On Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson went to bed thinking he had lost the White House. His GOP challenger, Charles Evans Hughes, had already won the big East Coast prizes — New York and Pennsylvania were worth a combined 83 electoral votes at the time — and the Midwest was solidly Hughes country. But over the next two days, as votes trickled in from west of the Mississippi, Wilson cleaned up in those time zones. With California’s 13 electoral votes, he won reelection. The newspapers finally made it official that Friday.
With any luck, election night 2016 will be much, much, much shorter. Recently, conservative pundit Erick Erickson blew some minds by showing that this dismal, never-ending presidential race could be all over Tuesday by 9 p.m. Eastern Time.
Of course, that was two weeks ago, when some polls were projecting a double-digit lead for Hillary Clinton. Everything’s tightened since then; it’s now far from certain that Clinton will lock up Florida and North Carolina’s combined 44 electoral votes, which she needs to guarantee an early win.
But it got us wondering: Is election night ever really over that fast? When do they usually call the race? Somehow these evenings all run together, a blur of zooming graphics and flickering maps and yammering anchors, both interminable and fleeting. What years did we go to bed without knowing? What years was it over before it started? Here, we’ve re-created the past 10 election nights in all their weirdness and glory.
1976: Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford
Call time: 3:31 a.m. Eastern (NBC)
The polls had tightened in the final week, and Ford went to bed that night thinking he was going to remain in the White House. But around 3:30 a.m., Barbara Walters announced that Hawaii’s four electoral votes were Carter’s, putting him over the top. ABC cut to live footage of Carter’s 78-year-old mom, “Miss Lillian,” rising from a rocking chair at a rally, falling back to her seat, rising again, and unbuttoning a trench coat to reveal a green shirt that said “JIMMY WON! ’76.” (“I tell you, I don’t think I’ll be at the White House much,” she said to rallygoers, “but in case I am, and y’all come, I’ll know who ya are.”) California, by then worth more than triple its 1916 value, had not yet been called, but it didn’t matter; Carter had swept New York, Pennsylvania and the South, including Texas.
1980: Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan
Call time: 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
“It is a rather early call,” admitted NBC anchor John Chancellor, but Reagan’s landslide was evident immediately. Judy Woodruff, standing outside the White House, reported that the mood there was “very sad” and that there were tears in the eyes of Carter’s press secretary’s teenage daughter. At the Sheraton Washington ballroom, the Democratic National Committee had readied 50 gallons of wine and 50 kegs of beer, but the election was over before any guests arrived. “The bartenders aren’t exactly sure just how the results tonight will affect consumption,” reported CBS’s Phil Jones from the empty ballroom. Carter called Reagan at 9:01 p.m. and conceded at 10, while the polls were still open in the West. “It’s ridiculous — let’s go and get it over with,” Carter said to aides who asked him to wait until 11, according to Douglas Brinkley’s “The Unfinished Presidency.” It was the earliest concession since Alton Parker ceded to Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, and prompted some congressmen to pressure TV networks to forestall future projections.
1984: Walter Mondale vs. Ronald Reagan
Call time: 8:02 p.m. (CBS)
The networks didn’t follow the advice of Congress and declared Reagan’s win a full 13 minutes sooner than in 1980. This caused a “noticeable” pattern of reduced voter turnout west of the Mississippi, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate: Of the 25 states where the race was called before polls closed, 19 had lower turnouts than the previous presidential election. “The map is entirely, totally red,” David Brinkley said after explaining that ABC had chosen red for Reagan because of alliteration. On CBS, Dan Rather wondered about a historic 50-state sweep (Mondale would prevent this by winning Minnesota after 10 p.m.). Exit polls revealed that most voters, both male and female, were unpersuaded — or even put off — by the presence of a woman (Geraldine Ferraro) on the Democratic ticket. “Sisterhood, which flowed like a mighty river [at the Democratic National Convention] in San Francisco in July, was a dry creek in November,” wrote The Post’s Mary McGrory.
