Election Day began hopefully for the clarions of the right, the conservative media outlets that have championed Donald Trump’s long-shot candidacy for months and hated on Hillary Clinton for years.
Trump could win, they said. Trump would win, they asserted — a breast-beating prediction with more than a little vested interest behind it. A Trump victory, after all, would boost the prestige and profile of the conservative media and make de facto establishment figures out of some of its leading journalists.
And slowly at first, the poll- defying assertions began to seem like prescience as the evening wore on.
Breitbart, the Trump-pumping website that became one of the right’s most popular destinations during the campaign, bannered a story about a survey taken over the weekend by a little-known think tank called the Democracy Institute. It showed Trump leading Clinton, 50 percent to 43 percent.
Breitbart has been the unalloyed cheerleader of the Trump movement, so tightly affiliated with the candidate that Breitbart’s own chairman, Steve Bannon, became Trump’s campaign chairman. So the poll — admittedly an outlier among many gauging the race — was easily dismissed as wishful Republican thinking.
Except its direction, if not its details, began to be borne out as the results rolled in.
The Daily Caller, a conservative organ co-founded by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, reported that exit polls showed that Clinton’s vaunted voter-turnout machine just wasn’t getting the job done. “Hillary Clinton needed to turn out the Obama coalition — younger voters, black voters and Hispanic voters — and exit polling shows she isn’t accomplishing this goal,” it wrote. “MSNBC exit polling shows Clinton is ahead with black voters 87 percent to 8 percent. President Obama beat Mitt Romney among blacks 93 percent to 6 percent.”
That, too, appeared to be on target.
Even further on the fringes, the paranoid and conspiratorial InfoWars.com was confidently predicting a Trump victory. “The polls are collapsing against Hillary,” declared the site’s founder, Alex Jones, in a video. “Even the fake polls.”
Jones — who believes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were engineered by the federal government and that the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” designed to encourage more gun-control legislation — allied himself early with Trump. And Trump returned the favor, saying after an appearance with Jones in December, “Your reputation’s amazing. I will not let you down.”
On Tuesday, InfoWars was all in for Trump: “Scientific Poll Shows Trump with ‘Yuge’ Lead in Swing States,” read one of its headlines. The story predicted, “Inside sources say Democrat internal polls (not the fluffed-up media polls) show Trump ahead in every swing state!”
Not exactly; Clinton turned out to be the projected winner in states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire. But not bad, either; Trump pulled out critical victories in vote-rich Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.
Fox News — the network best known for its conservative commentators — started out lowering expectations for Trump. During an afternoon discussion with anchor Shepard Smith, newsman Chris Wallace noted Trump’s difficult path to victory. Losing Florida, Wallace noted, would effectively kill Trump’s chances. Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist, was even more blunt: It would take “a miracle,” he said, for Trump to gain the 270 electoral votes he needed to win.
But as the early votes came in, showing Trump holding steady in several competitive states, Wallace changed his tone. “I’m open to the conclusion” — he quickly changed “conclusion” to “possibility” — “that Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States,” he said just after 9 p.m. Eastern time.
“He’s in this at this hour,” seconded Fox’s Brit Hume.
Just after 9 p.m., Fox anchor Bret Baier asked reporter Jennifer Griffin about the mood in Clinton’s camp: “Do you get a palpable nervousness about them losing this race?” he said.
Griffin allowed that Clinton’s aides “weren’t spiking the football” just yet.
Morale turned out to be far lower than that. “Some people are beginning to cry and are beginning to leave” Clinton’s headquarters at the Javits Center in New York, anchor Megyn Kelly reported at 11:34 p.m.
Around this time, the Drudge Report put Trump right on the doorstep of the White House. “Trump on the Verge of Presidency; World in Shock,” read the conservative-leaning website.
While Trump hadn’t secured the necessary 270 electoral votes at that point, he wasn’t far from it. Several states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — were still too close to call. But Trump was close; he stood at 238, and a sweep of the remaining Northern Tier states would put him over the top.
That potential result had some in the conservative media starting a victory lap.
“For many in the Democratic Party, the outrageous rhetoric of Trump filled them with a certain amount of confidence that Clinton would win the presidential election with relative ease,” wrote the Daily Caller. “Clinton herself at one point during the election cycle expressed shock she wasn’t up by 50 points.
“Those expectations have been dashed on the rocks as Tuesday evening continues, and the votes keep rolling in, resulting in Clinton voters watching the results with abject horror with tears in their eyes.”
The good news for Trump made many of the conservative outlets forget about a theme they had played earlier in the day — the notion that the electoral system was loaded with fraud, or “rigged,” in Trump’s repeated framing.
Breitbart carried several stories about apparent irregularities, such as “Widespread Voter Fraud Reported in Philly.” The story was pegged to some tweets by “minority inspectors” (Republican supporters) who said they had been refused entry to few polling places.
By the end of the day, the site was heavy on state returns and analysis, without a single story on its homepage about vote rigging.
It did, however, have room for a piece headlined, “16 Celebrities Who Will Leave the U.S. If Trump Wins.”