Bob Schieffer, the elder statesman of CBS News, has been part of the network’s midterm election coverage since 1970. But he was not getting into the prediction business on Tuesday night.
“I’ve never gone into one of these so unsure of what is going to happen,” he said as he prepared notes in the green room at the CBS Broadcast Center before joining the “CBS This Morning” team to help analyze the results.
Network political teams, many of whom had been stunned by the surprise win of President Trump two years earlier, were generally cautious about predictions on who would control the House and Senate.
They were less cautious about their amount of coverage.
In previous midterm years, news divisions were lucky if they could pry an hour from their network entertainment divisions for coverage. This year, with Trump actively campaigning to make the midterms a referendum on his presidency and record-shattering levels of early voting proving a heightened intensity of interest, all three broadcast networks devoted their entire prime-time schedules to delivering and dissecting the returns.
“Our affiliates wanted it,” said NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, who sat on a stool in the darkened control room at Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center on Tuesday night as “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd called the races as they came in while red and blue graphics flashed on the flat screens.
Anchors embraced the expanded showcase as well. The “CBS This Morning” team of John Dickerson, Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King and Bianna Golodryga were on duty for six hours of live coverage and back for their regular shifts at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
“They say they are excited about it,” CBS News President David Rhodes said dryly as he watched some of the night’s coverage on a monitor in the green room, where a jar of red, white and blue jellybeans was at the ready. Outside the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street, a food truck was serving grilled-cheese sandwiches to the entire CBS News editorial and production team that worked through the night. O’Donnell had hired the truck and picked up the tab.
Over in Midtown, a crowd gathered in front of Fox News headquarters to watch the returns as the outlet’s coverage led by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum flickered and loomed on several large screens.
Some had expected a long night before getting real answers, but the congressional face-off — the Democrats taking the House, the Republicans keeping control of the Senate — became clear fairly early. Even with a lot of early decisions and neither party dominating the night, Nielsen data showed the networks were right to increase their coverage. The combined prime-time audience for ABC, CBS and NBC was 14.9 million viewers — up 16% from 12.8 million viewers that watched the one hour of midterm coverage offered in 2014.
But cable news continues to be the destination of political coverage, and the average prime-time audience for the three cable news networks was up 73% from 2014, though the increase was not shared equally — the Fox News audience grew by more than a million while viewership totals for CNN and MSNBC each jumped more than 3 million.
Overall, Fox News’ coverage had the largest audience in prime time, 7.78 million viewers, followed by NBC (5.69 million), ABC (5.26 million viewers), CNN (5.07 million), MSNBC (4.74 million) and CBS (3.88 million), while CNN won in the demographic most important to advertisers who buy commercial time on news programs, with 2.54 million viewers in the 25-to-54 age group.
Fox News was the first to announce the House flip, declaring at 9:30 p.m. that the Democrats would win a majority of House seats even though only two races where seats had gone from red to blue had been called at that point.
Though some on social media decried Fox’s call as premature and possibly a ruse to discourage western voters, Chris Stirewalt, politics editor for Fox News, was confident that it would prove correct, which it was. He credited a new polling method Fox developed with the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to replace exit polling, which has become less reliable in recent years.
“You can’t do exit polls of people who don’t exit the polls,” Stirewalt said Tuesday night, outside the long, white room that was off limits to anyone who was not a part of the decision desk team. “As early voting overwhelms election-day voting, you’ve got to come up with another plan, and this is that other plan.”
The new system combines extensive online questioning of 120,000 people with precinct-by-precinct voting data.
Fox News usually devotes prime time to its Trump-loving conservative commentators, but opinion hosts played a smaller role during its election coverage. Sean Hannity, who just the day before had been admonished by the network for taking the stage at a Missouri campaign rally at Trump’s request, was nowhere to be found. (The network’s spokespeople said Hannity’s participation on previous election nights has been minimal.)
In an interview with The Times on Wednesday, Baier said he and other Washington-based journalists at Fox News expressed their concern over Hannity’s actions during an Election Day lunch with the division’s chief executive Suzanne Scott and president of news Jay Wallace. The company put out a statement rebuking Hannity and weekend host Jeanine Pirro, saying it “does not condone talent participating in campaign events.”
Baier, who has known Hannity for 22 years, said he also had a private discussion with the commentator about the matter.
“Going forward I think things will be a little different,” Baier said. “I heard him, he heard me and we had a good conversation. We’ve had a good relationship but this was a moment that really needed to be dealt with.”