Similar to the printing of dollar bills or the stretching of taffy, election night coverage on a 24-hour news network can’t help but satisfy any viewer charmed by the spectacle of a machine doing exactly what it was built to do. This past Tuesday I tuned into MSNBC; for all its chuckle-headed progressive optimism, the network is still more tolerable than the forced sobriety and both-sides-ism of CNN. Anchored by Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow, the election night crew was firing on all cylinders: there was a panel of strategists from the Clinton era well trained in killing time; the “big board” and it’s minder, Steve Kornacki, a human manifestation of teeth chattering; and a procession of appearances by peripheral Republicans, each competing to be the most vociferous defender of Ronald Reagan’s so-called values against the current crop of their party’s leaders.
What makes election night television truly exciting, though, is that despite all the flashy graphics, impossibly long guest lists, and pompous music, nobody actually knows what the hell is going on. In our age of narrative politics, election nights are pivotal plot points that promise to utterly upend the arc we all thought we’d been following. But on the night itself, for a few blessed hours, the narrative is an ever-shifting thing and the flailing of the cable anchors to tame it constitutes the best damn show on television.
Things were smooth in the early going, as promising early returns from Florida led the MSNBC panel to speculate that progressives had hit on a winning strategy in the Deep South: candidates of color running unapologetically to the Left. Bemused, Chris Matthews described one of the closing images of the campaign, when Barack Obama had stopped in the state for an rally with Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson, as “inspiring.” How the world had changed, to see an “African-American guy helping out the white candidate.” And in Florida, to boot!
By 8:30, though, the narrative had taken a dire turn. Both Nelson and Gillum’s leads were tightening and three competitive House races in the Sunshine State were called in favor of Republican incumbents. Jaws firmly set, the older members of the panel began dutifully trotting out the requisite jokes about the 2000 recount. Meanwhile, Senator Joe Donnelly was blown out by his Republican challenger in Indiana and the early results weren’t looking so good for Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, either. Around this time, FiveThirtyEight’s real-time forecast (surely as anxiety inducing, if less widely viewed, as the infamous New York Times needle of 2016) showed the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House dropping down from over 80% to a coin flip.
The mood was grave on the MSNBC set. James Carville reluctantly stated his growing belief that “this is not going to be the wave election that people like me would have hoped for.” McCaskill herself made a brief appearance, offering the hardly encouraging, “Donald Trump won this state by 20 points. So, I’m really proud that we kind of clawed our way to dead even near the end of the campaign.” I, at this point, was masochistically refreshing FiveThirtyEight’s live blog in between inspections of where the vote was outstanding in the Kentucky 6th and the Virginia 7th. Which is to say, I didn’t miss a harried Nate Silver tweeting, “We think our live election day forecast is definitely being too aggressive and are going to put it on a more conservative setting where it waits more for projections/calls instead of making inferences from partial vote counts.”
This missive was received with a thuddering guffaw by Silver’s doubters— the analytics, it seems, were as helpless in the face of election night uncertainty as the TV prognosticators— but it coincided with Donna Shalala winning a must-have district in South Florida, a result that steadied the nerves of the MSNBC crew. Come 9 o’clock, they were further buoyed by the early lead Beto O’Rourke was posting against Ted Cruz in Texas. The reckless speculation his gaudy numbers provoked was jaw-dropping. “If a Democrat can win in Texas,” Nicole Wallace proclaimed, “a Democrat can win anywhere.” Chris Matthews was glowing on Beto’s political savvy: “There have been a lot of Democratic presidential nominees in recent years that don’t have that personal touch. He’s got it.”
The good news just kept coming. In New Jersey, Democrats were laying waste to their rivals in the suburbs of New York; over in the heartland, arch-Trumpian troll Kris Kobach’s was easily dispatched by Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s race. At 9:30, Fox News projected the Democrats would win the House— but was this a troll job meant to suppress the turnout in Orange County’s swingy congressional districts (which still had an hour and a half left until their polls closed)? Or had the network’s reputable data analysis team managed to overrule its conservative commentators?
