Who played whom?

At about 10:00 last night, the CNN team was throwing up its arms in confusion. How could they have been so wrong? How was it that after 2000, after they had been so careful not to base their call of the election on polls or early returns, they had apparently done it again?

They hadn’t, of course, but they acted as if they had. The expressions on their faces suggested that they had monumentally screwed up, but in fact they never changed their call of a single state. Still haven’t.

Here’s my guess as to what happened. CNN “knew” that Kerry had won, and that it wasn’t even very close, but they never reported it. All the pundits you saw on TV during those early hours of returns were convinced it was all over but the confetti, but were choking back their opinions in the interest of decorum and restraint.

Those early exit polls that had turned up all over the Internet showed Kerry with huge leads, seemingly insurmountable leads. CNN and the other news outlets probably had even more information at their disposal. ABC was reporting that the Kerry camp seemed “genuinely excited” about the early results (which, of course, ABC wasn’t reporting).

Then the Bush camp pulled its shocker and invited the media up to Bush Central for Bush to make a statement. The video was fuzzy and inaudible, but the calculated grin on his face was unmistakable. Bush knew he was going to win this thing.

The pundits scurried back to their numbers. Could Bush really be leading Florida by that much? Was Ohio a foregone conclusion? What had happened to the projected Kerry shockers in Virginia and Colorado?

Wonkette, who had been leaking those exit poll numbers all night, began to get a sneaking suspicion that she had been played. Was it Karl Rove? Something more sinister?

Who played whom? Maybe the Kerry campaign knew it was going to be close but wanted to project the impression of victory. Maybe the Bush campaign fell for it, but reacted with genuine joy when the real numbers started coming in. Maybe the whole thing was indeed orchestrated by Karl Rove.

In the end, of course, it probably won’t matter. I don’t think Democrats are ruthless enough to try to rip Ohio from the Republican grasp, not with Bush getting 51 percent of the popular vote. Bush is ahead by 100,000 votes in Ohio with only the provisional ballots to be counted. Even a surprise “victory” by Kerry at this late hour will likely be heavily challenged by Bush. I doubt the Kerry campaign will have the guts to mount the type of rebuttal necessary to win.

A more likely scenario could reveal Bush with a fairly big lead — in the thousands — after all the votes are counted. In fact, a margin of a few thousand votes only seems big compared to Florida from 2000, but that perception would in all likelihood convince Kerry to drop any significant legal challenges. Of course, I could be wrong. Remember, I was one of those folks who didn’t even think it would be close.

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