Ninety Minutes of What?

Last night’s calling kabuki

In 2000 and 2004, through flukish intersections of electoral demographics and the electoral college, the fate of the presidency rested, interminably, with two big, slow, and ideologically divided states.

It wasn’t hard to see that, barring a disaster for Barack Obama, things would be different this year. To attain 270 electoral votes, John McCain hoped for an unlikely upset in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania, where polls would close at the early hour of 8:00 PM. Voting would end in Indiana and Virginia, recently red states now practicing their purple, by 7:00 PM. All the rest of the largest swing states were in the east. In short, we’d know most of what we needed to know very early.

Pennsylvania, which MSNBC called for Obama as soon as polls closed at 8:00, was the first big tick towards 270. New Hampshire closed at the same time, and was called instantly by most organizations. New Mexico trickled in, and Ohio was widely called sometime before 9:30. Obama was now at 200.

But before officially projecting that Barack Obama would be the forty-fourth president, the networks, it seems, wanted to see 270 electoral votes, from states with closed polls, in his tally. That, of course, required the networks to play cute with the near certain arrival, at 11:00 PM, of seventy-seven electoral votes from California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington—and it required them to downplay the fact that, as soon as Obama cleared 193 electoral votes elsewhere, no matter how early, the night was as good as done.

And so, for ninety minutes, that left everybody at the networks, and many watching at home, knowing that Obama would be president-elect—a fact that the networks felt they couldn’t out and out declare until 11 PM.

Luckily for the fodder hungry producers behind the broadcasts, there were enough close Senate contests, and unsettled swing states, to more or less fill the air. But every time the focus turned to a remaining close race for a state’s electoral votes, viewers could be forgiven for not grasping how irrelevant its votes would be, and how nonexistient McCain’s chances were to become the next president, given the western tallies about to come his way.

Some commentators found creative ways to hint at the inevitable outcome. On CNN, John King said “I’d bet my life” that McCain wouldn’t win the west coast, and proceeded to redden every interior state on his magic map. This showed that there wasn’t a path for McCain to reach 270. But wouldn’t it have been much, much simpler to click the Pacific states blue, point out that the resulting Obama number broke 270, and say something like “it seems inevitable that Obama will have enough states in his column by 11 PM to be declared the President-elect”?

Around 9:25, after his network called Ohio for Obama, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough proffered this explanation of the situation:

The thread has broken. If somebody wants to tell me where … McCain can pick up Ohio’s electoral votes I’d like to know, the twenty electoral votes. Maybe he’ll win Washington, Oregon and Hawaii, but I doubt it. I’m kidding!

And, again, we don’t want to call it.

This scenario was so fanciful that Scarborough had to admit he was joking—and yet he reflexively reached for that just-can’t-call-it-yet tune.

CBS, which had told The New York Times that it planned to signal, though not declare, a winner as soon as was mathematically possible, took a very direct tack, one that clearly explained the facts on the ground to their viewers:

KATIE COURIC: Let’s take a look at the national map because it looks like more and more difficult if not downright impossible for John McCain to catch up at this point.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Impossible is a good word. There are seventy-seven electoral votes that we’ve mentioned that aren’t even contested from California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. those will put him well over the top. Those wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio along with Iowa and New Mexico absolutely clinch the deal.

BOB SCHIEFFER: I mean, Barack Obama is going to be the next President of the United States. I mean, the numbers, you just can’t figure out a way that John McCain can win now because, as Jeff says, when you look down the west coast there, there’s seventy-seven electoral votes there.

Though this discussion took place at 10 PM, CBS, like everyone else, would wait to officially call the election for Obama until 11 PM, when polls closed.

But what’s the difference between saying that a McCain victory is “impossible” or that “Obama is going to be the next President of the United States” and making a “call”? Is it in whether the words pass through the anchor’s lips, rather than through those of the network’s chief political correspondent or its chief Washington correspondent? Is it that the pronouncement isn’t accompanied by a graphic or a trumpet?

There can be a fine line between cavalier prognostication and laying out the facts, and saving the final call for the relevant poll closing time was the right thing to do.

But in open and shut cases like last night, the networks should make it clear that the step is a mere formality, and not a matter of true suspense. In an age where more and more people watch returns with laptops by their sides, for networks to do otherwise is to risk looking like they’re engaging in double talk, ignoring the obvious, or playing a dramatic game with democracy. And that’s not how people want their news.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.