Early on Election Day, you could see the Republican story line
developing: bloggers steal election. As exit polls showing amazingly
good news for John Kerry careened around the Web--widely enough to
shake the U.S. stock market--panicky conservatives lashed out at
what they saw as a rush to judgment that was biasing news coverage
even before the polls closed. At National Review Online, writers
fumed that the base was growing demoralized at the early numbers,
potentially depressing turnout, and wondered if this might be phony
data circulated by Kerry operatives. One poster argued that the way
the exit polls were shaping early news coverage amounted to a
"media debacle."That didn't last for long. By night's end, it was Democrats--furious
that Fox and NBC had called Ohio for George W. Bush--who were
shrieking (again) about a stolen election. Republicans, meanwhile,
felt vindicated--enough to stay at a Washington rally until six in
the morning, when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card arrived amid
the discarded signs and broken glasses to declare that George W.
Bush had won a "decisive" victory. But it was a long and nerve-
racking trip to get there.
On Tuesday night at the Capital Grille, the preferred Washington
steak-and- martini hangout for Republican lobbyists and operatives,
the mood was nervous. Thick cigar smoke swirled as restive
Republicans drank surprisingly heavily for the early hour. On a
television tuned to Fox, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol was
suggesting the Iraq war may have cost Bush the election. People
shook their heads incredulously, and there was a note of bitterness
in the air. "I hate Joe Lockhart. I hate him," someone snarled as
the Kerry adviser popped up to spin.
Later, at the Bush campaign's victory party at the Ronald Reagan
federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue, improving news produced a
brighter mood. Hundreds of Republicans had crammed into a cavernous
atrium under an enormous American flag and a huge TV screen.
Republicans had hyper-managed their event to filter out bad news.
The volume on the jumbo television (tuned to Fox, of course) was
turned up when good news was being reported for Bush. Once, when
Fox's Carl Cameron appeared on television to relay some Kerry
campaign spin, the volume suddenly cut off, as Republican National
Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie hopped onstage to make a few
Before long, good news started to roll in. Missouri and then Florida
were called for Bush. Cockiness began to take hold. By 11 p.m., the
banal modern country singer Darryl Worley declared to cheers,
"Looks like we're going to win this thing, huh?" Even so,
bitterness lingered over the exit polls. After Bush won Florida, I
explained to a former White House aide in the crowd that I had
received a call from a Democrat who was beginning to panic. "Good,"
she replied. "I've been there."
Republicans think their early anxiety might have been the result of
a ploy by the Kerry campaign. I asked Bush campaign spokesman Scott
Stanzel about the theory that aides had peddled unrealistic exit
polls, hoping to create a sense of momentum, and he didn't
disagree. "Whenever their reality has not been good for them, they
have tried to push a fiction that shows them doing better than they
were," Stanzel said. Another GOP aide insisted to me that, despite
rumors circulating that Vice President Dick Cheney was melting
down, there had been no panic within the Bush ranks, just bad blood
over a sense that the Kerry campaign had tried to celebrate too
early. This Republican said word had circulated that John Edwards
was holding a private victory celebration early in the evening on
the basis of exit polls from Florida. "That was pretty stupid," he
On the weekend before the election, things had certainly looked good
for Bush in southeastern Pennsylvania. I'd spent an afternoon
following Kathy and Bill Stryker as they strolled through autumn
foliage and knocked on doors. When the Strykers had picked up their
door-knocking list, John Waldeyer, the GOP activist in charge of
the local canvassing effort, told them they would be working from
highly targeted voter information. "We're going for quality, not
quantity," Waldeyer explained. The Republicans here weren't
interested in banging on every possible door: They wanted to make
sure they got their people out.
Our door-knocking was something of a trip through human misery:
There was the man who squinted and whispered from agonizing
migraines; the single mother whose husband had apparently fled; the
man with Alzheimer's;
the home for the disabled; the old woman about to start
chemotherapy. But there may have been a political lesson as well.
Though Bush ultimately lost Pennsylvania, this
region was indicative of larger trends: The few swing voters we
encountered intended to vote for Bush on security grounds.
Particularly striking was one woman who answered the door in a black
sweatshirt that read crayola. Her husband had been working for a
private security firm in Afghanistan for a year, she explained. "I
have really been struggling with this. This morning I decided we
really need strong leadership. And I really think, if we vote Kerry
in now, we're going to send the wrong message to Islamic
fundamentalists." She had no illusions about Bush: "I want to see
him lose a little bit of his arrogance," she explained. "And his
Christian fundamentalist agenda really bothers me. I feel very
uneasy about some of his views. But I feel more uneasy about
Islamic fundamentalism." That might have been the story of the
By 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Karen Hughes had taken the stage at the
Reagan building and declared that Bush would win Ohio. Within an
hour, it appeared she was right. Republicans who had been wringing
their hands earlier were now drinking champagne, though still
nursing their grudges at some in the media. "There was a sense that
the press was rooting for Kerry," one administration aide told me,
"and it seemed there were several instances where things were
skewed against us." Reporters are right to be nervous about a second
Bush term, he explained. "There are a lot of press [aides] who want
to ... take revenge."
As the night dragged on with Ohio in brief limbo, a bizarre game of
chicken unfolded with Bush refusing to deliver a victory speech
until the networks declared him the winner in New Mexico. The
network anchors were exhausted, but they held out, and Bush
supporters and reporters slept in the Reagan building during the
wait. Still, the mood remained triumphal. Around three o'clock in
the morning, the giant television was airing commentary from Fox
News' Chris Wallace, who declared, "It seems to me that the
Democratic Party is in a shambles." The crowd roared with delight.
Bush never showed at the Reagan building. At close
to 6 a.m., to the immense relief of everyone present, Card took the
stage. "Good morning," he said to wry laughter. Although Democrats
were still contesting Ohio, Card argued that Bush had won a
"decisive" victory with more votes than any candidate in U.S.
history and the first popular-vote majority since 1988. It sounded,
in other words, like Card was declaring a mandate. By then, the
notion of a bloggers' coup was a distant, ridiculous memory.