Presidential elections are a crucial part of American governance, but they are also media spectacles: breathlessly predicted, closely scrutinized, hotly debated.
There can be a tendency to confuse the election itself with the various pieces of programing dedicated to it. The extravaganza surrounding the casting of ballots — forecasts and expert opinions culminating in a race to call states for one candidate for the other — can be mistaken for the functioning of the electoral system itself. President Donald Trump exemplified this confusion last week, when he tweeted of his race against Joe Biden that “The Election should end on November 3rd, not weeks later!” Even though media analysts routinely declare a race finished on election night, votes have always been counted in the days following.
In certain instances, the rush to predict an outcome — or to call a race quickly, on election night — has led to surprises. The history of presidential politics is shot through with events running counter to the expectations and proclamations of national media. As a country watches the 2020 returns, these instances offer a reminder that things are often less certain than they appear.
Dewey vs. Truman
It was the race that spawned an immortal photo: Harry S. Truman, the president-elect, holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that incorrectly proclaimed, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey had led Truman, the incumbent president, in many polls leading up to the 1948 election, and the Tribune carried a decidedly anti-Truman bias. The paper’s editorial page, Tim Jones of the present-day Tribune wrote last weekend, “had dismissed him on its editorial page as a ‘nincompoop’” and “was lulled into a false sense of security by polls that repeatedly predicted a Dewey victory.”
The story of the election is that Truman won California and Illinois, upset victories each, by less than 1% of the vote. But the story of the headline is a fable of what can go wrong when the race to break news outweighs journalistic care. With a deadline moved up by a printers’ strike, managing editor J. Loy Maloney needed to decide early whether his paper would declare a winner, and when veteran correspondent Arthur Sears Henning said it would be Dewey, Maloney trusted him. When the returns tightened and, finally, tipped in Truman’s favor, it became a bit of newsprint destined for the wrong kind of immortality.
Nixon vs. Kennedy
“Why should he concede? I wouldn’t.” So said John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, when, in the early hours of the morning following the 1960 election, the Republican candidate and sitting Vice President Richard Nixon gave a speech that stopped just short of congratulating Kennedy on a victory. It had been a tight race, and, fittingly, the returns were too close to call.
Kennedy ultimately won, with 303 electoral college votes to Nixon’s 219, a margin thin enough that many attribute it to election day’s sunny weather. Conventional political wisdom, supported by studies, holds that Republican candidates fare better in the rain, since it lowers turnout among among those who don’t vote consistently — voters who, as Jeremy Deaton of The Washington Post wrote, “tend to favor the Democratic candidate.”
The reporting on election night, though, was a festival of misinformation. CBS, NBC, and ABC all used computer projections to predict the results early in the evening; two of those networks’ computers had Nixon winning. When, the morning after the election, NBC finally called the race in favor of Kennedy, it David Brinkley said, “The NBC Victory Desk has just given California to Kennedy, and that gives him the election.”
Though NBC was correct in the broadest sense, it was wrong in the particulars. Once California counted its absentee ballots in the days following election night, it was found that Nixon carried the state; Kennedy’s margin came elsewhere. Only good fortune saved NBC’s mistake from being a “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” moment for the burgeoning television age.
Bush vs. Gore
The 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush was nip-and-tuck the whole way through, but an election day surprise added an element of drama. Counties in Florida reported a confusing ballot that had led voters to choose a candidate other than the one they meant to select. “Hanging chad” would soon become a ubiquitous part of the political lexicon.
As results came in, Gore led in the popular vote, but it became clear that the electoral race would come down to Florida. Media outlets, eager to break news of a clear victor, began hazarding predictions. “Just before 8 p.m. Eastern time,” a recent Atlantic oral history of the election noted, “NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN projected that Gore would win Florida.” But networks quickly backtracked on the prediction and, in the early-morning hours, eventually awarded the state to Bush.
Gore called Bush to concede but, learning how close the Florida margin was — fewer than 1,000 votes — and hearing of the controversial ballots, he quickly backtracked. A protracted legal battle ensued, over the processes and timing of hand recounts. Gore’s legal team fought to extend the deadline for hand recounts in the Democratic-leaning Volusia, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, and to hold off state certification of the results until the recounts were completed. Bush’s team pushed back.
The fight eventually came before the United States Supreme Court, which on Dec. 12 — more than a month after networks had first called the election in favor of Bush — ruled that Florida must stop its recount. The next day, Gore conceded for good.
What it means for Biden vs. Trump
The forces that cause election-night confusion — a pressure to break news, a sometimes overreliance on early exit polls, a bias toward a preferred or predicted outcome — remain part of the landscape of political media. “They’ve got to be very careful for their state projections,” NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik said of this year’s election. He noted that dealing with a president and incumbent candidate who often traffics in misinformation makes things all the more challenging. “It’s tougher when you have a major candidate and a lot of his supporters who has a record of making fraudulent claims,” Folkenflik said.
For those watching and following at home, the lessons of history are clear. Projections are not fact, and things can change. The first reports are not always the best.