1988: George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
Call time: 9:17 p.m. (CBS)
Dukakis spent the final 48 hours of the campaign on an 850-mile, nine-state campaign blitz, then returned home to Massachusetts on Election Day and went for a 30-minute power walk, wearing a red sweater and carrying hand weights. Vice President Bush told reporters in Houston that he was nervous; he and his wife Barbara called voters from a phone bank, convincing them it wasn’t a joke. Tom Brokaw said his electoral map would denote a Republican win with blue, “the color of Dan Quayle’s eyes.” It was a messy night. Initially ABC and CBS incorrectly awarded Maryland and Illinois to Dukakis. “We’ll not project a winner in a state until the polls in that state are closed,” Brokaw promised, but all three major networks gave Kentucky and Indiana to Bush while their polls remained open. “George Bush is sweeping through the South like a tornado through a trailer park,” Dan Rather said early in the night, calling the election at 9:17 with polls still open in 11 Western states. “Once again, we see the East Coast networks treating us out here in the West as though we don’t count,” said former California senator John Tunney.
1992: George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton
Call time: 10:48 p.m. (TV networks)
A Clinton victory seemed imminent by the 7 o’clock hour, as Eastern polls closed — but then it remained imminent for a while. Brokaw, at 10 and 10:35 p.m., said that Clinton was “just moments” from victory. But everyone could do the math: Well before 11 p.m., even if you had voided the electoral votes of every state in the Western and Mountain time zones, Clinton still surmounted 270. The networks bided time as penance for jumping the gun in years past. Bush conceded at 11:08 p.m. at the Westin Galleria Hotel in Houston: “I remain absolutely convinced we are a rising nation.” Clinton departed the governor’s mansion in Little Rock at 10:50 p.m. but kept TV viewers waiting until 12:20 a.m. for his acceptance speech, which he delivered with laryngitis. (Clinton looked “tired and tubby,” wrote Post TV critic Tom Shales.) “We want our future back,” Clinton said, “and I intend to help give it to you.” The next morning, Clinton put on blue jeans and a brown suede jacket for breakfast at an old friend’s home in Little Rock. “My whole body aches,” Clinton said hoarsely. “Every bone in my body.”
1996: Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole
Call time: 9 p.m. (AP)
Dan Rather had trouble with his touch-screen map on CBS. Brian Williams was inexplicably stationed by the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. All evening, CNN underscored its coverage with a relentless, repetitive soundtrack more suitable for “The Hunt for the Red October.” “This is one of the great miraculous comebacks in American history,” the cable network declared after announcing a resounding victory for Clinton, who two years earlier lost both houses of Congress to Republicans. At 9:45 p.m., a Dole spokesman issued a statement conceding the election to Clinton, but it was later retracted. Dole himself conceded around 11:30 p.m. “Maybe the Lord liked Clinton better,” said Bub Dawson, whose father owned the pharmacy in Russell, Kan., where Dole once worked. “We are not down,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners the day after. “We are not depressed. We are extremely up.” But Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was morose: “It’s all boring and slightly dispiriting. Everything in the ’90s is becoming sort of like Jell-O.”
2000: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
Call time: Just before 10 p.m., Dec. 12 (the Supreme Court)
The race felt close from daybreak. Governor Bush woke up at 6:30 a.m. on Election Day, fed his dog and two cats, read the Bible and called his parents. “They’re nervous,” he told reporters. That afternoon, Vice President Gore helicoptered from Nashville to Carthage, Tenn., to vote, eat fried chicken with his 87-year-old mother, and do 20 satellite interviews with TV stations in battleground states. That evening on NBC, Tim Russert intoned “Florida, Florida, Florida.” CBS called Florida for Gore at 7:40 p.m. and recalled it around 10. “What the networks giveth, the networks taketh away,” said a chagrined Brokaw on NBC. Gore conceded, then retracted his concession, telling an irritated Bush over the phone: “You don’t have to get snippy about this.” CBS called Florida for Bush around 2 a.m. and recalled it near 4. Wrote Tom Shales: “The Florida reversal cast a long shadow over the evening’s coverage, giving it somewhat the aura of bedlam.” That aura lasted for another five weeks as Florida conducted its laborious recount. “Every big-shot attorney in the United States is now in Florida,” David Letterman said on his late-night show. “So here’s what happens: If we were to have a hurricane — God forbid we had a hurricane — the whole thing could still have a happy ending.” On Dec. 12, the Supreme Court ruled that the Florida recount should not continue. Gore conceded the following day. Technically, the AP has still not called this race.
