After successive harrowing Election Nights in 2000 and 2004, there were no muffed calls by TV networks, no screwy exit polls, no real twists and turns – only the sense of history as Barack Obama became the first black man elected president.
The march of results coming in Tuesday night matched the growing size of crowds gathering in Chicago’s Grant Park and elsewhere to celebrate the victory.
“It’s the end of apathy,” said NBC’s Tom Brokaw. “People want to get involved in their political system.”
When the polls closed in the West at 11 p.m. EST, the networks called the election, too, as their cameras panned cheering crowds, much like those at a World Series victory.
It was a party atmosphere in New York’s Times Square and Rockefeller Center, where ABC and NBC set up giant outdoor screens at the sites of their studios. Throughout the evening, people gathered to watch results.
“I have never seen anything like this,” NBC’s Norah O’Donnell said while walking through the crowd.
People posted videos of their votes online, while the leading news site Yahoo! News had to add servers after the site suffered slowdowns because of the volume of users.
Ominous signs for Republican John McCain appeared moments after 5 p.m. EST when exit poll information was broadcast.
Network news presidents were hauled before Congress eight years ago for their wrong Election Night calls. They were also burned severely in 2004 when the first wave of exit poll data pointed toward a John Kerry victory over President Bush. Going through exit poll data Tuesday, they shied away from horse-race figures in favor of issues. By a huge margin, voters said the struggling economy was the top issue.
“I’ve never seen an issue so predominant in this way,” said ABC anchor Charles Gibson.
Another early finding: a majority of voters believed GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin wasn’t qualified to be president.
Before 7 p.m., CNN’s panel of experts was heaping praise on Democrat Obama. “This is a really good candidate, a natural as we say in sports,” said Republican analyst Bill Bennett.
A key moment was the declaration that Obama had won Pennsylvania.
“I have to say right now that the McCain campaign strategy for victory has crashed,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said at 8:02 p.m. ABC and NBC were the quickest to call Pennsylvania.
Brit Hume was discussing the electoral map with analyst Karl Rove when Hume was given word that Fox News Channel was calling the key battleground of Ohio for Obama. “McCain’s situation right now is looking pretty dire,” Hume said at 9:17 p.m., an assessment other networks followed when they made their own calls for Ohio.
Without winning Ohio, CBS News’ Bob Schieffer said he couldn’t see McCain winning.
“The cake is baked, in your view?” anchor Katie Couric asked him.
“Yes,” Schieffer replied.
On NBC, Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell tried to fill a void left by the late Tim Russert. Chuck Todd paid tribute with an electronic version of Russert’s famous white board, inscribing “Bush, Bush, Bush” as the reason for McCain’s defeat.
Russert’s son, Luke, was stationed in Indiana reporting on Obama’s ground campaign.
Fox’s Hume, who’s stepping back as a daily news anchor after Election Night, was a loose and occasionally goofy presence, at one point wheeling his chair across the studio. “This is so cool,” he said as Bill Hemmer used an interactive wall. “If I did that, I would set that thing on fire.”
CNN had the most talked-about visual effect of the night, a hologram that made correspondent Jessica Yellin appear in the New York studio when she was in Chicago.
It also had the day’s most embarrassing interview: killing time in the morning, CNN sent Richard Roth into Times Square to interview “The Naked Cowboy” on his political preference.
The underwear-clad character was a McCain man.