On Election Day, TV networks ended up being all glitzed up with no race to call – at least on Tuesday – as a definitive presidential victor won't be determined until sometime later, as many had predicted.
In the most unprecedented of election years, networks preached admirable caution about voting results. But some still couldn't resist parsing tea leaves too small for helpful analysis and injecting too much horse-race hype, down to the ever-present countdown clocks and the magic, touch-screen maps that can hash out every electoral possibility.
After a most unusual campaign defined by a once-in-a-century pandemic and a president anticipating "rigged" mail-in voting results, networks made special efforts to explain how to analyze the contest between President Trump and Joe Biden, which featured a historic, record-setting early tally tabulated on different timetables, depending on the state.
Although TV journalists have been warning viewers for weeks that it might take days or longer to determine a winner, they weren’t always taking their own advice on election night. As President Trump performed well in a number of states based on Election Day turnout, as predicted, some networks created the early impression that the results were more definitive, not Tuesday's eventual cliffhanger.
Networks added to the confusion by not clearly delineating how different states were tallying ballots cast in multiple ways, although the pandemic-year election made it exceptionally difficult to explain.
The coverage also featured separate exit polling systems, with ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN teaming together in one consortium while Fox News and the Associated Press formed another. As the evening progressed, some offered different electoral college vote totals, calling states by interpreting the same data differently.
We looked at how TV presented Tuesday's voting news on the seven major broadcast and cable-news networks, which featured expanded election desks to allow for social distancing..
To be continued
12:30 a.m. EST: As it became apparent no winner would be determined Tuesday, coverage turned to coming days of vote counting as the campaigns began trying to shape public opinion, with Biden, in a brief speech, and Trump, in a tweet, telling supporters they expected to win.
In the process, the network coverage became part of the story. Trump's camp pushed back when Fox, which the president expects to be a supportive voice, put Arizona in the Biden column as other networks refrained from making that call. Fox’s respected elections chief, Arnon Mishkin, appeared on air to respond to White House criticism of the Arizona call, which Biden touted in his short speech.
“Are you 100% sure?” anchor Bret Baier asked, more than once.
Each time Mishkin said he was certain. “We made the correct call," he said. "I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Baier said.
Maps of red, blue and not enough white
11:05 p.m. EST: What networks showed didn’t always match what they said. CNN neatly broke down its election map into red and blue states, even though many had not been called, creating a misleading impression. (Geographical maps already visually favor Republicans, because large rural states with few electoral votes take up more space than smaller states with much larger allocations.)
When CBS also showed a colored-in map, anchor Norah O’Donnell asked that some states be restored to white, saying they would not likely be called Tuesday night and their status remains undetermined.
CBS correspondent Ed O’Keefe noted that many experts predicted it might take days to declare a winner. “This is the scenario we knew would happen.”
Rachel Maddow made a similar point on MSNBC, quoting state officials saying even unofficial totals in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania won't be available until later this week.
10:20 p.m. EST: PBS couldn’t compete with the other networks in tabulation whooshes, dramatic music and bright graphics, but Judy Woodruff’s simple, one-person anchor desk and coverage featuring remote interviews with journalists and politicians provided a less stressful alternative.
PBS also made good use of its member stations across the country, featuring comment from correspondents in such states as Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin.
Keep calm and tally on
10 p.m. EST: Despite all the warnings about drawn-out results, some anchors fell into their old bad habits, making broad generalizations from too-small samples.
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was shooting out a barrage of voting totals, some less significant than others. His colleague, John King, cautioned “we have a long way to go,” even as he meticulously detailed lead changes in battleground states.
As some anchors appeared to be getting a little breathless extrapolating from small totals, some cooler heads preached patience.
On ABC, Republican contributor Sara Fagen cautioned a wait-and-see approach, noting the novel mix of mail-in ballots, early in-person and Election Day votes. “Wait until an entire jurisdiction is in before you get too excited.”
Former Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs offered similar commentary on MSNBC, seemingly aimed at calming the network’s liberal viewership.
“The hope of this early knockout has made everyone feel like, ‘Oh, maybe things have really gone awry,’” he said, noting Hillary Clinton’s surprise 2016 loss. “At this point four years ago, I hadn’t even gotten the tequila out. So it’s early.”
