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CNN talent and producers who burnt the midnight oil during Election Week 2020 recently spoke with Esquire about how they pulled off “the longest and most dramatic Election Week in recent memory.”
CNN was the No. 1 network on cable television for the week, averaging the largest total audience in its 40-year history in the process.
Here are their observations of Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 3), which, unbeknownst to them at 3 p.m. that afternoon, was only just the beginning.
They tell Esquire:
David Chalian, political director: At 3 o’clock, we had an editorial team meeting with everyone that was going to be on air that night to make sure that we understood the various storylines that could emerge, and how we were prepared to deal with each of them. When exit polls became available at 5 p.m., five of us had a very quick 10-minute huddle to wrap our brains around what the exit polls were saying. And then we were off to the races.
Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief: Over the course of any given 24 to 48 hour period, we were rotating election coverage through 12 different CNN control rooms. As we moved from team to team, we needed to take a control room down, clean it for COVID purposes and bring it back up for a different shift. We had equally sized staff across every shift of coverage. So we never went down in size.
Abby Phillip, political correspondent: I’m the newbie, so I didn’t know what to expect. At some point Tuesday afternoon, I was kind of like, “So, when are we supposed to be done again?” Then Jake [Tapper] and Dana [Bash] were like, ‘Don’t even ask.’ They were like, ‘In 2016, we were here until like 5 a.m. Don’t even think about sleep as a concept.'”
Dana Bash, chief political correspondent: It was a complete roller coaster and we prepared for that. We took our Dramamine and we knew that it was going to be wild.
John King, anchor and chief national correspondent: Joe Biden jumps out to these giant leads in Ohio and Texas, and it’s like, “Whoa.” So we had to be careful. The constant challenge was to say this is very real, we just don’t know how complete it is yet. We know it’s not complete, and we don’t know where we’re going and to try to convince people on both sides.
Bash: It’s like watching a mural being painted and at the beginning it looks like one thing. And then you realize it’s something completely different from what you thought it was at the beginning. And that’s not normally how election nights are.
Wolf Blitzer, lead political anchor: When we saw the results coming in from Florida, I thought maybe Trump has a chance.
Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent: Tuesday night it kind of looks like it might be one of those circumstances again where President Trump might pull it off. And so I was hearing such a jubilation from sources who were like, “Holy shit. This actually is going to work in our favor.”
Arlette Saenz, political correspondent covering Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: I will say it was real quiet. It was very quiet from people on Tuesday night.
Van Jones, host and political commentator: Tuesday night was devastating. The polling had been suggesting that there would be just a wipe out of Trump. And the fact that it wasn’t a wipe out was crushing.
They sent us home around 3 or 4 in the morning. We had drivers. And I remember walking through the lobby of my apartment building, and the security guys who I talked to the day before, who were very excited that Trump was going to get his comeuppance, looking at me for some sign of hope. And I had nothing left to give. I shrugged my shoulders and got in the elevator. I couldn’t even talk to them.
Jake Tapper, anchor and chief Washington correspondent: I went home Wednesday thinking that there was a chance that Donald Trump was going to be reelected.
Skipping ahead to Saturday, Nov. 7 (the day the major media outlets called the election for Joe Biden).
King: We did know when we came in Saturday morning that if Biden continued on this trajectory, he was getting close to satisfying all the metrics.
Blitzer: We were waiting to see what was happening in Pennsylvania and Biden was building up his lead. Originally, we were thinking maybe when he goes ahead by 20,000 votes, that would be a good time to project. Then we waited. Once he got to a 30,000 lead, we knew that most of the remaining votes were mail-in ballots, where Biden was doing so much better with mail-in voting than Trump was. We decided that it was time.
Phillip: Saturday, I was like, “It has to be today. We cannot do this anymore.”
Saenz: I remember waking up and just thinking, I cannot do this election Groundhog Day again.
Chalian: If you go back and look at our footage you can hear John King say on air to Kate Bolduan who was reporting Philadelphia, “John, Wolf stepped away for a moment.” Literally, in that moment, we were preparing to make the projection.
King: The control room producer said to me, “Keep going.” That’s when I kind of got a clue, because I was like, “Why did you want me to keep going?” He needed me to keep going so Wolf could get over to setup position to do the projection. Then he said, “Wolf.”
