Your favorite weekly newspaper is in an unusual place this week, given that it’s not printed before the close of polls, though readers will get it after voting ends Tuesday.
Election Day combines exhaustion among those working (including the media), and hope and dread among candidates’ workers.
The first presidential election I remember was 1972. The rumor around my elementary school on the far East Side of Madison was that George McGovern was going to make us go to school on Saturdays. At least in some parts of the People’s Republic of Madison, Richard Nixon was the one that election.
The presidential election I first paid real attention to, though, was 1980. I was getting ready to stay up late, possibly all night, for the too-close-to-call election. And then, at 7:15 p.m., NBC-TV called the presidential election for Ronald Reagan. (While Reagan was taking a shower, by the way.)
Calls that early don’t happen anymore because the networks now are loath to call an election before the polls close on the West Coast, lest a particular projection result in people not bothering to vote. That famously occurred in 2000, when CBS called Florida for Al Gore while people were still voting in the Panhandle, which is one time zone behind the rest of the state. (More about that election in a few paragraphs.)
The only election I’ve been involved in as a participant, sort of, was 1984, when I worked on the successful campaign of a state representative trying to advance to the state Senate. (You’ll never guess who the candidate was.) I may have been the only person at the election party that night who was totally satisfied with the results, because my choices for state Senate and Assembly and president (the latter of whom was from a different party from the legislative candidates) all won.
That was while I was in college. College is a great time to be involved in politics because, even though you think otherwise, you don’t have much invested in the outcome. When you become an adult and have things like homes, retirement savings, etc., suddenly watching becomes less fun because you have more (literally) invested in the outcome.
The first election I ever worked in the media was 1988, when I was calling in results to the Associated Press while compiling results from the Grant County Courthouse. That night I devised the Last Precinct Game, trying to figure out which precinct would be the final precinct to report its results. The chances of being the Last Precinct increase by distance, and nearly every election afterward I called some town clerk in the middle of the night to get their election results.
My least favorite election night was 1992. Not because of the results, but because of the fact that very, very early Election Day was the day my wife and I returned from our honeymoon to Mexico. When we left, it was 85 and partly cloudy; when we arrived at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, it was 37 and sleeting. At 3:30 the morning after, I was sitting in the old Tri-County Press office in Cuba City barely able to type and trying to get the newspaper done.
My highlight from 1996’s election night was going to two parties for Congressional candidates. The first party was for the winning candidate; the second was for the losing candidate, who I knew and for whom I had voted. Winning-candidate parties are more fun (particularly if the winner’s dog is allowed to drink champagne at the party).
The most memorable election night, which was much longer than one night, took place four years later. The month-long election night began when I made an appearance on a radio station that had to end before midnight because my wife was on call with the local ambulance starting at midnight. Even though journalism is the opposite of math, we were able to figure out that the one state that would decide the election was Florida, or, as NBC’s Tim Russert wrote on his soon-to-be-famous whiteboard, “FLORIDA FLORIDA FLORIDA.”
Because our oldest son was sick, I held him and paced in front of our TV and watched the results until CNN projected George W. Bush’s winning Florida and thus the election around 1:15 a.m. I put our son to bed, watched about an hour longer, and then went to the kitchen to clean up, and for some reason turned the TV back on to hear NBC report that the margin was strangely tightening despite the networks’ projection. That seemed too bizarre to be true, so I turned off the TV and went to bed.
An hour later, we were in the hospital emergency room because our son started coughing. The doctors gave us the news he … had a cold. I got 90 minutes of sleep that night, which was 90 more minutes of sleep than anyone working in daily media.
Wisconsin Public Television had a Friday-night public affairs show, “WeekEnd,” where I occasionally appeared as a pundit. The Friday after elections “WeekEnd” had what it called the Election Hangover Show. I ran into a fellow panelist who had announced he was leaving the show after the election; he pointed out that he couldn’t retire if the election wasn’t over.
The election was certainly not over. Those who follow politics learned more than they ever wanted to about Florida election law. (You age yourself if you know the meaning of the term “hanging chads.”) I was sending daily emails to readers of my business magazine making observations and predictions based on logic … predictions that were almost all wrong.
That election finally ended one month later, when our viewing of NBC’s “Law & Order” was interrupted by Tom Brokaw’s announcement of a “split decision,” which, NBC’s Carl Stern and Dan Abrams reported moments later, was not a split decision at all. The most compelling video of the entire year was a bunch of TV reporters standing in front of the Supreme Court reading a legal decision. The difference between fiction and truth, someone once observed, is that fiction has to make sense.