Around 9:30 p.m. on CBS, Scott Pelley announced that the network had called Wisconsin for President Barack Obama. Pelley immediately signaled this was the turning point of a night that had begun with networks cautiously treading water with all the crucial states too close to call.
Fox News was among the first to predict that the crucial state of Ohio had gone for Obama, and definitely the first to turn its coverage so firmly toward the future. But, in general, the speed with which the dominoes started to fall shortly after 11 p.m. seemed to take every news network by surprise. They had been predicting a longer night of suspense.
In the first hours of coverage, all of the networks had to keep repeating one crucial truth: The critical states were all too close to call. There was plenty of time, then, for Diane Sawyer on ABC to chat about Obama's lucky basketball game and Romney's lucky milkshake, or for Fox's Megyn Kelly to explain how the calls are made.
There also was insufficient evidence of a Romney upset to really get the talking heads excited by the possibility of a real surprise. About 8:35 p.m., CBS found a little drama by reporting that Virginia had suspended vote counting - a consequence of so many people waiting in line. It seemed Virginia was emerging as the big story, one that Fox kept going with its constant "Long Lines in Virginia" crawl. Virginia, as things turned out, became moot.
As things started to break Obama's way, Sarah Palin said on Fox that she was "crossing her fingers," even though her grim expression suggested that she thought it would not go that way. A quickly somber Bill O'Reilly argued that the combination of superstorm Sandy and changing demographics had sunk Romney's campaign.
On MSNBC, Howard Fineman saw Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a guy for Romney to blame, given that Perry had pushed Romney to the right on thel immigration issue, which, Fineman suggested, torpedoed Romney with Latinos. There was much talk on Fox about demographics, with Tucker Carlson noting the decline in churchgoers.
On ABC and elsewhere, there was much talk of political divides and of the difficulty for any president of unifying the nation. Sawyer, though, cut through some of that nonsense by snapping that "difference is not a crisis," one of the best lines of commentary on a night forced to deal with a paucity of surprises and in the end, surprisingly little change.