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CNN Election Coverage: Making Sense of Trump’s Surprise Lead

After a campaign that made media coverage an election issue, Variety examines the spin throughout Election Day across major TV news outlets.

7:54 p.m. PT: False urgency has shifted toward a significantly more serious tone as Donald Trump’s surprising lead has become the story.

John King is spending a lot of time going county by county through Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire — and now Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that Hillary Clinton was supposed to have easily in hand. Wolf Blitzer is no longer interrupting King and forcing him to jump around the map. CNN has essentially become the John King show with the race tight and leaning in Trump’s favor.

Asked by Blitzer if Clinton has any reason to be encouraged about in New Hampshire right now, King said, “I wouldn’t call anything encouraging for Hillary Clinton right now, to be honest with you, my friend.”

5:49 p.m. PT: CNN is in full urgency mode.

With no swing state far enough along to call, what’s fueling the broadcast is the push-pull between anchor Wolf Blitzer and numbers wonk John King. On King’s touchscreen electoral map, races in swing states such as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia are tight. But as Blitzer keeps calling one candidate or another’s lead “impressive” and interrupting when the numbers in a given state refresh every minute or so, King is offering caution. “A quick footnote if you’re just joining us, these are states that they’re still counting the vote in,” King says at one point, a statement that seems to sum up his role right now.

But Blitzer and the aggressive musics and graphics — not mention the ridiculous Empire State Building projections — are setting the tone for the broadcast right now with what feels like false urgency. Florida and North Carolina were always going to be too close to get a good measure of until all the votes were counted. Blitzer’s near shouting every time another 100,000 votes come in is for show, not because those votes have news value. CNN obviously has massive reporting and data machines powering its coverage tonight, but is just as invested in creating a spectacle as it is to provide thorough reporting.

Meanwhile, the pundit panel has been completely sidelined. Everything is about Blitzer, King and the electoral map, with occasional cameos from Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

5:19 p.m. PT: Before cutting to commercial, CNN is, for some reason, showing projections of people’s voter selfies on the side of the Empire State Building. On the night when most contentious presidential election any living American has seen is taking place, the immediate logic of a news network touting selfies projected onto a skyscraper is not immediately evident.

The network is also projecting its running tally of electoral voted for Trump and Clinton on the side of the building, which at least makes more sense than selfies.

CNN is focusing narrowly on the presidential race right now, with no mention even in the lower-third graphics of Senate races, even as other networks such as MSNBC are breaking to call races for candidates such as Marco Rubio in Florida and Patrick Leahy in Vermont.

4:17 p.m. PT: CNN has been giving a fair amount of attention to issues in North Carolina, jumping on breaking news that the state’s board of elections will keep polling places in eight precincts open late — though not as late as the 90 minutes that the Durham board of elections wanted. The extensions were a result of computer glitches at polling places that caused massive delays and long lines with some voters being turned away.

North Carolina has been a hub of concern over voter suppression this election, and CNN has turned to the state multiple times throughout the day. Earlier in the broadcast, Trump surrogate Andre Bauer even echoed the sentiments of Democratic surrogates on the panel, saying that he wanted Republicans to win but for them to win fairly.

CNN noted that Durham is 38% African American.

4 p.m. PT: Just before the top of the hour, CNN calls Indiana and Kentucky for Trump and Vermont for Hillary Clinton — it’s first states of he night. Keep in mind that the network barely has any poll results from those states. Is the network making these calls because some threshold has been crossed in terms of data received, or because it’s a way to gin up the drama of the moment?

3:20 p.m. PT: with the first East Coast polls having closed, CNN is entering number-crunching mode — even if the numbers aren’t particularly crunchy. At the giant touchscreen map, Wolf Blitzer and John King pour over vote totals for Indiana and Kentucky — with 1% of the vote having been counted in each state. Both Indiana and Kentucky have long been expected to go to Trump anyway.

With more polls closing at the top of the next hour, CNN is transitioning from “What will the news look like?” to “This is what the news looks like.” As that transition occurs, the network is leaning slightly less on its panel of pundits and surrogates, moderated by Anderson Cooper, and more on data and analysis from the likes of Blitzer, King, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and political direct David Chalian. But without any real news to report yet, the coverage is all urgency and little substance.

