Two minutes before the polls closed in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, CNN’s Jeff Toobin said to Anderson Cooper, “I’m wondering if this is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?”


It’s now clear that it was, decidedly, the latter, making Toobin’s question one of the most prescient of the night. The big story, of course, was Hillary Clinton’s “comeback” victory over Barack Obama. At the end of the CNN’s four-hour election special, Lou Dobbs was so ecstatic (somewhat ironically) that the “pundits, savants, and gurus” had been wrong that he couldn’t stop the repeating the refrain.


How did CNN’s political team travel from Toobin’s early wonder to Dobbs’ later wow? Some events unfolded quickly; just minutes after the polls closed, Wolf Blitzer announced that CNN was predicting that John Edwards would place third among Democrats. After that, the network tracked the Obama-v.-Clinton race with the aid of some useful gadgetry.


John King was at the helm of the “telestrator,” which featured an interactive map of New Hampshire’s voting districts. King could zoom in for polling details in each district (colored coded by winning candidate), and make useful comparisons to the results of the 2004 presidential primary. Like John Madden scribbling out a pass route, King drew two large, green arcs-one around the liberal, western half of the state and the other around the moderate-to-conservative east. It was an effective way to illustrate what he called a “philosophical divide” between New Hampshire Democrats. Clinton made a strong showing in the large cities of the southeast early on, but King stayed focused on the western districts, which were slower to report and were expected to go to Obama. Ultimately, CNN was one of the last, if not the last, outlets to call the race for Clinton, and King’s holdout for the western polling stations, especially in places like Dartmouth College, seemed to explain a lot of the station’s hesitation.


Predicting the winner was much easier among the Republicans. At fifteen minutes past eight, the cable network announced that McCain would emerge victorious. As it would do with Clinton hours later, the press labeled McCain’s triumph a “huge comeback,” although, as with Clinton, the designation was not wholly deserved. McCain’s New Hampshire win was arguably expected, given his success there in 2000 and the amount of time and attention he devoted to campaigning there this time.


CNN’s Bill Schneider, who was handling exit poll analysis, said that according to those polls, “McCain did not win this election on the issues; he won it on personal qualities.” Unfortunately, for the rest of the evening further discussion of the future of the GOP ticket (especially Romney and Huckabee’s roles) took a back seat to the slowly evolving race on between Obama and Clinton. By nine o’clock, CNN’s team of seven political experts, guided by Anderson Cooper, was still debating whether Clinton’s team could capitalize on a second-place finish.


Uncertainty about the Democrats was still thriving after McCain’s victory speech, although the conventional wisdom that Obama would prevail with ease was beginning to fade. Gloria Borger reported that a stronger-than-expected turnout around Dartmouth College had the Clinton camp “nervous,” but a strong turnout among women supporting Clinton was also becoming apparent.


By ten o’clock, Wolf Blitzer was still reporting that punditry based on exit polls was inconclusive, and that the viewers would have to “wait and see,” the “old-fashioned way.” It was a surprising display of reverence for raw numbers over exit polls, but it proved to be short-lived. Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist, was soon talking about the “unexpected” strength of the Clinton vote, which touched off the evening’s second round of discussion about The Moment-when Clinton choked up while answering a question in a New Hampshire diner-and its importance. Reed demurred, as did analyst Donna Brazile, but Jack Cafferty struck back, saying that in all the years he’s covered her, Clinton had never seemed more “real.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.