2004: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry
Call time: 11:19 a.m. the next day (the AP didn’t technically call the race, but published an alert that Bush won)
This was the first election where Texas surpassed New York in electoral votes, cementing a seismic shift westward of the big prizes — and therefore call times. In 1936, California and Texas were together worth 45 electoral votes. That doubled by 2004, and has continued to increase. Florida’s growth has compensated a bit for the East Coast, but now elections definitely don’t end before 9 p.m. Here’s a handy graph:
Brokaw described this election night in the parlance of the era: Someone “will be voted off the island.” Kerry’s poll numbers were surging into Election Day, and the exit polls predicted a win, but the 9 p.m. hour dropped like an anvil on his campaign. Bush won Florida and Virginia. Still, the networks waited until the wee hours to assign the linchpin state of Ohio to Bush (Fox at 12:41 a.m. and NBC at 1 a.m.). Said Tim Russert: “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.” CNN, CBS and ABC held back their calls, fearing another Florida debacle; as of 2:20 a.m., 25 counties in Ohio had not yet reported their tallies. Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, appeared at Copley Plaza in Boston at 2:30 to say the fight wasn’t over. Kerry went to bed without conceding. Just before 11 a.m., in the kitchen of Kerry’s Beacon Hill townhouse, his aides told him it was over. “That’s it,” he agreed. He called Edwards and then Bush around 11 a.m.
2008: John McCain vs. Barack Obama
Call time: 11 p.m. (Fox)
Obama had won Ohio and Pennsylvania before 11 p.m., and on MSNBC Chris Matthews started slobbering once it became clear that Obama was bound for victory. “Once again America, with all its frailties and all its sins of the past, has been able to do something truly wondrous,” he said as the clock ticking down to the closing of Western polls dipped below three minutes. After MSNBC called the election with an Obama sweep of the Pacific Coast states, it broadcast nearly five minutes of live celebratory footage without the intrusion of a single pundit’s voice. Students at Spelman College in Atlanta dropped to their knees. Stevie Wonder blared over Grant Park in Chicago. The multitudes began arriving at the gates of the White House, where they sang “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and chanted “Yes we did!” McCain gave his concession speech just after 11:15 p.m. at Phoenix’s Biltmore Hotel. “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself, and for his country,” McCain said. “We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader,” Obama said later of McCain. The celebrations outside the White House continued past 3 a.m.
2012: Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney
Call time: 11:17 p.m. (Fox)
“I feel like I just need to lay down on the ground and throw up,” said Romney’s son Josh, watching the returns with his family in a Boston hotel room. “How is everyone so calm?!” When Mitt heard that he was up by only 500 votes in Florida, he knew. “That’s not good,” he said. “I just can’t believe you’re gonna lose,” Josh said. “It makes your life a lot better, doesn’t it?” his father replied, and Josh agreed. When Fox News and other networks called Ohio before 11:30 p.m., eliminating the GOP’s last path to the White House, the Romney campaign pushed back. So did Fox pundit Karl Rove, which sent Megyn Kelly out of the studio, on foot, to check in with the numbers people. “We’re actually quite comfortable with the call in Ohio,” a Fox election accountant told her, saying that the unreported ballots were mostly from metropolitan areas that favored Obama. Rove did not relent, and referenced the 2000 debacle. “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better,” Kelly asked him, “or is this real?” It was real. Donald Trump, then executive producer of the Miss USA Pageant, tweeted his disappointment at 11:29 p.m.:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Associated Press called the 2004 presidential race for George W. Bush before midnight on Election Night. The AP made no call and instead announced Bush’s reelection shortly before noon the next morning.