You could hear the oh-no-not-again! shudder in Wolf Blitzer's voice. CNN had just posted the first returns from Florida . . . and the vote totals didn't match up with the percentages. "There's something wrong with those numbers," Blitzer said, visions of hanging chads and butterfly ballots no doubt dancing in his head. The graphic abruptly disappeared, seemingly along with any hope of a presidential victor being declared Tuesday night.
But this was one spell of deja view that passed quickly. Florida's endemic electoral weirdness, which transfixed, astonished and ultimately revolted television audiences on Election Night in 2000 and 2004, passed mostly unnoticed Tuesday as Barack Obama's surge squashed any chance of another wee-hours cliffhanger.
If Obama's easy victory brought a welcome clarity to television coverage, it also sapped most of the drama. It was a little like watching a murder mystery where the actors kept winking at the audience - c'mon, you know how this turns out. Long before the big battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio were officially called for Obama, making it all but mathematically impossible for John McCain to win, anchors and reporters were putting a crown on Obama's head and an autopsy scalpel in McCain's heart - almost literally.
At 6:30 p.m., when the polls were still open in 49 states, CNN's talking heads were referring to McCain in such morbid tones that analyst David Gergen cried out, "He's not dead!" Minutes later, on Fox News Channel, political writer Morton Kondracke declared: "When the history books are written, clearly this is going to be the first African-American president of the United States, most likely, and you know, that is a profound moment in history."
That may have seemed a preposterous statement at a moment when no more than 10,000 votes of a potential 40 million had been counted. But the network teams knew what most viewers did not: that exit polls showed Obama sweeping practically every category of voters, right down to - as CBS' Katie Couric would reveal later in the evening - people who use only cellphones and not land lines. (By a 64 to 25 percent margin, she added for precision.)
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