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Pins and Needles: The False Panic of Election Night

Conspiracy theories. Outrage. Blue despair. Nate Silver angst. It all came in a few scant hours. Here’s how the midterms turned into an overstated live-watch carnival.

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Election night 2018 ended just about where Nate Silver told us it would. Democrats won the House. Republicans won the Senate. The glossy Democratic stars — Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum — lost uphill races in Trump states. (With 99 percent of districts reporting, Abrams trailed opponent Brian Kemp by fewer than 70,000 votes. Abrams has declined to concede and anticipates a runoff.)

But if you kept one eye on cable news and another on your phone, election night didn’t seem anticlimactic at all. It seemed frantic. Why did Silver suddenly downgrade the Democrats’ chances?! Where was the New York Times needle?! My God, Beto and Ted Cruz were separated by a few hundred votes! It’s a characteristic of our media age that we now experience election night — like the Oscars or the NBA draft — as a few dozen discrete mini dramas, unfolding over a matter of hours. It makes us feel like something wild and momentous has happened, that we were all on the same meta-media roller coaster, even if nothing much unexpected happened at all.

At 12:30 a.m. ET, as I sit down to write, Brian Williams has just announced on MSNBC that the network was working on a “barnburner of a story.” What story? Well, the same one Fox News announced nearly three hours before: The Democrats won the House. This could charitably be read as a recovering fabulist’s attempt to keep viewers locked on his downsized cable show. In fact, such overselling was in keeping with the night.

The action began around 7:40 p.m., when the networks announced that Republican Barbara Comstock had lost her suburban Virginia House seat. It was the kind of seat Democrats needed to pick off to win the requisite 23 seats and get control of the House. Hooray!

Less than an hour later, James Carville appeared on MSNBC with the same shell-shocked face he wore on election night two years ago. “It’s not going to be a wave election,” Carville told the network’s liberalish viewership. It’s not? Carville didn’t exactly say why. But it seemed like an omen. As The New York Times’s John Koblin noted, the networks briefly became a Democratic funeral parlor. George Stephanopoulos, John Dickerson, and Van Jones were all down on the party’s chances.

Meanwhile, Silver’s real-time forecast — which at the beginning of the night had given the Democrats a better than 80 percent chance of taking the House — showed the Democrats suddenly had only a sub-40 percent chance. Silver appeared on Twitter to say he was switching the forecast to a “more conservative setting” where it wouldn’t spin out a narrative from partial vote counts. But the situation seemed bleak for Democrats.

Around 9:30 p.m., about an hour after Silver’s tweet, Fox News announced that the Democrats would win the House. If you’d played pickup basketball after work, you wouldn’t have experienced any of the above drama. It was all created by watching television or an apparent hiccup in an election forecast.

The Fox call caused its own drama: a blue wave of conspiracy theories on Twitter. Aha, Fox is prematurely declaring the Democrats victorious to hold down turnout in California and the West! Maybe Trump and Sean Hannity cooked it up while sharing a stage in Missouri on Monday. It didn’t turn out that way, but it made for a fun few minutes on Twitter.

There were other self-contained dramas. We’re used to the near-permanent “BREAKING NEWS” chyron across cable. On election night, MSNBC flashed it on the screen even when introducing Chuck Todd. It’s breaking news that Todd is on MSNBC?

CNN answered with its own gimmick, the “Key Race Alert.” When Wolf Blitzer got an alert, he threw it to Dana Bash, who was sitting at a desk across the studio. Bash would simply note nonclimactic election results that were already flashing the bottom of CNN’s screen. Oh, we’re up to 17 percent of the count in Wisconsin? Great.

My favorite cable mini-drama is the arbitrary vote count. At one point in the Texas Senate race, O’Rourke and Ted Cruz were separated by a few hundred votes. Even hard-headed political types like Rachel Maddow marveled. Can you believe it? A few hundred votes. Of course, it wasn’t predictive of the result — Cruz won by a few hundred thousand votes — or even interesting on its own. As Politico’s Jason Schwartz wrote, it’d be like ESPN checking in on football games every minute and marveling that they were tied.

None of this is to pound on cable news or certainly on ace forecasters like Silver. We are incredibly lucky to be living inside the digital version of Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics. For all the debate-show qualities of cable, you had Steve Kornacki and John King breaking down county-by-county returns in an unabashedly nerdy and winning style that almost didn’t exist on TV 20 years ago.

But because we know so much and simultaneously experience an event in multiple media, we create drama where there is none. It’s like the NBA draft. If I handed you the list of picks the next morning, you’d raise an eyebrow at a few but otherwise count yourself unsurprised. The drama is in the knowledge of failed trades, the Woj bombs, the energy invested in your team picking a player because you heard it might happen.

The discrete dramas of election night obscured the fact that, as Time noted, the election was mostly about the guy who made our media world jumpier than ever. Trump was the election’s near-singular figure, and his intervention probably helped candidates in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri.

Trump, of course, took credit. “The midterm elections used to be, like, boring, didn’t they?” he told a crowd this weekend. “Do you even remember what they were? People say, ‘Midterms.’ They say, ‘What is that? What is it?’ Now it’s like the hottest thing.” It’s a boast perfectly in line with Trump’s ignoramus-megalomaniac style. But he has a small point. The drama is largely self-created. Part of the reason midterms are more exciting is because we’ve made them that way.