Nothing would become the electronic media more than a little reticence and humility. That, in short, was the message of the media critics on the eve of the election, and most other Americans seemed to share the sentiment. The media itself, still mindful of those embarrassing egg-on-the face miscalls of the 2000 election, appeared to get the message. Network news chiefs swore they were more interested in getting this one right than in getting it fast. And they pointed to new techniquesincluding a new and improved consortium, the National Election Poolfor gathering and analyzing polling data and actual voting results. But would the old competitive itch for getting the news first and not being, well, kind of boring win out over all that new-found concern for caution?
The early afternoon reporting on CNN and MSNBC was, to say the least, restrained. There were long lines at the polls, the reports ran, but only sporadic accounts of allegedly sporadic chicanery. A federal judge in Ohio ruled that voters who had not received their absentee ballots could vote on provisional ballots at their regular polling stations, thereby overturning the state's established policy. But apart from that, the weatherparticularly a large swath of rainy stuff running from the mid-Gulf states up through the Great Lakes regionmight have been the most important breaking story, given its possibly decisive effect on voter turnout.
Though not that decisive, we soon learned. What had to be the most heartening news for those hoping for a large turnout was the report that Wisconsin voters, however wet, were turning out in what looked to be record numbers. Results-junkies craving an early fix got only a sober 5 o'clock reminder from CNN's Lou Dobbs that no projected results from any state would be reported until all the polls in that state were closed. But early reports from blogs and other Internet sitesincluding word of a Zogby poll projecting a strong electoral victory for Kerryseemed to challenge such restraint. The big question about the early evening hours coverage was taking shape: Would the network news programs report on the Internet chatter? And what would they do with exit polling data?
Restraint largely prevailed. CBS's Dan Rather announced on the evening news that Kentucky was in the Bush column, but the announcement met the near-certainty criteria adopted by the networks. Other predictable red and blue states soon took their predicted places in the network tallies, but it was clear that the TV analysts were yearning to speculate more grandly. Shortly before nine o'clock, former Democratic strategist Susan Estrich, now a professor at the University of Southern California Law Center, told the Fox election panel that exit polling had Kerry winning in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. But Michael Barone, a Fox consultant and U.S. News senior writer, countered with the report that Florida counties where Bush won in 2000 were seeing even stronger Bush support in this election. The accuracy of those early exit polls became the hot topic of the hourand an acceptable way of circling forbidden material.
Toward the end of that hour, though, there were some ominous signs that the election might not be decided anytime soon. Paul Begala of CNN reported that Florida had announced that its absentee votesroughly a quarter-million in numberwould not be tallied until Thursday. That news elicited bipartisan groans from CNN's Tucker Carlson and James Carville, and probably from all voters who were tuned to that station.
By 10:30, with no verdicts on the battleground states, it was pretty clear that restraint was making the TV commentariat edgy. "This prudence is driving me crazy," said Morton Kondracke on Fox. More and more, though, we were treated to rumors that early exit polls favoring Kerry in key battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin were now being challenged by later polls showing that Bush was doing better. In any case, it didn't look as though it would be the quick and decisive victory that some Kerry supporters were hoping for a few hours earlier. And that confidence took a real hit shortly after midnight, when CNN declared that Florida had gone for Bush.
So it was all coming down to Ohio, the network analysts explained, and Kerry was the one who now had to play catch-up. Yes, there was still a variety of scenarios for how the election could play out, but all depended on how the Buckeye State would go. And who knew when it would be safe to call that one? Caution was certainly making the night a long one, but the network gangs refused to remove their hair-shirt of reticence.
Only at 12:48 did the scales seem to tip decisively, as Fox declared Ohio for Bush. Over at CNN, resident liberal James Carville was reluctant to concede a Kerry defeat, but he admitted that it would take a double inside straight for the Democrats to reverse what appeared to be the inevitable. On CBS, though, where Ohio remained undecided, Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law specialist at George Washington University, was already talking to Dan Rather about possible legal challenges in that crucial state. Was this presidential election, like the last one, going to end up being decided by the courts?
Soon you could hear that question being asked on the other networks. CNN's Wolf Blitzer pressed Ohio's secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, on the estimated number of provisional ballots (possibly 200,000-250,000 Blackwell allowed) and on how long it would take to count them (11 days, said Blackwell).
It could be argued that the reputed partisan leanings of certain networks became more apparent in the wee morning hours. By 2 a.m., most folks at Fox were saying that Kerry should be preparing a gracious concession speech, while at the same hour CNN was still reluctant to say that Ohio was firmly in the Republican column. But was the difference really a partisan thing, or was it a matter of different networks following different methodologies? In either case, the Kerry campaign signalled that it was not about to give up. John Edwards made that perfectly clear when he announced, at 2:28, that he and Kerry were more than willing to wait another night to make good on their pledge that "every vote will count, and every vote will be counted."
Bold words. But had the 2004 presidential election effectively been decided? That depended, as one commentator quipped, on which network you were watching. The tracking would continue onward into the new day, of course, but those words seemed an aptly provisional comment on a process that may, or may not, have ended. By and large, though, at least one thing did seem clear: The networks had shown that a little restraint was possible. And maybe that was one thing all Americans could be happy about.