TV networks preach caution after 2016 election, but some can't resist reading voter tea leaves

In the most unprecedented of election years, TV networks preached admirable caution Tuesday about voting results. But some still couldn’t resist parsing tea leaves too small for helpful analysis and injecting too much horse-race hype, down to the ever-present countdown clocks and the magic, touch-screen maps that can hash out every electoral possibility.

After a most unusual campaign defined by a once-in-a-century pandemic and a president anticipating  “rigged” mail-in voting results, networks made special efforts to explain how to analyze the contest between President Trump and Joe Biden, which featured a historic, record-setting early tally tabulated on different timetables, depending on the state.  

The coverage also featured separate exit polling systems, with ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN teaming together on one process while Fox News and the Associated Press conducted another. 

TV networks preach caution after 2016 election, but some can't resist reading voter tea leaves

We looked at how TV presented Tuesday’s election news on the seven major broadcast and cable-news networks. .

Too much (and not enough) information

8 p.m. EST:  As more state polls closed, electoral-vote scoreboards began to appear, seeming to contradict frequent pre-election warnings that results wouldn’t be known for days. However, expected outcomes in some states and limited voting totals from others left networks reaching for analysis.

“Nobody’s won a road game yet,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said, invoking the kind of sports metaphor invoked all too frequently in election coverage. “An election doesn’t begin until you flip a red state blue or a blue state red.”

The information mix – too few votes tallied, but an excess of voter-polling data – risks confusing viewers. ABC trumpeted early Ohio vote totals favoring Biden, but also exit polls that appeared to lean toward Trump.

Fox News began to focus heavily on Trump’s small lead in Florida, suggesting it might be durable,  with votes from the conservative Panhandle still to be tallied. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson called those results unexpected, extrapolating one state’s preliminary totals and getting ahead of the night’s results as he chided the network’s decision team with  repeating their predictive mistakes from 2016.

Skittish after Trump’s 2016 surprise

7 p.m. EST: The broadcast networks shifted into election coverage as the first state polls closed, preparing to go late into the night – or even the following days – depending on how close the results were.

TV networks preach caution after 2016 election, but some can't resist reading voter tea leaves

ABC’s Pierre Thomas reported on the FBI’s examination of threatening robocalls seeking to keep people from voting and campaign correspondents reported the predictable positive outlooks from each network. 

The hangover from President Trump’s unexpected 2020 victory had anchors hedging their bets. CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, reporting on the Biden campaign, said “They’re feeling confident at this hour, but I remember in 2016, so did Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

CNN dives into tiniest of early results

6-7 p.m. EST: The cable news networks opened their main coverage with a primer on what each candidate needed to win, what to watch for (battleground states with early poll closures, such as Georgia, Florida and North Carolina) and how it planned to call the winner in each state. MSNBC and CNN had countdown clocks to 7:00, when the first polls would close.

All noted the unique dynamics of 2020, including the record-setting advance vote. As Fox’s Martha MacCallum noted to veteran journalist Chris Wallace, “Chris, you’ve covered a lot of elections. This is going to be quite different.” 

As with James Bond movies, networks opened their coverage introducing their latest electoral gadgets. Bret Baier unveiled the Fox News Probability Meter, which would estimate each candidate’s probability of winning the state and the presidency as the evening progressed.

TV networks preach caution after 2016 election, but some can't resist reading voter tea leaves

Despite the overarching caution, some networks couldn’t resist parsing the smallest results, even as they advised that they might lose meaning as more votes came in. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer and John King looked at just 1% of vote tallied from Indiana, a reliably red state and home to Vice President Mike Pence. As more results came in, CNN and its competitors were more hopeful with analysis of specific counties pre-selected as bellwethers for their states.

Caution, caution, caution

Daytime: Before results started rolling in, a main theme for all broadcasts was caution. In the aftermath of Trump’s surprise win in 2016, much of the coverage focused on how the president, an underdog in many polls for weeks, could pull off another upset.

On left-leaning MSNBC, the tentative outlook some seemed to come from a sense of dread, just in case Trump still had some Electoral College magic.  Some commentators on conservative Fox News appeared to be trying to find signs of hope  Trump supporters.

The possibility of confrontation and violence at the polls, the subject of much speculation in recent days,  faded as the day went on and voting seemed to take place peacefully. However, Fox’s Brit Hume, a conservative, focused on the symbolism of boarded-up stores and office buildings.

TV networks preach caution after 2016 election, but some can't resist reading voter tea leaves

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