For weeks, media outlets warned Americans that they would need to be patient waiting for results on election night. That’s one prediction that turned out to be true.
The pace of results provided a rollercoaster experience for supporters of President Donald Trump and Democratic opponent Joe Biden as the polls closed, hardly a balm for a stressed populace.
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.
“Everybody needs to take a deep breath,” CNN’s Jake Tapper urged.
“Which is hard … it could take awhile,” answered colleague Dana Bash.
Trump himself was impatient. He sent an email to supporters shortly before 11 p.m. Eastern, predicting that he was going to win and claiming without evidence that “the Fake News media and their Democrat Partners will REFUSE to call the race.”
Early returns from the key state of Florida were heartening to supporters of Trump, and seemed to wipe out the hopes of Biden supporters that their candidate — who had consistently led in the national polls — would win in a landslide.
Results from Ohio and North Carolina were surprisingly encouraging for Biden. But they quickly flipped toward the president, a reflection of what news outlets had been warning: that the count would be confusing depending on when individual states reported early and absentee votes.
“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 were sounding 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.
Less than two hours later, Fox anchor Bret Baier announced the channel was calling Arizona for Biden, labeling it a “big get” for the Democratic candidate and the first flip of a state that Trump won in 2016.
But more battleground states had not been decided and there were many votes left to count.
“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.”
Network anchors began election night coverage with those calls for patience. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos told viewers that it does not mean that the process is broken or unfair if the results are not clear Tuesday night.
“We are tonight putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle but we don’t have the box that has the picture on it,” said John Dickerson, CBS News analyst.
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.
Yet with data — any kind of data — coming in, journalists and commentators who had obsessed over the campaign 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.
Several hours later, however, it appeared Santorum had been right.
Story by David Bauder and Lynn Elber.