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Election night coverage on the three major cable networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — felt like a waiting game during the prime time hours. But then, after 11 p.m., Fox News threw in a plot twist as its decision desk, working with its own data, made bold projections in key battleground states.
More on-air action came after 2:30 a.m., when anchors and pundits reacted to President Trump’s unfounded claim that the election was being taken from him. Before the coverage gave way to morning programming, anchors and pundits tried to temper expectations by warning of a long wait before all the votes were counted.
The Early Hours on Tuesday The Importance of Swing States
As polls started to close, MSNBC began cuing up race calls with the three-tone tune known as the NBC chimes. Tense viewers described the audible cue, which goes back to NBC’s radio days, as “triggering,” “traumatic” and reminiscent of the postapocalyptic “Hunger Games” trilogy. The actor Jeff Daniels wrote on Twitter: “Every time I hear MSNBC’s Election Alert music, I lose a month off my life.”
Steve Kornacki, the network’s map expert, saw evidence that the Trump campaign had made inroads with Cuban-American voters in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Joseph R. Biden Jr. had a slight lead there, but Mr. Kornacki issued a warning that he would repeat in the following hours: Many early results did not reflect the votes submitted on Tuesday, which in Florida likely favored Mr. Trump. “The drama’s going to be that same-day vote,” he said. “What looks like a big early Democratic lead may not stay one as the same-day results come in.”
As Florida began to tip toward the president, Tucker Carlson on Fox News called the state “the future of the country,” while criticizing earlier predictions of a stronger performance by Mr. Biden. (Fox News called Florida for Mr. Trump at 11:04 p.m., with The Associated Press making the same projection more than an hour later.)
Playing to a largely liberal viewing audience, MSNBC tried to minimize Florida’s importance to Mr. Biden’s chances at reaching 270 electoral votes. Nicolle Wallace stressed that Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were more important to the Democratic nominee. She described North Carolina as “just insurance” and a “side show.”
Election-night TV was like a “whirlpool.” Read our critic’s notebook ›
9 P.M. E.T. Pandemic Reminders and Landslide Pipedreams
Brian Williams hit a somber note on MSNBC while announcing that South Dakota had been called, “as expected,” for the president: “While it hasn’t come up tonight, there is that stretch of coronavirus that is raging through the Dakotas right now, just part of the backdrop of the vote in 2020.”
On CNN, Jake Tapper said that although the Biden campaign was optimistic about North Carolina and Arizona, “it’s just not going to be as some Democrats were hoping for — they thought it was going to be an early landslide, which was really always a pipe dream.”
The network’s election coverage was sponsored in part by commercials for “Borat: Subsequent Movie Film.”
10 P.M. to Midnight Calls for Patience, and a Major Projection
A CNN chyron noting that “close election may come down to AZ, PA, MI, WI” was matched by a similar chyron on MSNBC.
Chris Wallace of Fox News declared the night to be “totally up for grabs” and compared the election to a tennis match.
The anchor Martha MacCallum followed by echoing advice to “go slowly and be patient and wait for these waves — it’s an unprecedented situation.” Mr. King on CNN also leaned on a sports analogy: “If it’s a baseball game, it’s in the second or third inning at best. If it’s a football game, it’s an early quarter. Pick your sport — we’re early in the game.”
Around 11:30 p.m. the decision desk team at Fox News, led by the data-cruncher Arnon Mishkin, made a bold call that instantly changed the tenor of the night: Arizona had gone to Mr. Biden, the first flip in the presidential race from 2016, the network reported. The projection buoyed supporters of the Democratic candidate and quickly drew the ire of Mr. Trump and his aides. A false rumor circulated online that Fox News had retracted its call.
At MSNBC, Ms. Wallace suggested that Arizona was a point of anxiety for the Trump team after years of clashes between the president and the former Arizona senator John McCain, who died in 2018.
Laura Ingraham told Fox News audiences that the specter of more quarantines, what she called “that lockdown-versus-liberty dichotomy,” was helping Mr. Trump with mothers and younger voters across the country.
Midnight to 3 A.M. E.T. ‘An Extremely Flammable Situation’
As the night dragged on, there seemed to be one certainty: The victor in the presidential race would remain uncertain for quite some time.
Shortly after 12:30 a.m., in a dramatic moment, the Fox News anchor Bret Baier grilled Mr. Mishkin on how his team had made the Arizona call. Mr. Mishkin held firm.
On MSNBC, guests such as James Carville, Michael Steele and Claire McCaskill urged viewers to have patience and resist “despondency” until after the vote count was complete. Mr. Carville and Mr. Steele pointed to bottles of alcohol that they said they planned to consume when Mr. Biden emerged victorious.
The presidential historian Jon Meacham, who spoke in support of Mr. Biden at the Democratic National Convention in August, told Mr. Williams that the vote is “the collective expression of the national will.”
“Isn’t that worth a couple of days?” he probed.
Mr. Williams responded: “I’ll let that point simmer and percolate and get picked up by our viewers fortunate enough to hear from a Pulitzer-Prize winner at 1:46 a.m.”
After praising an early-morning speech by Mr. Biden, MSNBC hosts laughed uproariously at a (quickly removed) tweet from Mr. Trump that misspelled the word “polls” as “Poles.” Soon after, the president called the election a “fraud” and prematurely claimed victory in remarks from the East Room of the White House.
Mr. Williams cut off MSNBC’s coverage of the speech, saying that the network was “duty-bound to point out that when he says ‘we did win this election, we’ve already won,’ that is not based in the facts at all.”
On Fox News, Mr. Wallace told viewers, “This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match on it,” adding that Mr. Trump had falsely claimed to have won states like Georgia and North Carolina.
Wednesday Morning The Wait Continues
At 3 a.m., MSNBC refreshed its ranks by bringing in Katy Tur and Ayman Mohyeldin. Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon took over at CNN. Many Americans woke up to tight races in Georgia and Nevada and an ongoing vote count in the key Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Around 9:30 a.m., Fox News was reporting that Mr. Biden had 238 electoral votes. At the same time, MSNBC and CNN had him with 224 votes. All three networks said that Mr. Trump was trailing with 213 votes.
The “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy referred to the program’s morning discussion as a “postgame show” before offering a clarification: “Actually, it’s not postgame, because usually the postgame means you tell folks what happens, and we still don’t know.” Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager for Mr. Trump, echoed the views of other guests who expressed concerns about possible election fraud.
At a diner in Green Bay, Wis., and a crowded patio in Lake Worth, Fla., unmasked Fox News correspondents interviewed Trump supporters. Mr. Mishkin, whom Mr. Doocy described as “the man behind the curtain,” was back on the air, discussing the “beauty in democracy” as the vote continued to be counted. “It would be nice if it were to go faster,” Mr. Mishkin added.