise I do is a spreadsheet where I've connected the dots of all these daily polls — and you can say they're 'fake news' or overinflated, but if you went by those polls, and I focus just on the electoral votes in those states, Joe Biden is hovering in or around 400 [electoral] votes. I would have had a very different electoral map" four years ago, he says.
But a blowout either way? Absolutely no one expects to make that call on this weirdest and craziest of elections. "We're cognizant of the role we play on election night," says ABC News' Klein. "We're going to be careful, deliberate and calm in the way we present these things.
"This is our Super Bowl. This is what it's all about."
A quick guide to election night network coverage:
CBS will originate coverage from the MTV Studios at 1515 Broadway, where Norah O’Donnell leads coverage starting at 7, joined by Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, John Dickerson and CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe. D.C. correspondent Major Garrett analyzes exit poll data while contributor Maria Elena Salinas and chief Congressional correspondent Nancy Corde handle voting trends and House/Senate races. CBS News also promises some razzle-dazzle from MTV, or in its words, “augmented reality” to show the results.
Coverage starts at 7 p.m. and will continue through “at least 4 a.m.,” anchored by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell.Kristen Welker, Mike Memoli, Ali Vitali and Adam Edelman are at Biden campaign headquarters; Hallie Jackson, Monica Alba and Shannon Pettypiece at Trump’s.
Coverage begins at 7 led by chief anchor George Stephanopoulos and “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir, joined by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, Mary Bruce, Pierre Thomas, Martha Raddatz, Cecilia Vega and Tom Llamas. Dr. Jennifer Ashton explores the impact of health care and COVID-19 on the races.
“NewsHour” begins at 6, with Judy Woodruff handling coverage from WETA studios in Arlington, Va. She’ll get support from Amna Nawaz (senior national correspondent), Lisa Desjardins (Capitol Hill) and “The Cook Political Report” national editor Amy Walter.
A special “election night in America” kicks off at 4, anchored by Dana Bash, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Abby Phillip and Jake Tapper from CNN Election Center in Washington. Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon handle late-night coverage, while Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins report from Trump campaign headquarters, and Arlette Saenz and Jeff Zeleny from Biden’s. Gloria Borger, Van Jones, David Axelrod and Rick Santorum provide analysis with Laura Coates and Ben Ginsberg offering legal analysis. John King will be frantically whisking numbers and results around his famed “Magic Wall.”
“Decision 2020” at 6 will be anchored by Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams, along with Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid. NBC News national political correspondent Steve Kornacki will breakdown votes with his “Big Board” for both NBC News and MSNBC.
Coverage kicks off at 6 with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum anchoring from Fox News’ Studio F in Manhattan, with Chris Wallace, Brit Hume, Dana Perino, Juan Williams and contributors Donna Brazile, Karl Rove and Katie Pavlich. Bill Hemmer will work the so-called “Bill-Board” — the touch wall with results. John Roberts and Kristin Fisher cover Trump; Peter Doocy and Jacqui Heinrich cover Biden. Neil Cavuto handles coverage with a focus on business and economy for Fox Business.
Live coverage airs from 9 p.m.-7 a.m. Wednesday. Greta Brawner and Peter Slen will host from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Bill Scanlan will host from 3-7 a.m. C-SPAN will also take viewer calls and reaction throughout the night.
Coverage begins at 7, rom Telemundo Center in Miami and led by anchors José Díaz-Balart, Felicidad Aveleyra, Vanessa Hauc, Julio Vaqueiro and Paulina Sodi. And this of note: It will “release new polls on the Latino vote in several key states including Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas.”
Coverage begins at 7, anchoed by Ilia Calderón and Jorge Ramos. Patricia Janiot will be “looking at the various pathways to victory for each presidential candidate as well as the impact of the Latino vote in those decisive states.” — VERNE GAY