Talk about projecting a winner.
By far the flashiest symbol of TV news' quadrennial night to shine, CNN bathed upper floors of the Empire State Building in red, white and blue. The cable news channel, in a deal with the towering NYC landmark, lighted the path to President Obama's or Gov. Mitt Romney's victory up its famous mast with a red-and-blue LED "meter." When a winner was reached, floodlights would change to the appropriate solid color.
It was just the most visible sample of network and cable wattage trained on Election Night coverage. CNN had a "ballot cam," "virtual Senate" and "magic wall." Fox News had its multi-feed multimedia "launchpad."
(Fox News also had unplanned fireworks with a rare on-screen dispute between its election team and its political analyst, Karl Rove, over the network's call of Ohio, and the race, for Obama, shortly after 11.)
NBC, as is its tradition, transformed its Rockefeller Center home base to "Democracy Plaza," where the famous skating rink had an electoral map of the country etched on the ice, individual states shaded in red or blue as races were called. The network's Brian Williams was the only veteran election anchor returning on the Big 3 broadcast networks, accompanied by new Today co-host Savannah Guthrie and Meet the Press' ' David Gregory.
ABC was anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. A centerpiece of its election headquarters, beyond the shots of Times Square in the background, was a circular LED screen on the floor in front of the anchor desk. (ABC press noted that the screen could not withstand being stood on, which would seem to make it an obstacle for anyone moving about the studio.)
Arrayed around Sawyer (whose atypical on-air performance, at times seemingly fatigued, sparked chatter across Twitter) and Stephanopoulos were many of ABC's news stars, including network newcomer Katie Couric, off to herself as the monitor of social media.
"This is truly the first digital election," she said.
By comparison, PBS was positively spartan — no flashing lights or glowing colored maps, just the only two-woman anchor team on television, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, and states called through the courtesy of AP reports and other networks.
The early vote projections were as subdued as the tech was flashy. All the broadcasters approached reporting with a stated abundance of caution: Starting shortly after 7, they called the obvious races, but kept the battlegrounds too close to call through much of the evening.
CBS coverage, anchored by newcomer Scott Pelley, stayed straightforward and low-key. Commentators Bob Schieffer and Norah O'Donnell sat with him in the studio. As Pelley told viewers early on, based on exit polling and vote totals, "When we are absolutely confident, we'll make the CBS projection of the state that each candidate has won."
Flashes of humor rarely broke the somber tone on CBS. But once, Schieffer speculated on why Romney campaigned Tuesday in Cleveland — a Democratic stronghold: "Maybe he was trying to tie up traffic or something to keep the Democrats from going to vote there."
All called most races within a few minutes of one another; for the control of the House, for example, they generally called it for the Republicans to retain control, around 9:15. And they all closely tracked the incredibly close Florida vote count, the two candidates at times separated by only hundreds of votes among millions. Said John King, standing at CNN's Magic Wall: "That's called wow. That's what you call that in American politics."
And even when they ventured to opine, they pulled back quickly. CBS' political director John Dickerson, at the "Ways to Win" board, pointed out around 10:17, "Now with Iowa leaning and then Nevada leaning and Ohio leaning, that gets President Obama up to 281 electoral votes. So if we add those leaning to the ones called, two distinct categories, that's it for Gov. Romney." Pelley jumped in to qualify that those could lean back the other way: "We are not making a CBS projection on those states yet."
But differences did emerge in contested races as the night progressed. ABC at 9:22 projected Pennsylvania to go to Obama, for example, later than either Fox and NBC. And ABC continued to be more cautious than the competition as things unfolded, not calling the contested state of Wisconsin for the president until 10:30, nearly an hour after CBS and Fox had called the race and NBC had painted the state blue on the Rockefeller Center ice rink.
And when the main event ended, the major outlets — all except, that is, ABC — called Ohio, and the race, for the president within a minute or two of each other, at around 11:13 p.m. (The Romney campaign declined to concede the state, sparking the conflict between Rove and Fox on the air.)
Said ABC's Sawyer, at 11:24: "Mark the time. Here we are. Ohio is in; we are projecting the battleground state of Ohio for Barack Obama, which means you are looking at the president of the United States."
That delay might have been affected, however, by the evening's top technical glitch: a 24-minute power outage in ABC's studio.
More quotes and moments:
-- David Axlerod, Obama's chief strategist, during an ABC interview, on the Romney campaign's insistence the governor had only prepared a victory speech and Romney's apparent confidence. "Our confidence is based on data; it's based in early vote numbers; it's based in the things that we can see and we can prove to ourselves. Their confidence appears to be in some hidden, mystical force that's going to materialize in the last minute and push him over the finish line."
-- Schieffer on the volume of political advertising in 2012: "There have been so many ads that when I fall asleep I dream about them. You can't even get away from them when you're asleep."
-- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, on Fox News: "I reject the notion white people are voting for Mitt Romney and black people are voting for President Obama. I think conservative people are voting for Romney and liberals are voting for Obama."
-- NBC's Tom Brokaw discussed how the GOP's stance on immigration hurt Romney with the crucial Latino vote: "Senior Republicans have been grinding their teeth and slapping their heads and saying, 'How could we miss it?'... It's the debate over immigration that makes it so hard for Republicans to get back into the Latino vote again." And, given population trends, he said, "the party, at its peril, if they don't connect (with Latinos), may be on the losing end for some time."
-- ABC's Cokie Roberts, on Tom Smith's losing the Senate race in Pennsylvania after spending a lot of his own wealth: "These candidates who spend all their personal finances, their children must be ready to kill them. This is not a good thing for family unity."
-- Sarah Palin, shortly after 10 p.m., as the tide started to turn in the president's favor, to Greta Van Susteren on Fox News: "I just can't believe the majority of Americans would believe incurring more debt is OK for our economy. With Obama (in the presidency) this is a catastrophic setback to our economy and to any Supreme Court appointments. I'm hoping things can turn around in the hours remaining of the evening."
-- GOP strategist Alex Castellanos on CNN as Florida started leaning Democratic: "Right now my silent majority that I hoped would be there is not only silent but invisible."
-- MSNBC pundits, pondering whether Mass. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren would wait for Scott Brown's concession speech before heading to the podium: Said traditionalist Chris Matthews, "You can't give a victory speech until your opponent accepts defeat. That's the protocol and it's pretty powerful." Countered Lawrence O'Donnell, "Television coverage has ended that. Elizabeth Warren wants to give her speech before the 11:00 news in Massachusetts."