“We have another key race alert,” Blitzer says as the network comes back from commercial — before announcing with the aid of surging music and flying graphics that 2% of the vote is now in in Indiana.

But that doesn’t mean that the panel — which consists largely of pundits with allegiances on either side of the race — is going away. As data moves in, it looks likely that the panel will turn into a spin room of sorts, at least until the race starts to take shape.

2:10 p.m. PT: CNN touts its first exit-poll numbers of the night. On the question of when voters decided on a candidate, 7% said in the last few days, 5% in the last week, 13% in October, 13% in September, and 62% before September. On which qualities matter most in a candidate, 15% answered “cares about me,” 38% said “can bring change,” 22% said “right experience” and 22% said “good judgment.” This is the network’s first new data of the day besides turnout numbers, but it’s being treated as if it’s relating a lot more information than it is. The first polls close at 3 p.m. PT.

More interesting is the exit polling’s breakdown early on of the demographics of the electorate — 70% white, 12% black, and 11% Hispanic. The breakdown of the 2012 electorate was 72% white, 13% black, 10% Hispanic.

11 a.m. PT: Reporting from outside Trump Tower, CNN reporter Sara Murray made note of the lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign Tuesday in Nevada, where Trump claimed that early-voting polls stayed open illegally late to allow voters who showed up after polls closed to vote. Clark County officials, Murray said, claimed that they only stayed open long enough to allow voters who were in line before polls were set to close to vote.

“We have at least our first legal challenge of the day,”  Murray said.

9:40 a.m. PT: With polls open from coast to coast, CNN anchors and pundits wrestled with the question of how what was supposed to be a conventional Presidential election wound up being the most fraught and vitriolic in modern history.

“I think we’re missing a yuge sea change here in our country,” said journalist Carl Bernstein, sitting on a political panel on “At This Hour” with anchors Kate Bolduan and John Berman — and appropriating one of GOP nominee Donald Trump’s signature expressions. “And that’s the most significant thing about this election, the idea that a demagogue could run  an essentially racist, anti-immigrant, nativist campaign, become the nominee of the Republican party, almost capture the presidency and perhaps capture it — this is astonishing.”

Bolduan attempted to reel the conversation — and the Trump phenomenon — back into the mainstream. “But millions of voters who voted for Donald Trump and millions who support him don’t describe that man in that way at all,” she said.

But Bernstein appeared to fight against the CNN tendency toward false equivalence, arguing that there is evidence within Trump’s biography and the events of the campaign to “talk factually” about that campaign being racist, even if all Trump’s supporters are not.

“In terms of the campaign he ran, in terms of his personal history, in terms of the radical notion of who this candidate is, this is a yuge event in our history,” he said. “It reflects a change in terms of who the people of the country are and how they view our political system, and it is going to reverberate for many, many years. Did anybody think there was a possibility of this when it started?”

The dour, soul-searching tone characterized a broadcast that seemed to be marking time until news worth reporting would begin to pour in later in the day. With no exit-polling yet, much less poll results, a group of panelists with takes more analytic than partisan attempted to make sense of an event that would soon end, but whose final chapter had yet to unfold.

“When Donald Trump announced that he would run for President 16 months ago, it happened during this show,” Berman said. “And I admit that I was one of those people who thought he would never run. Once he announced, I thought he would never stay in the race. Once he stayed in the race I thought he would never win the nomination.”

Aside from punditry, analysis, and hand-wringing, CNN also offered the remotes from polling places typical of election-day broadcasts. Reporter Rosa Flores appeared live from Pottawattamie County, Iowa.

“The word here is efficiency,” Flores said, “Because these poll workers have been working very very hard to ensure that the lines are short.”

The camera then moved to a table in a mostly empty hall behind which sat six poll workers — and in front of which stood one lone voter. As the camera panned the room, it showed poll workers outnumbering voters roughly two-to-one, with most voting booths empty.

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