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Networks preach patience as election stretches past midnight

November 4, 2020 GMT
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Members of the news media work outside the West Wing of the White House, election night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Members of the news media work outside the West Wing of the White House, election night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

For weeks, media outlets warned a frazzled nation that it would have to be patient waiting for a decision in the bitter campaign between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. That’s one prediction that turned out to be true.

As midnight passed on the East Coast and the will of American voters was still unknown, the televised drama took a turn with dueling candidate statements and Fox News Channel facing down pressure for a controversial call.

Millions of people following election coverage went to bed without knowing the answer to the question they had waited hours for: who’s going to be in the White House for the next four years.

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“What has become a long night is looking like it’s going to be an even longer morning, or perhaps week,” CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell said shortly before midnight on the East Coast.

The president’s team was angry at Fox News Channel for striking out ahead of other news organizations in declaring that Biden had defeated Trump in the battleground state of Arizona. It would have been the first state to flip parties from 2016, and was crucial in the path to 270 electoral votes and victory.

Fox’s Bret Baier, noting the network was taking “incoming,” put decision desk chief Arnon Mishkin on the air. He explained that with the bulk of uncounted votes in Arizona cast early and thus more likely for Biden, Trump would not be able to catch up to the Democrat’s lead in that state.

“I’m sorry, but we’re not wrong in this particular case,” Mishkin said.

At 12:42 a.m., Biden emerged to speak to supporters in Delaware, expressing confidence and saying he wanted to see every vote counted.

“Keep the faith, guys, we’re going to win this,” Biden said.

Almost immediately, Trump responded with a tweet, saying “we are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the election. We will never let them do it.”

The president’s team expressed anger at news organizations for not declaring Trump the winner in Georgia and North Carolina, where he held leads. CNN’s John King explained that there was still doubt given there were votes still to be counted in regions where Biden was expected to do well.

It was emerging that the presidency hinged on the Midwest battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that anything could happen, this is a very competitive race and that ... it really was going to come down to these three states,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “That’s happening, and yet it still feels like people didn’t hear it when we were telling them that the previous three weeks.”

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As 11 p.m. Eastern time approached, commentators on ABC and CNN were batting around the possibility of what would happen if both candidates tied in the Electoral College.

The mood of the night ebbed and flowed like a tide, and almost as predictably. Experts had said voters would be confused by the vast amount of early votes that were more likely to support Biden, and the different practices of states in when they would count them and the Election Day votes that favored Trump.

That proved to be the case when initial leads for Biden in Ohio and North Carolina that briefly heartened his supporters were suddenly erased. When Trump gained the lead in the Midwest battlegrounds, the question became whether Biden could overcome him when all early votes were counted.

On the television networks, it put the spotlight on numbers geeks like CNN’s John King and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki. MSNBC kept a “Kornacki cam” on their man as he studied voting data.

The lead taken by Trump in Florida dismayed Biden supporters who hoped that a victory there would be an early sign that their candidate was headed for a landslide.

“You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land,” said Nicole Wallace on the liberal-leaning MSNBC.

Meanwhile, opinion hosts on Fox News Channel sounded gleeful that a Biden rout hadn’t materialized. “A lot of people in Trump country are feeling pretty happy right now,” Laura Ingraham said shortly past 10 p.m.

News organizations promised to be candid in explaining why they were declaring winners for one candidate or another.

For the first time, The Associated Press said it would write stories outlining its reasons for individual calls. An early declaration that Trump would win Kentucky, for example, came because the AP VoteCast survey of voters and early voting statistics “satisfied expectations that the state’s longstanding political trends in favor of Republican presidential candidates will hold,” the AP wrote.

Network anchors began election night coverage with calls for patience. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos told viewers that it did not mean that the process is broken or unfair if the results were not clear Tuesday night.

As the evening progressed, it became clear that while patience might not necessarily be rewarded, it was still necessary.

“I would be very careful drawing sweeping generalizations about what we think we’re going to see,” Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary in the Obama administration, said on MSNBC. “Because it may be that it takes six days to figure out who wins this race.”

Earlier, journalists and commentators hungry for data — any kind of data — on the race they had obsessed over for more than a year sometimes couldn’t help themselves.

After CNN reported some of its early exit poll findings before any state had ended voting, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the network’s commentators, said, “I’m looking at this, and I don’t see a Democratic landslide in these exit polls.”

“It’s 5:52,” anchor Anderson Cooper replied.

Hours later, however, it was apparent that Santorum had been right.