Blitzer: The producers tell me to walk over to my other location, get ready to make a projection. Of course, I walked over. I do a lot of walking. I do a lot of steps in the election coverage, walking over to John, walking over to David Chalian, walking over to Pamela Brown. The key is when you walk, you don’t walk too fast. You don’t want to lose your breath. You want to be calm. Just walk casually…
We pause for the animation and then I make the projection.
Tapper: I don’t think I was emotional. I did cough at one point, which I think was misinterpreted as emotion, because I’d been talking for a week.
Bash: The moment we started talking about the first woman to be vice president of the United States and to be able to do it with another woman, with Abby, I will never forget it. It was of those, Wow. We are the first draft of major history right now [moments]. And it was cool.
Collins: That day was seeing the race be called while the president is golfing. And we were kind of wondering, what is his reaction going to be? When he left the White House there were not these massive crowds cheering his loss outside of his home and he’s coming back and here they are. He had to drive through the crowds in his motorcade to get back to the White House. So it was kind of this remarkable moment to see that.
Jones: After Wolf called it, all my text messages started blowing up. Especially my Muslim friends and especially my friends who have ties to immigrant communities. And their just palpable relief and joy really hit me hard; it cracked open in me my own sense of relief, which you really kind of have to dissociate from.
I had dissociated. I mean, I could say the words, “Oh, Muslims are being discriminated against,” but I had long ago stopped feeling it. Long ago. It wasn’t healthy for me to go around feeling those babies being snatched from their mothers. So I had dissociated from all that stuff emotionally just to be able to do my job. And then suddenly all those people are reaching out to me. And it dropped me back into my body, and I realized I hadn’t been in my body, my feelings, for years.
And so I asked for tissue. And then about the time I got a tissue in my hand, they were done with Jake’s thing, and they came to me, and they came to Anderson [Cooper]. And I think Anderson asked, “How are you doing, Van?” Almost as my friend like, “You okay?” And we’re sitting there exhausted. I mean, nobody’s had any sleep.
It came out the way that it came out, but it wasn’t like I was sitting there with some speech in mind. We didn’t know it was coming. But honestly, had I not had that WhatsApp group and I had not had my phone face up, looking at all these text messages coming through, I probably would’ve been able to get through it without so much of the emotion coming up.
I mean, look, it’s just one of those moments. If they’d given me five more minutes to get myself together, it wouldn’t have been as raw, my kids wouldn’t have been as embarrassed, but maybe it wouldn’t have been as impactful. … I think I surprised myself as much as anybody else with what I said and the emotions behind it. I didn’t realize how much I was sitting on, and I think probably a lot of people around the world felt the same way.
King: Biden spoke, and they cleared me because they knew we weren’t going to do much after that. But I have a Sunday show at 8 in the morning. So I went down to my office in the building and wrote for a couple hours. Then I went home and sat at my kitchen table and had a glass of wine and wrote for another hour, 90 minutes. Then, as I found myself falling asleep sitting up, I said, “You know, maybe you should get some sleep.”
Blitzer: I was the most tired when I got home, when the whole thing was over with, and I could finally get a good night’s sleep. I said, “Oh my God, I’m really tired.”
Tapper: I had a Sunday morning show to do. It wasn’t like, “Oh, Saturday night, it’s over,” it was like, “I have to make it to Sunday at 11.” And because of the pandemic, and because of being short-staffed because of just everything, of everybody working, I was unable to get any coffee on Sunday. And because I didn’t have commercials, I couldn’t run to the kitchen and get coffee.
So I was there doing these interviews and my energy was just depleted. It was like driving on an empty tank of gas, and just hoping that you make it to the end, to the gas station before your car just dies. Anyway, I did, I made it through, and asked why I couldn’t get coffee, even though I’d been asking for coffee. But that’s another story. And then, and this hasn’t happened to me in decades, but literally on the drive home, I would close my eyes and wake up, and I was driving. Like a split second, but you’re like, “Oh, my God.” That happened three blocks from my house, so I was like, “Okay, I can make it for the next three blocks.” But, yeah, it was rough. In this metaphor, my car was about to die.
Bash: I got home Saturday and my son had a big bouquet of flowers and he was like, “Mommy, you were amazing.” I just forgot about everything else.