Fox News broke ranks with the other networks at 12:41 this morning, projecting President Bush as the winner in the crucial battleground of Ohio and putting him just one electoral vote from winning reelection.
It is "all but impossible" for Sen. John F. Kerry to win, NBC's Tom Brokaw said as his network called Ohio at 1 a.m., even as the other television networks -- CBS, ABC and CNN -- held back on calling a winner in the state.
For most of the night, the networks took a strikingly cautious approach to the presidential race. While ABC News projected Bush the winner in the pivotal state of Florida at 11:38, and CBS followed suit five minutes later, NBC and CNN did not call the state until after midnight, followed by Fox News at 12:21.
For hours after the polls closed in other key battleground states, no network had attempted to call Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or New Mexico. Instead, they were largely projecting Bush winning a batch of predictably red states and Kerry hauling in some reliably blue ones. But that changed with the Fox call.
The networks made it clear they were far more concerned with not fouling things up, as they did in 2000, than with beating their rivals by minutes with a "scoop" that might backfire. ABC's Peter Jennings raised the issue at the top of "World News Tonight," saying: "Will the cables and the networks get it right this year? We certainly hope so."
Every half-hour or so, the anchors called the easiest states -- Texas for Bush and New York for Kerry at 9, for example -- while passing on predicting the closest contests. Refusing even to characterize who might carry which must-win state, correspondents and commentators spent hours chewing over what-if scenarios. CBS's Dan Rather said his network couldn't make "even an educated guess" in some states because of heavy early balloting and absentee voting. When Rather asked why CBS hadn't called Ohio, analyst Mika Brzezinski said they were waiting on more results from the Cleveland area.
Some networks were more cautious than others, and not just concerning Florida. ABC waited a half-hour longer than some rivals to call Maine for Kerry and South Carolina for Bush, and CNN waited an additional 25 minutes to award the president North Carolina. And while the other networks gave California to Kerry just past 11, Fox waited more than an hour before making the call.
The networks and the Associated Press began receiving exit-poll data in the early afternoon, and Slate.com and the Drudge Report touted the figures as showing Kerry with a slight edge in Florida and Ohio and significant leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. But the tone of the television coverage began to subtly turn against Kerry as the night wore on and it appeared that the senator was not doing as well in the key battlegrounds as the exit polls had indicated.
In an echo of 2000, Lisa Myers reported on MSNBC that the Bush camp saw "a significant flaw in the exit polls." Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry sounded less than confident when he told Jennings that "we're not throwing in the towel" on Florida.
"Somebody should reassess exit polling. . . . It's useless," said CNN's Tucker Carlson.
There was no shortage of spinning. Bush talked to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, reported NBC's David Gregory, and "one adviser tells me they are making a strong comeback" there. And when Bush allowed himself to be taped watching the returns with his family in the White House, ABC's George Stephanopoulos said the message was "he's relaxed, he's confident he's going to win." The Kerry camp countered within seconds that Bush looked "nervous," Jennings reported.
Four years after their botched calls in Florida produced the longest night of humiliation in television history, network executives were determined to be far more cautious in predicting the state-by-state outcomes. They later apologized before Congress, dissolved their Voter News Service consortium, hired two new polling firms, tested the upgraded equipment all year and abandoned their practice of "calling" a state after a majority of polls had closed there, which stoked so much controversy when they initially awarded Florida to Al Gore.
NBC's Tim Russert got out his white board, which became famous four years ago, and plotted potential paths to victory with the crucial states outstanding. "George Bush has two or three paths to 270," Russert said, referring to the number of electoral votes needed to win. "John Kerry has one, and it goes through Ohio."