Media historians, take note: This time around, Florida, at least, seemed easier to call.
Eager to avoid a replay of the 2000 vote-counting debacle, the TV networks promised more caution in reporting results for the race between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. And no battleground state offered reason for pause more than Florida, which four years ago the networks called first for Al Gore, then for Bush, then for no one, inaugurating a weeks-long ballot battle focused on the Sunshine State.
But by 8 p.m. PST Tuesday, TV pundits and anchors openly mused that Florida looked headed for the Bush column. It may have started when CNN's Judy Woodruff expressed skepticism over Democratic claims that, even though Bush had led all night as returns poured in, a small proportion of uncounted ballots could yet give Kerry the lead. "Some of us are scratching our heads, wondering where it's going to come from," she said.
About 40 minutes later, ABC formally projected Bush as the Florida winner, and some of the other networks followed suit (but not Fox News Channel, which caught flak four years ago for prematurely calling Florida for Bush in the wee hours of Nov. 8). By around 9 p.m., CNN analyst James Carville, the key strategist behind Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential victory, was writing the opening lines of the Kerry campaign's obituary. "It's time to acknowledge that the president has the superior hand right now," he told viewers.
On CBS, anchor Dan Rather cautioned that Bush still had not won the election, adding, in one of his homespun "Rather-isms," that the contest in the Ohio was "hotter than a Times Square Rolex" and alluding to the importance of votes of Cuyahoga County. By 9:30 p.m., Rather allowed that Kerry's chances were "not looking very good." "He must have Ohio to win ... It is coming down to O-hi-o ... If Kerry loses Ohio, he's finished, say good night."
So Ohio, at least temporarily, became the new Florida.
Earlier in the day, the race seemed every bit as tight as pundits predicted. TV networks spent much of the afternoon and early evening reassuring viewers how much more careful they would be about calling the presidential race this time around.
CNN, for example, explained that it would not predict a winner in any state in which the polls were still open, and that it would rely on data overseen by Associated Press as well as its own in-house analysts. As Woodruff said on the air around 3 p.m. PST, "We'd much rather get it right than get it first, by a long shot."
All day Tuesday, CNN featured an on-screen clock that ticked down the hours and minutes until the first polls closed in Eastern states -- and, presumably, the political desk chiefs could loosen their belts and start calling winners. At one point late in the afternoon, CNN flashed a graphic with the plaintive headline: "When Will We Know?"
There was also the unmistakable sense that, while networks pledged not to reveal exit polling that trickled in throughout the afternoon, analysts were influenced by early data that showed encouraging results for Kerry.
But once the actual returns began coming -- and in-studio electoral maps began lighting up with red, pro-Bush states -- some balance returned.
Networks have felt increasing pressure to call early winners since 1980, when NBC used exit polls to make an early call for Ronald Reagan's landslide presidential victory. In most ensuing elections, the calls were made with reasonable accuracy and quickly forgotten.
But memories of the 2000 election debacle shadowed the networks long before they began election coverage Tuesday. All of the anchors, analysts and political directors crunching numbers behind the scenes were mindful of the cascade of erroneous projections on Florida four years ago. First, the state was called for 2000 Democratic nominee Gore at about 8 p.m. EST. Then, about two hours later, those calls were withdrawn. After 2 a.m., the networks called it for Bush and proclaimed him the winner. Shortly before 4 a.m., those projections began to fall apart as the networks confessed Florida was still too close to call and a dramatic 36-day recount ensued.
After those serial flip flops, caused by breakdowns in exit polls and glitches in reports of real returns from precincts, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw confessed: "We don't just have egg on our face -- we have an omelet."
The mistaken calls, critics complained, had a tangible effect on the election. Republicans complained that early network calls for Gore depressed turnout in the western Florida Panhandle and elsewhere in the country. Democrats complained that the calls for Bush led Gore to make a premature concession in a phone call to the Republican and helped cement in the public mind the impression that Bush was president-elect when millions of people went to bed -- an impression that was hard to reverse during the recount.
Jensen reported from New York, Anderson from Washington. Staff writers Scott Collins and Lynn Smith contributed from Los Angeles.