8:50 p.m. EST: Remember Tim Russert in 2000 writing "Florida, Florida, Florida" on his whiteboard? Technology has taken over (although Fox News' contributor Karl Rove still favors one). The glitzy digital vote maps that were a novelty a few years are now part of the election-night furniture, providing ever more sophisticated data at the touch of a finger.
So maybe CNN doesn't have to call it the "magic wall" anymore. We're pretty familiar with it. As are the correspondents. who used to fumble at the maps but have become more deft.
CNN’s John King and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki are two maestros. MSNBC featured a tongue-in-cheek Kornacki Cam to please the numbers guru's cult followers. At one point, it featured a scintillating picture of Kornacki scrutinizing a piece of paper and his cellphone.
King showed his versatility on the network's "magic wall" as he examined candidate "overperformance" and "underperformance" in Ohio, a helpful new statistic, with a multi-fingered touch technique, including reliance on the fourth finger, the unsung digit of the human hand.
Too much (and not enough) information
8 p.m. EST: As more state polls closed, electoral-vote scoreboards began to appear, seeming to contradict frequent pre-election warnings that results wouldn’t be known for days. However, expected outcomes in some states and limited voting totals from others left networks reaching for analysis.
“Nobody’s won a road game yet,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said, invoking the kind of sports metaphor invoked all too frequently in election coverage. “An election doesn’t begin until you flip a red state blue or a blue state red.”
The information mix – too few votes tallied, but an excess of voter-polling data – risks confusing viewers. ABC trumpeted early Ohio vote totals favoring Biden, but also exit polls that appeared to lean toward Trump.
Fox News began to focus heavily on Trump’s small lead in Florida, suggesting it might be durable, with votes from the conservative Panhandle still to be tallied. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson called those results unexpected, extrapolating one state's preliminary totals and getting ahead of the night's results as he chided the network's decision team with repeating their predictive mistakes from 2016.
Skittish after Trump's 2016 surprise
7 p.m. EST: The broadcast networks shifted into election coverage as the first state polls closed, preparing to go late into the night – or even the following days – depending on how close the results were.
ABC's Pierre Thomas reported on the FBI's examination of threatening robocalls seeking to keep people from voting and campaign correspondents reported the predictable positive outlooks from each network.
The hangover from President Trump's unexpected 2020 victory had anchors hedging their bets. CBS anchor Norah O'Donnell, reporting on the Biden campaign, said "They’re feeling confident at this hour, but I remember in 2016, so did Hillary Clinton's campaign."
CNN dives into tiniest of early results
6-7 p.m. EST: The cable news networks opened their main coverage with a primer on what each candidate needed to win, what to watch for (battleground states with early poll closures, such as Georgia, Florida and North Carolina) and how it planned to call the winner in each state. MSNBC and CNN had countdown clocks to 7:00, when the first polls would close.
All noted the unique dynamics of 2020, including the record-setting advance vote. As Fox's Martha MacCallum noted to veteran journalist Chris Wallace, "Chris, you've covered a lot of elections. This is going to be quite different."
As with James Bond movies, networks opened their coverage introducing their latest electoral gadgets. Bret Baier unveiled the Fox News Probability Meter, which would estimate each candidate's probability of winning the state and the presidency as the evening progressed.
Despite the overarching caution, some networks couldn't resist parsing the smallest results, even as they advised that they might lose meaning as more votes came in. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer and John King looked at just 1% of vote tallied from Indiana, a reliably red state and home to Vice President Mike Pence. As more results came in, CNN and its competitors were more hopeful with analysis of specific counties pre-selected as bellwethers for their states.
Caution, caution, caution
Daytime: Before results started rolling in, a main theme for all broadcasts was caution. In the aftermath of Trump's surprise win in 2016, much of the coverage focused on how the president, an underdog in many polls for weeks, could pull off another upset.
On left-leaning MSNBC, the tentative outlook some seemed to come from a sense of dread, just in case Trump still had some Electoral College magic. Some commentators on right-leaning Fox News appeared to be trying to find signs of hope Trump supporters.
The possibility of confrontation and violence at the polls, the subject of much speculation in recent days, faded as the day went on and voting seemed to take place peacefully. However, Fox's Brit Hume, a conservative, focused on the symbolism of boarded-up stores and office buildings.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: TV coverage urges caution, but is tempted to predict