NEW YORK – With a fifth day of vote counting testing the nation's patience, news organizations on Saturday moved swiftly following a crucial release of data from Pennsylvania to declare Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.
CNN made its call at 11:24 a.m. Eastern, and was followed within two minutes by The Associated Press, NBC, CBS and ABC. Fox News called the race at 11:40.
Because votes are counted state by state, verdicts by the media outlets' decision desks serve as the unofficial finish line for the presidential race. The dramatic changes in how people voted this year, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the challenges that created for tallying ballots, complicated the process.
The closeness of the race in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina proved another challenge.
“We just have to be certain before we call a winner in the presidential election,” said Sally Buzbee, executive editor and senior vice president of the AP.
Heading into Saturday, CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC — which coordinate their vote counts and exit polls — had Biden at 253 electoral votes. Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes would put him above the 270 needed to win. The AP and Fox News, which share election data, each had Biden at 264 electoral votes because they had called Arizona for the former vice president earlier in the week.
A methodical count of mail-in ballots from Pennsylvania erased an earlier Trump lead there. On Saturday morning, Biden's margin in that state exceeded 34,000 and above the level that triggers a mandatory recount, and the news organizations concluded simultaneously that the lead was too big for Trump to erase.
AP reporters investigated the composition of yet-to-be counted provisional ballots and also determined they wouldn't be enough to help Trump win, Buzbee said. Voters cast a provisional ballot if there is some question about their eligibility, for instance, if they had turned up at the wrong polling place.
“This marks the end of what might be America's most uncommon presidency,” ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos said.
Trump, who has complained without evidence that the election was stolen from him and plans to fight the results in court, tweeted less than an hour before the network calls: “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT.”
CNN anchor Jake Tapper echoed former President Gerald Ford's statement after Ford's predecessor, Richard Nixon, resigned in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
“For tens of millions of Americans, their long national nightmare is over,” Tapper said.
Saturday's calls came after long days of coverage that even Biden described as “numbing” in an address to the nation on Friday night. CNN's John King and NBC’s Steve Kornacki starred in the election aftermath by spending hours in front of interactive maps explaining how America voted in granular terms.
They predicted that the slow count of mail ballots in Pennsylvania would break Biden's way and perhaps enable him to pass Trump, and thus win it all. So when this happened, shortly before 9 a.m. on Friday, many viewers expected a race call was imminent. But it wasn't.
As a result, complaints flew across the Internet suggesting the news organizations were being too timid. On ABC late Friday, anchor George Stephanopoulos turned to numbers guru Nate Silver, founder of the FiveThirtyEight blog, and asked, “When you get a call or text from your friends, you just tell ’em it’s over?”
“At this point, yeah,” Silver answered, provoking laughter from others on the set. “Why are we still here then?” said commentator Yvette Simpson.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said Saturday he believed news executives feared angering Trump; the president was livid on election night when Fox called Arizona for Biden.
“He’s frozen everyone from saying what we all know to be true,” Scarborough said.
The disastrous 2000 election night hasn't been forgotten by the television networks. Their leaders were hauled before Congress to explain how they prematurely declared Republican George W. Bush the winner over Democrat Al Gore, an election that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court.
All know that calling a presidential election wrong is a career-wrecker.
“The most important thing we can do for democracy is be right,” CBS News President Susan Zirinsky said on Saturday, only minutes before CBS broke for Biden. “If that takes time, that takes time.”