Anatomy of a Letdown

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, November 3, 2004)


It was already after 11 p.m. in San Francisco when a visibly exhausted Larry King told his CNN colleagues, “Right now gentlemen, the odds are we’ll have no winner tonight.” At this, another wave of Kerry supporters filed out of Jillian’s, a restaurant in downtown San Francisco where Democrats and Kerry backers had gathered to watch the returns roll in.

By then, an event that a few hours earlier had housed hundreds of cheering optimists had dwindled to about 30 souls mostly staring resignedly, finishing their drinks, or shaking their heads at the CNN coverage projected on a jumbo screen behind the bar. They still dutifully clapped when John Edwards appears on TV, telling supporters the Democrats “have waited four years for this victory; we can wait one more night,” and they did the same when Wolf Blitzer, within a span of four minutes, called Michigan, Minnesota and Hawaii for John Kerry. But they were clearly cheering for a team in need of a near-miraculous comeback. One viewer reminded the woman next to him that Kerry’s hometown Red Sox had been down this late in the game too, but even he admitted to grasping for anything by that point. When midnight rolled around, only five states remained undecided, and only an unexpected result in Ohio could save Kerry’s candidacy.

For this San Francisco crowd, the night had started promisingly. When this reporter arrived at the event, at 5:22, CNN had just declared Illinois for Kerry by an overwhelming margin, and was showing him up in Pennsylvania, 60-40. The television screens were split between CNN, MSNBC and Fox (along with a Pistons/Rockets basketball game that nobody seemed to care much about). But the only audio came from CNN’s mostly cautious election desk, which hadn’t called anything surprising so far.

“I’m pretty confident. I’ve been checking a lot of the exit polls at Daily Kos and other sites, and it’s looking really encouraging,” observed Flynn Hagerty, a student at a local college. “I know in races that are close like this, a lot of the undecideds tend to break for the challenger.” While CNN still showed Florida too-close-to-call, the map on Fox News had turned the Florida peninsula red, drawing boos from some in the crowd. “I think it’ll probably be pretty close,” Berkeley resident Lewis Maldonado predicted. “I think if Kerry can win either Ohio or Florida, he can win tonight. I see Fox is already calling Florida, though you have to consider the source on that. But I’m hopeful about Ohio.”

By six, CNN had called South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina for Bush, drawing more boos from the crowd with each pick. Seven Senate seats were freshly decided, with Tom Coburn’s win in Oklahoma and Mitch Daniels’ gubernatorial victory in Indiana the only bad news for Democrats that wasn’t a forgone conclusion. “I’ve been on the Internet all day, and the exit polls look good,” said Wendell Loyd. Wearing a “Dump Bush” t-shirt, Loyd talked about doing some recent phone banking for Kerry in Nevada and Florida, and hearing a lot of enthusiasm. “Unless Rove or Bush steals it, I’m about 90 percent confident tonight. If we can get Florida or Ohio, it’s ballgame over.”

Polls closed in several states at six, with the networks handing Texas, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and both Dakotas to the GOP. New York then turned blue on CNN and MSNBC, putting Kerry above 100 electoral votes for the first time. That drew cheers and pumped fists in San Francisco, but the crowd truly erupted when Judy Woodruff reported some polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania would remain open late. The conventional wisdom of high turnout favoring Democrats was still the general assumption.

Thirty minutes later, the electoral math hadn’t changed. Russ Feingold’s re-election in Wisconsin got applause, as did a report that Daniel Mongiardo and Jim Bunning were still in a statistical tie. The loudest boos were aimed at a CNN studio appearance by Rudy Giuliani, particularly when the ex-mayor declared, “George Bush’s politics have kept us safe, thank God.” As Belinda Nichols of San Francisco pointed out, CNN had interviewed a string of Republicans at that stage in the evening (Bill Frist, Ken Mehlman, Giuliani) with no Democrats in the past hour save the “Crossfire” panel. “If you go by the TV coverage I’m seeing, I’m not too optimistic. But I listen to Air America a lot, read a lot of blogs, and from what I’ve seen there I’m still confident,” she said, adding that Ohio and Pennsylvania looked like the keys at that point. “But the next thing we have to work on after tonight is getting this media straightened out.” A moment later, CNN called Nichols’ former home of Mississippi for Bush; she and Wolf Blitzer said “no surprise” in near-harmony.

With Bush now up 170-112 in CNN’s electoral count (and with Florida still red on Fox but undeclared on the others), Kerry supporter Cydney Batchelor felt nervous. An Oklahoma native who moved to California in 1980 to “get away from the red state,” she wore a hat covered in campaign buttons, and had resurrected a 1992 “Bye Bush” button pinned to her shirt. “I’m afraid I’m too invested in what I want to happen, and I feel like this is going to be the defining moment for the U.S. from this point forward.” As she was talking, the crowd booed lustily — George Bush and his family had just appeared on screen for the first time.