The narrative, in short, had turned again. After some early setbacks, the Democrats were back on pace to win the House going away, even as it looked like the Republicans would just barely hold onto the Senate. The MSNBC crew was particularly struck by the victory of Max Rose in the longtime Republican stronghold of Staten Island. That race provoked the most bizarre exchange of the night, wherein Brian Williams and Chris Wallace went from noting that Rose campaigned on repairing New York City’s decaying transit system to bemoaning the metropolis’ lack of ambition in its public works. Williams exclaimed, “Look at 287! You could lose a hubcap!” (which, c’mon, Brian, how long have you lived in New York? Everybody knows it’s called the BQE). The banter was mercifully ended by Rachel Maddow half-joking that she felt like she was listening to the Waze app.
The conversation turned again to Beto’s improbable, impending victory in Texas. Anyone who saw Beto on the stump, Lawrence O’Donnell proclaimed, “knew that we were seeing nothing like anything we’ve seen in a Democratic campaign in Texas.” The musing was cut short by Brian Williams: “Guys, I have to interrupt, we have a big call… NBC News is projecting Ted Cruz will return to the Senate from Texas, and Republicans will be guaranteed control of the Senate as a result.”
The set fell silent. The camera lingered on a graphic of Ted’s smirking face superimposed on Rockefeller Center. Maddow, clearly scrambling, threw it to Chris Hayes, stationed at the planned Beto victory party in El Paso. She asked Hayes what the mood was in the room and Hayes, clutching his ear piece to his head, reported “I don’t think they have absorbed it at all to be totally honest. Loud music playing.”
The narrative, again, had to be rewritten. The Democrats were cooked in the Senate, and there was no telling how bad it would get. Yet the shocking results kept pouring in from the House. A win in Oklahoma! In South Carolina! Just before 10:30, NBC followed Fox’s lead and projected that the Democrats would indeed win the House after all. For the next hour, a measured judgment that this was a split decision coalesced, one where the Democrats’ combination of winning back a solid portion of Midwestern, working-class voters and deepening their hold on suburban areas in the Northeast and Sunbelt was translating to a gain of 30 or so seats in the House, even as the Senate playing field being tilted so firmly towards rural, white states ensured that Trumpian candidates were easily prevailing in the Heartland.
This narrative, too, would prove premature. The slow count of votes on the West Coast meant that the winner of a number of districts in California wouldn’t be known until the end of the week— once those numbers began coming in, though, Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman described them as “a bloodbath for CA Republicans.” In the Arizona Senate race, too, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled into the lead on Friday on the back of early votes from metropolitan Phoenix finally being tabulated. As of this writing, 9 seats in the House and two in the Senate remain uncalled by the AP, including in our old friend Florida, where a recount in underway.
The lesson, albeit an obvious one, is that there are limits to the narrativization of politics. MSNBC and its ilk are doing everything they can to convert the excitement of fresh results into eyeballs, even as they shy away from the truth that getting a result in the first place is a messier business than we give it credit for. Across our 50 states we vote by mail, ranked-choice selection, provisionally, and by absentee— the fact we can know anything on election night is nothing short of a bureaucratic miracle. So the spectacle of election night television should be considered as just that: entertainment only loosely connected to determining the shift in political power that will be made official in January 2019. In the meantime though, at least we had a few laughs, some cries, and plenty of commercial breaks to go grab another beer from the fridge.
Speaking of the idiot box, the latest issue of The Baffler includes my feature essay on the miserable state of television criticism and how the blind boosterism of our most prominent reviewers is letting Hollywood studios off the hook for producing an unending procession of mediocre programs. Check it out, and if you don’t already, please consider subscribing to The Baffler. Sure it can get pretty adversarial, but to my mind the magazine’s rigorous skepticism stands out against the go-along-to-get-along attitude that too many purportedly intellectual periodicals have cultivated in recent years. The writing’s stellar, the art’s fascinating, and the darn thing only comes out once every two months, meaning you actually have time to read most of it. What’re you waiting for?
As always, thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or swaddling myself in an unconscionable number of blankets and staring forlornly out the window at the suddenly bare trees.