The tradition in America on election night is for the losing side – the politicians and their loyal pundits – to adopt a modest pose, and to pledge co-operation with the winners. But on Tuesday night, the former Republican strategist Karl Rove wouldn't even accept the decision of his own cable network and employer, Fox News, when it called the key state of Ohio – and, minutes later, the entire race – for President Obama.
Shortly after 11 p.m. ET, even as the Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier were adopting a resigned, downbeat stance, Rove attacked the network's "decision desk" for calling Ohio with only 74 per cent of the returns in. Saying that he'd just gotten off the phone with the director of the Ohio for Romney campaign, who was frantically checking the website of the state's secretary of state, Rove noted that, at that point, fewer than 1,000 votes seemed to separate the two presidential candidates. He enumerated some of the Republican-rich counties that had yet to file their results, and declared: "I'd be very cautious about intruding into this process."
Responded Megyn Kelly: "Well, that's awkward."
But Fox producers recognized that awkward TV can also be compelling TV, so they sent Kelly out of the studio and through Fox's warren of back offices to track down the network's statistical gurus for an on-camera interview to explain their rationale for calling Ohio in Obama's favour. (MSNBC had also called the state for the President; CNN followed moments after Fox's call.)
She travelled so far from the set that she lost audio contact with her producers in the control room, who could no longer speak to her in her earpiece. But she got the key piece of information from one of the men who made the call. "There's too much Obama vote that's outstanding that we know is going to come in," explained Arnon Mishkin.
Rove was not yet ready to back down. "I'm just raising the question of our responsibility to call these things when it appears to ordinary Americans that we are not leading the pack for the sake of leading the pack, but we're calling it," he said.
Rove is not normally concerned with how others perceive him; his very presence on the most popular U.S. cable news network is an unusual one. The architect of George W. Bush's two electoral wins, he is also founder of two of the largest outside groups to play a role in the 2012 election: the super PAC American Crossroads,and Crossroads GPS, a non-profit advocacy organization, together spent more than $300-million supporting Republican candidates.
Asked by the anchor Chris Wallace if the money had been well spent, considering Mitt Romney's loss, Rove responded: "Yea. Look, if groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would have been over a long time ago."
But even if the raw results became irrefutable as the night wore on, the punditry seized the opportunity to spin the evening's meaning. And while some noted the Republican Party's poor showing among Hispanics might prod the party to shift its approach on key issues such as immigration reform, others said the election meant nothing.
"I think the real story here is that Obama won, but he's got no mandate," declared the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, on Fox, predicting more legislative gridlock from a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. "If he gets a majority in the popular vote, it'll be very small, if there's any."
As of Wednesday morning, Obama has won 51.1 per cent of the popular vote; George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 with 50.7 per cent.