After an extraordinary night of shifting vote counts and a rebuke of President Donald Trump, news organizations kept vigil Wednesday as Americans waited to learn who their next president would be.
Methodical vote counting Wednesday left Democrat Joe Biden on the cusp of the presidency. The Associated Press said he has won enough states for 264 electoral votes and a win in one of four uncalled states — Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania or Nevada — would make him the president-elect.
Cable and broadcast news divisions followed the story closely, even as they learned that election night coverage was a relative dud with viewers.
An estimated 56.9 million people watched coverage over 21 networks during primetime hours Tuesday, down sharply from the 71.4 million viewers on election night 2016, the Nielsen company said.
It was a cable news night, with Fox News Channel leading the way with 13.6 million viewers, followed by CNN (9.1 million) and MSNBC (7.3 million), Nielsen said. The legacy broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — followed in that order.
For weeks, media outlets had warned that Americans would need patience on election night and beyond, and that turned out to be their most accurate prediction.
After several hours of little movement on Wednesday, news outlets called the Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Michigan for Biden, narrowing Trump's potential path to reelection.
News organizations didn't move in lockstep on their calls. By 6 p.m. EST, for example, no one had joined Fox News Channel or the AP in declaring Biden the winner in Arizona, which they had done more than 15 hours earlier.
Since voting has ended, the AP has published several stories explaining to readers its thinking behind calling a state for one candidate or the other. On Wednesday, it gave a detailed accounting for the states where a race call had not been made. For example, the story noted Trump's lead in Pennsylvania, but said “the vast majority of the votes left to be counted there were cast by mail, a form of voting that Biden has carried by a large margin.”
Journalists sought to reassure people that there was nothing nefarious about the process of counting votes.
“It's not fraud,” said CNN's John King. “It's math.”
The overnight hours featured the stunning scene of journalists immediately refuting Trump after he stood behind a White House podium and complained it was “a major fraud on our nation” that he hadn't been declared the winner.
NBC News' Savannah Guthrie broke into Trump's statement to tell viewers that several of Trump's statements were untrue. “The fact of the matter is we don't know who won the election,” she said.
CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell said Trump was “castrating the facts” by “falsely claiming that he has won the election and disenfranchising millions of voters whose ballots have not been counted.”
“This is an extremely flammable situation and the president just threw a match into it,” said Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace.
With the sun’s rise Wednesday, it seemed to feel to some like a bad dream they’d like to forget.
“It was ridiculous,” former Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich said on CNN. “He should not have done that. This is what we have come to expect, but it won’t matter because I think we will count all the votes.”
The president continued tweeting his displeasure. Twitter took down some of his tweets, saying some or all of them were disputed and might be misleading.
“They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” the president said in one tweet that got through. “So bad for our Country!”
Meanwhile, Biden made a brief appearance to call for the vote count to continue without interference. He didn't declare victory, but was confident he would prevail.
“We the people will not be bullied,” Biden said. “We the people will not be silenced.”
A handful of commentators noted that Trump was pursuing inconsistent strategies in urging that vote counts be shut down in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina where he had leads, and continued in Arizona and Nevada, where he trailed Biden.
“They are literally and figuratively all over the map trying to cling to power,” said CNN's Jake Tapper.
Election coverage was proving the primacy of numbers geeks like NBC News' Steve Kornacki and CNN's King, who got granular trying to figure out where things were going. For awhile, MSNBC kept a “Kornacki cam” on him as he sifted through returns offstage.
As midnight passed late Tuesday, the president's team was angry at Fox News for striking out ahead of other news organizations in declaring that Biden had defeated Trump in the battleground state of Arizona.
Decision team chief Arnon Mishkin went on the air to explain the decision after Baier noted the network was taking “incoming.”
“I’m sorry, but we’re not wrong in this particular case,” Mishkin said. The AP eventually called Arizona for Biden at 2:52 a.m. Eastern.
Even if Biden won the presidency, Democrats were sure to face questions about why the race was so close and why predicted gains in Congress didn't materialize.
And polling experts will also face scrutiny for a second straight presidential election that defied their numbers indicating that Biden had a very clear advantage going into the night.
“If you're a pollster today ... are you looking into opening up a dog walking service?” said Fox News' Harris Faulkner.