NEW YORK -- Careful media coverage of a close presidential election Tuesday exploded so suddenly Tuesday that it left the bizarre spectacle of Fox News Channel analyst Karl Rove, a major fundraiser for Republican Mitt Romney, publicly questioning his network’s declaration that President Barack Obama had been re-elected.
ABC News was also frantically trying to repair a power outage that left much of its set inoperable precisely at the time the election was being decided.
For several hours, election coverage resembled the run-up to a Super Bowl, with plenty of talk signifying little. Then NBC News, at 11:12 p.m. ET, was the first to declare Obama had won by virtue of winning the battleground state of Ohio. “He remains president of the United States for a second term,” said anchor Brian Williams.
Other networks followed suit, including Fox five minutes later. But Rove, the former top political aide to President George W. Bush whose on-air presence on Fox this campaign raised some eyebrows because of his prominent role supporting Romney, suggested the call was premature.
“We’ve got to be careful about calling things when we have like 991 votes separating the candidates and a quarter of the vote left to count ... I’d be very cautious about intruding in this process,” said Rove, a behind-the-scenes player in the wild 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore that took weeks to decide. (Gore was on TV Tuesday, too, as anchor of Current TV’s election coverage).
It left Rove’s colleagues struggling for words.
“That’s awkward,” said co-anchor Megyn Kelly. She then went backstage to interview on camera two men who were part of Fox’s team in charge of making election calls. They had concluded that based on the precincts where votes were left to be counted, Romney couldn’t beat Obama.
Later, Rove tried to make light of the encounter. “This is not a cage match,” he said. “This is a light intellectual discussion.”
As the evening had progressed for Fox and it became clear that Romney, the clear favorite of most of its audience, would find it hard to win, commentators like Sarah Palin and Peggy Noonan looked stricken.
“This was the referendum that Mitt Romney wanted on Barack Obama,” said Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman on MSNBC. “And guess what? Barack Obama won the referendum. And that’s pretty darned emphatic.”
Much of ABC’s New York election studio was left powerless for about 20 minutes at the height of Tuesday’s coverage. The network didn’t inform viewers, and tried to compensate by taking anchors Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos away from their desks, and cutting away to crowd shots at Times Square.
Sawyer’s relaxed, folksy delivery in her first presidential election night as anchor drew considerable social media attention. The rock group They Might Be Giants tweeted: “and Diane Sawyer declares tonight’s winner is ... chardonnay!”
Sawyer and Stephanopoulos were a new election anchor team for ABC, and Scott Pelley led the CBS coverage. Of the three anchors for the biggest broadcast networks, only NBC’s Williams was a returnee from 2008.
But it was a far different media world anyway. 2012 was notable for the vast array of outlets that an interested consumer could command to create their own media experience on multiple screens. Web sites offered deep drill-downs in data and social media hosted raucous conversations.
“If you started a drinking game with the words ‘exit poll’ in it, please stop now. You will die!” tweeted TV critic Tim Goodman.
Obama’s Twitter account tweeted a picture of the president hugging First Lady Michelle Obama, and within 45 minutes it was retweeted more than 300,000 times.
Earlier in the evening, journalists took special care not to rely too heavily on exit polls. Perhaps they remembered how misleading exit polls in 2004 led TV networks astray then or perhaps, in CBS’ Bob Schieffer’s words, its results this year were too contradictory.
News outlets carefully parsed information and sometimes used the same facts for contradictory conclusions.
Fox News analyst Brit Hume noted an exit poll finding that 42 percent of voters said Superstorm Sandy was an important factor in their vote, suggesting that was a positive for Obama since he was widely considered to have been effective in his response. With the same information, the web site Politico headlined: “Exit Survey: Sandy Not a Factor.”
There was a certain amount of vamping time, too. Glenn Beck’s online network, The Blaze, had a blackboard straight out of the 1960s as a tote board. Beck killed time on the air by asking for cookie dough ice cream from the on-set food bar.
“Waffle cone, please,” Beck said.
When Sawyer asked David Muir for the latest news from the Romney campaign, he reported the family had pasta for dinner and the candidate indulged in his favorite peanut butter and honey sandwich.
The media personality with perhaps the most on the line was Nate Silver of The New York Times, whose FiveThirtyEight blog was sought out by 20 percent of the people who visited the newspaper’s website on Monday. He has used statistical data throughout the campaign to predict an Obama victory and by Tuesday, had forecast a 90.9 percent chance that Obama would win.
After Obama’s victory became clear, Gavin Purcell, producer of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” tweeted that “Nate Silver is the only white male winning tonight.” CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted Silver an invitation to appear on his show Wednesday.