Election night – gripping viewing?

Trekking with Dennis is based in Great Britain and does not endorse any American political party or candidate.

Ever since I was first able to vote when I turned 18, I’ve found election night coverage fascinating. Though the manner in which elections are conducted is very different in the United Kingdom and the United States, election night programming is remarkably similar on both sides of the Atlantic, with panels of self-proclaimed “experts” lining up to break down the incoming results, and politicians on hand to chart increasingly unlikely paths to victory for their party or preferred candidate. I still find election night programming absolutely fascinating, and stay up for hours and hours to watch it.

We’ve seen several recent elections go against expectations – here in the UK, the 2015 and 2017 election results were unexpected, as was the 2016 referendum result. And of course, in the United States the result of the 2016 presidential election came as a tremendous shock to all but a few pollsters and pundits. It’s difficult to get into the ins and outs of election night coverage without discussing the actual political implications, but what I’d like to try to do is examine election night programming itself rather than comment on either of America’s two presidential candidates.

The exit poll in the 2017 British general election came as a surprise to many – and was very accurate.

One of the things you hear on every one of these broadcasts – and often for weeks or months beforehand – is some variant of this expression: “this is the most important election in our lifetimes!” Gosh, that phrase irks me. I’ve lived long enough to have seen enough elections come and go – and enough politicians of all stripes voted in and voted out – to know that no one single election is that important. For Americans in particular, if you don’t like who you voted for you only have to wait a scant four years before you have the chance to unseat them. Even less than that when you consider the presidential primary season begins more than a year before election day.

Hyperbole aside, what really interests me are the statistics. The vote tallies are, of course, the main event, but seeing different areas broken down expertly into different voting blocs or constituencies is fascinating stuff. The sheer volume of data coming in can be overwhelming, which is where having the right presenter who’s able to explain what’s going on in a calm and easily-understood manner can make all the difference.

Though pre-election polling has been sketchy at best in recent years, exit polls have proven far more useful. The amount of time and attention required to properly craft an exit poll on such a large scale is almost unimaginable, yet they routinely prove to be accurate on election night. Here in the UK, exit polls are kept sealed until the moment election day is over – 10pm sharp. That’s when the broadcasters make their big reveal and their predictions, and even if the result seems a given, the moments leading up to it are tense!

Pre-election opinion polling for this year’s American presidential election.

Nowadays the visuals and graphics used by news organisations are great, too. Gone are the days of the “swing-o-meter,” a crude cardboard arrow attached to a board! Instead we’re greeted by green-screen projections and fancy computer graphics, with presenters making use of huge touch screens to look at incoming results or polls in specific constituencies or districts.

Election night programming is, most of all, designed to be informative. Most people are tuning in having cast their ballot and in nervous anticipation, waiting to see if their favoured (or least-hated) candidate or party will score a big win. And the programmes have to cater to this audience, providing as much information in as nonpartisan a manner as possible. But that doesn’t mean that election night can’t be entertaining too, and if you’re a statistics nerd like I am, the way the results are discussed and debated – and the fancy graphics and technology the major broadcasters have for this purpose – is all part of the fun.

In a kind of bloody-minded way that I think a lot of Brits have, there’s fun to be had when things don’t go to plan. Watching politicians squirm as they see their party sinking ever-closer to defeat can be heart-wrenching… or pretty funny, depending on how you look at it (and how apathetic you’ve become to the actual outcome!) Politics is something that affects all of us, of course, but at the same time, I find the passion behind it to be a younger person’s game. I certainly don’t subscribe to the argument that says this election – or any election at all, for that matter – is “the most important in history,” as I’ve seen enough politicians come and go to know that no matter who wins, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be out of office too. Though I have my political preferences (as indeed we all do) I’m no longer as passionate about seeing any of them win or lose as I was when I first sat down to watch an election night programme after casting my first ballot.

Donald Trump was not expected to win in 2016 – yet he surprised the pundits and polling organisations and defeated Hilary Clinton.

The other fascinating thing about election night programming is how long it goes on. It can take many hours for the results to trickle in (or longer, in some cases) meaning that the programme’s presenters have to find things to talk about and keep the show going for all of that time. After the excitement of any exit poll news, there’s often a lull while the votes are counted, and it can take time before the first official results are announced. There’s a skill to keeping viewers interested during those moments, and as well as being informative, presenters have to be at least somewhat entertaining.

I know it’s an unusual kind of programme to get excited about, and I also realise that for most viewers election night is less about the broadcast itself and more about the information presented about the politicians and political parties. But I think it’s possible to view election night broadcasts the way one might watch a major sporting event – it can be tense and exciting, with moments of high drama.

I’ll be tuning in tonight to see how Trump and Biden get on. And it’s quite likely that, whatever the outcome, it’ll be a fascinating broadcast.

The United States presidential election takes place on the 3rd of November 2020. Election night programmes will be broadcast on many channels and networks both in the United States and around the world. Trekking with Dennis is based in Great Britain and does not endorse any American politician or political party. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.