By 7:30, there was actually some news to report, as the electoral map continued to mirror 2000. Bush took the red-as-they-come Utah, plus the “light-red” battlegrounds Arkansas and Missouri. MSNBC showed Tom Daschle with the slimmest of leads, drawing applause. Jim DeMint had won Fritz Hollings’ open Senate seat in South Carolina. Obama addressed supporters in Chicago. CNN tried to show a speech by Ralph Nader (who received a mix of boos and cheers from about half this crowd), but couldn’t get the audio to work.

The networks showed Kerry leading in Pennsylvania, and trailing in Ohio and Wisconsin, but with no conclusive numbers yet. “I was a lot more confident earlier today. Last election, I thought Gore was going to win, and I was extremely disappointed. So now I’m a little worried if Kerry can win,” said Holly Savas, an illustrator and Kerry supporter who grew up in Wisconsin. “I think the media have a lot to do with it. They want the story to be a competitive race, because that’s more interesting. But what I want to know is where these numbers are coming from. Which counties in Wisconsin are these numbers from? If a city like Madison hasn’t reported yet, that’s obviously good for Kerry.” At 7:49, MSNBC called Pennsylvania for Kerry. CNN followed suit three minutes later, and showed the Electoral College at 193-133. When Idaho and California were called at 8 p.m., the margin was a tight 197-188 for Bush.

While CNN cut to commercials, MSNBC called Washington for Kerry, and showed the senator with narrow leads in Nevada, New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota, getting the crowd’s collective spirit back up. A trailing Pete Coors was then shown on screen, causing one enthusiastic Kerry back to scream, “Don’t drink Coors! Coors sucks!” to nobody in particular. The California crowd had more reason to cheer when CNN came back on, as Blitzer announced the state passed funding for stem-cell research. Meanwhile, Oakland resident Jose Ruiz was getting worried about Ohio: “Whether it’s fair or not is still up for grabs, because you still have the poll blockers that the GOP has hired in Ohio. But the lines have been long. Long lines are good for us. Long lines mean people are committed to going out and making their voice heard.”

As Election Day passed into Wednesday on the east coast, the mood at Jillian’s began to deflate. CNN’s Anderson Cooper announced 10 of 11 states had passed bans on gay marriage, with Oregon too close to project. Erskine Bowles had conceded, putting John Edwards’ seat back in Republican hands. Judy Woodruff, while cautioning that the network wasn’t calling Florida yet, said a “source in the Kerry campaign” conceded the Sunshine State was effectively lost. Just past 9 p.m., MSNBC called Oregon for Kerry. But the cheers were short-lived, as MSNBC and CNN both gave Arizona to Bush, and Florida finally turned red on the CNN map — drawing the loudest negative reaction yet from the gathered Kerry fans, a number of whom headed for the exits. At 9:20, MSNBC gave Colorado to Bush, but the move drew little reaction from the audience, most of them listening to CNN’s interview with Senator-elect Obama. For Susan Anderson, an area high school teacher, the past 20 minutes seemed a bad omen: “When they showed that Florida was going for Bush, my optimism dropped a lot, and it happened again when they showed Colorado going for Bush. I thought Colorado would be a lot closer.” Like nearly everyone else, she was now looking at Ohio as the battleground that could decide this race.

Unfortunately for the gathered, Ohio was still trending Bush. At 10:14, only CNN had refrained from calling the Buckeye State for Bush, with Woodruff explaining how some Kerry-leaning counties could mathematically still swing it. The network did finally call New Hampshire, the first state to vote differently than it did in 2000. Jeff Greenfield noted the irony of Kerry possibly getting all Al Gore’s states plus New Hampshire and still losing. He used his “interactive map” to show Kerry narrowly leading Michigan, Nevada, Hawaii and Minnesota. Again, people here clapped and yelled out state names with each of these reports, but they made up a smaller segment of the crowd. The rest simply looked demoralized. It didn’t help when CNN gave a Senate rundown that showed only Obama and Ken Salazar as the incoming Democratic freshmen.

The next string of news found the crowd deflating rapidly, as a conclusive result that night appeared increasingly unlikely. At 10:40, much-maligned Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was speaking on MSNBC, trying to convince voters he wouldn’t be the new Katherine Harris. CNN had turned Ohio a newly minted shade of green that meant too-close-to-call, though Fox and MSNBC left it red. Woodruff announced shortly that the secretary of state’s office in Iowa wouldn’t be able to certify the winner there until Wednesday afternoon at the earliest. In other words, as King pointed out, there would be no winner Tuesday night.

By the time midnight hit the west coast, the lights were on at the bar, the stragglers were leaving and there would be no declared president until Wednesday. “Why is it so hard to just pick a president?” one man asked on his way out, calling the country a banana republic. A woman opined in a grave tone that she didn’t think the partisan divide would ever heal after this. And Kerry supporters went home thinking about how it all went so wrong so fast, and what four more years of a Bush presidency would have in store for them.

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