In 2008, The Associated Press called the presidential election shortly after 11 p.m. on Election Day — Democrat Barack Obama had won enough Electoral College votes to move into the White House. In 2012, the AP called the election at 11:38 p.m. — Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3% of the vote but easily defeated him in the Electoral College, 332-206.
But things have been different for Republicans in recent elections. In 2000, due to some “hanging chads,” the result of the presidential election was not determined until Dec. 12. Four years later, in 2004, President George W. Bush wasn’t deemed the winner until the morning after Election Day. And in 2016, CNN didn’t call Trump’s victory until 2:29 a.m. despite his sound electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton.
While computers now rule supreme, some are saying that the results of the 2020 election might not be known for weeks — with one New York Times columnist saying the outcome could be up in the air until Thanksgiving.
“Picture this Thanksgiving: turkey, football (maybe), tenser-than-usual interactions with relatives. And perhaps a new tradition: finding out who actually won the presidential election,” Ben Smith wrote.
The coronavirus crisis means that states like Pennsylvania may be counting mail-in ballots for weeks, while President Trump tweets false allegations about fraud. And the last barriers between American democracy and a deep political crisis may be television news and some version of that maddening needle on The New York Times website.
Election analysts, TV hosts, network chiefs, and executives of social media platforms display “blithe confidence” that they’ll handle the election just fine, but Smith writes there’s “near panic among some of the people paying the closest attention.”
“The nerds are freaking out,” Brandon Finnigan, the founder of Decision Desk HQ, told Smith. “I don’t think it’s penetrated enough in the average viewer’s mind that there’s not going to be an election night. The usual razzmatazz of a panel sitting around discussing election results — that’s dead.”
Smith notes that in the 2018 midterms, only 60% of the votes were cast in-person Election Day and we saw a bunch of “coverage misfires” as a result, with news commentators lamenting on Election Night the failure of the much-hyped “blue wave,” the full arrival of which was effectively delayed weeks. This year, we should see an even lower percentage of in-person votes, likely delaying things even longer.
Smith urges media companies to start preparing Americans to be patient but said no one right now appears to know what’s coming.
“Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days, and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day,” Smith wrote.
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