Ending a long night marked by caution, surprise and at times even disbelief, the TV networks finally called the election for Donald Trump early Wednesday morning, just before 3 a.m.
In fact, by the time the networks did make that momentous call — a TV tradition in which networks vie for bragging rights by making it first — Trump’s victory was a forgone conclusion. Each had already reported that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had conceded, and Trump then proceeded to address supporters at his campaign headquarters.
“Caution” may have been the watchword for the networks Tuesday, but that hardly seemed to have much impact on the general tone of coverage as it evolved through the night. Supported by a string of polls over the past few months — and apparently many exit polls taken across the country on Tuesday — ABC, CBS and NBC hinted at a Democratic victory in their early evening news programs. “NBC Nightly News,” for example, led with a buoyant three-minute story about Hillary Clinton, followed by a four-minute piece about Trump’s prospects.
But the tone shifted quickly. “If anyone thought this was going to be a blowout,” said CBS News anchor Scott Pelley, shortly after 8, “we now have an answer. This is going to be a very close race.”
How prescient, or cautionary, that would be became even more apparent by 8:30 p.m. None of the networks would call Florida before 9 — or for that matter, Pennsylvania, North Carolina or New Hampshire.
Stylistically, each network took a different approach in covering the razor’s edge. CNN’s John King, for example, bore down in Florida almost down to the ZIP codes. Rivals tended to take a broader view of what would turn out to be an upset in the state. As Fox News’ Chris Wallace confided, “I expected Clinton to win” Florida because of Hispanic voters. He was certainly not alone in that opinion.
In fact, network caution on Florida Tuesday night has long been expected. In 2000, each of the networks rushed to call the crucial state for Al Gore just before 8 p.m. on election night — even before polls on the state’s panhandle had closed. But by 9:54 p.m., CNN had retracted that call, followed by the other networks, and TV history was made: Not only had the networks messed up the call on the state but the election would not be decided until Dec. 13 of that year, when Gore finally conceded.
As a result, on Tuesday and early Wednesday, the networks were exceedingly careful about calling states, even when a quicker call seemed warranted in some instances. How nervous were the networks about getting wrong calls? “Face the Nation” anchor John Dickerson explained to viewers CBS’ rules this way: “If it’s [described] as ‘edge,’ we’re giving the advantage to a candidate, but it means that advantage could be reversed, if the numbers statistically don’t work out, so there’s a little padding. If it’s a ‘lean,’ it means they have a little bit more of a lead. If you get beyond lean, well that’s when you get into the territory where we might make a projection.”
By 9:30 p.m., the tone of the coverage shifted noticeably again, as the networks almost seemed to collectively realize that the colors on the electoral map were not filling in as had been expected. A “bumper” on the MSNBC screen said it all: “Fla., Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Pa., New Hampshire, Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota ... too close to call. “
Meanwhile, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell captured that overall mood with this: “It’s a white knuckles kind of night.”
By 10, Fox News had finally called Virginia for Clinton — a call the other networks did not dispute — which almost seemed to offer a respite for a moment. Coverage then shifted focus north to Michigan, and south, back to Florida. As successive polls across the country closed, each network’s team of correspondents tried to see a way forward for Clinton, and each concluded that it was becoming increasingly difficult. The focus turned to Michigan, then even New Hampshire, before finally settling on Pennsylvania. Just before 2 a, m., ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said that once that state was called, it would likely amount to “the most historic upset in American political history.”
The network’s collective soul-searching began long before that. Exit polls had suggested a Clinton victory earlier in the day, leading pollster Frank Luntz, during an interview on CBS News, to declare that they should be “banned.”
On NBC, Tom Brokaw said voters were angry, and that they felt “I don’t care if I have to pull a pin on a grenade and roll it across the country. We want change.” “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd followed with this: “We’ve overlooked rural America too much. They’re screaming at us, to say ‘stop overlooking at us.’ ”
“Whatever happens, it is a truly amazing story,” said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer just before midnight.
As Todd elaborated just before 2 a.m., Trump “blew all of our predictions and models and you name it out of the water.
“This is our modern-day Dewey beats Truman.”