Election Night’s Big Winner: Television

How TV trounced the Internet when it came to reporting Obama’s victory.

CNN's John King and his electoral map
CNN’s John King and his electoral map during Sunday’s election coverage

Courtesy of CNN.

According to Twitter, there were 31 million tweets on Election Day, with the site hitting a peak of 327,452 tweets-per-minute the moment TV networks called the race for President Obama. That was a record pace for the micro-blogging network, and the company considers it a point of pride that Twitter never once went down during the surge. As Twitter design chief Doug Bowman noted, “RIP, Fail Whale.”

Yet if you wanted to keep close tabs on who was winning Tuesday night, Twitter failed you. The same goes for much of the rest of the Web. The best way to figure out what was going on was to go old-school: Turn on the news, sit back, and relax.

TV’s best election geeks—especially CNN’s John King and NBC’s Chuck Todd—were faster, more accurate, and more thoughtful than most sources you could find online. Throughout the night, they told you where Obama was doing well, where Mitt Romney was weak, what was going on with congressional races, and why specific returns in specific swing counties across the nation mattered. With King’s “Magic Wall”—the data-spewing touchscreen map that he operated with the facility of a tweaked-out gamer—and with its live, exclusive reports on the vote count from important polling places in battleground states, CNN became something like a televised version of polling maestro Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog. If you were watching TV without the aid of the Web, you would have known pretty early last night that Romney was in trouble, and you would have known exactly why.

But if TV offered everything I usually go to the Web for—speed, precision, and depth—the Web was full of what one usually finds on cable news: pointless bloviating peppered with unsubstantiated rumor. At its best, Twitter was a noisy echo of television—most people (myself included!) were just telling you what they were watching and how they felt about it. It was hard to find solid information elsewhere online, too. Sites offering live election results were slammed with traffic, which made them slow and unreliable. The scrolling tickers on cable networks offered up results faster than you could find them on most states’ official election pages. Even FiveThirtyEight’s live blog was kind of lame. Most of Silver’s (and his colleague Micah Cohen’s) insights—that Obama was winning Florida’s bellwether counties, that he needed to run up big numbers in D.C.’s suburbs, that he would win the popular vote once West Coast returns came in—matched stuff John King had long ago explained and demonstrated in a visually pleasing way.

TV’s triumph over Twitter was surprising. For the rest of the campaign, Twitter was the center of the political universe. Reporters, pundits, and activists used the network (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) to monitor and manufacture each day’s spin. For most of the summer and fall, pretty much everything you saw on cable news at night was born on Twitter in the morning. Twitter’s zenith came during the three presidential debates. Even while Obama and Romney were speaking, its clever, politically minded hordes would fact-check and grade their performances in real time. On TV after the debates, you’d mostly hear pundits telling you stuff they’d read on Twitter. This was old media at its worst.

Twitter also revealed its strengths during Hurricane Sandy, directing people to information that was targeted to their needs. Television, meanwhile, could only give you the macro picture, covering Sandy as a news story that was happening to millions of people rather than a personal catastrophe that was happening to you. Inevitably, some people used Twitter to spread disinformation during the storm. But the network quickly corrected itself, and on balance kept people more informed than they would have been without it. As BuzzFeed’s John Herrman argued, with Twitter “we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Unlike the storm or the debates, Election Night—a long-planned-for event that benefits from a lot of expensive resources—played to TV’s strengths. The networks knew where to deploy their people, and they had specific expertise on staff. Any citizen journalist can report from a storm, and anyone who was watching that first debate could have opined on Obama’s terrible performance, but it takes an election expert to tell you why Hillsborough County, Fla., is crucial to the electoral math, and it takes money and access to send a reporter to monitor the vote tally in that county and report what they’re seeing right now.

The good thing is that you don’t have to choose between Twitter and TV. Everyone who was following Twitter last night was also watching the tube, and that was true of the debates, too. Like peanut butter and jelly, the two are better together. In fact, I suspect there’s a virtuous feedback loop at work here. John King, Chuck Todd, and most other political reporters are Twitter addicts. They understand how Twitter shapes the political conversation, and especially how people use the network to talk about what they’re watching on TV. What was most remarkable about their coverage this year was how unafraid they were to geek out on the numbers. King and Todd were offering exactly the kind of deep analysis that they knew politics junkies on Twitter would demand from them. And they were also aware, I’m sure, that if they didn’t excel, they’d end up the laughingstock of the Web.