It isn't quite true to say that presidential elections are covered like horse races, but only because horse races hardly get covered anymore, while presidential elections get covered year-round, in the klieg-lit manner of the NFL. When Americans vote for a chief executive on Tuesday—for just the 57th time in the nation's history—TV will give the full football studio treatment to Super Poll LVII.
As well it should, for Election Day has become one of TV's great sports spectacles, a quadrennial epic like the Olympics or the World Cup, replete with space-age sets, sideline reporters and touch-screen walls from which anchor-shamans summon gratuitous graphics. There will be pointless prognostications, unnecessary telestrations and a multicolored map of the United States defying us to distinguish Election Tuesday ("The Road to the White House") from Selection Sunday ("The Road to New Orleans").
The ancient horse race analogy is not entirely dead, though, for presidential elections and the conventions that precede them still provide plenty of handicapping touts, silly hats and the offtrack betting of absentee ballots. Tuesday night will conclude, as Derby Day does, with the triumph of a winning ticket. (The losing ticket, as in horse racing, will be torn asunder and scattered to the wind.)
TV coverage on election night—inevitably, Election Night in America—will be a mash-up of many sports broadcasting idioms, united by the specially commissioned theme music that heralds any monster throwdown. If Faith Hill isn't tweaking her Sunday Night Football anthem into "Waitin' All Day for Tuesday Night," she should be. The three presidential debates—scored in real time by ringside judges—were missing only a prefight weigh-in and ring announcer Michael Buffer to introduce the two candidates: "Let's get ready to ramble."
On Tuesday, that theme music will play us in and out of commercials—and in and out of consciousness—as coverage continues long into the night, regardless of the game's score. The Electoral College blowouts, which are over early (Reagan 525, Mondale 13, in 1984), still require the rain-delay fill of a set overstocked with analysts. The extra-inning marathons whose results remain in doubt into the wee hours and beyond (Bush 271, Gore 266, in 2000, a game played under protest) acquire the air of a quadruple overtime hockey playoff that becomes impossible to turn off, despite the looming workday. (The hanging chads from that 2000 election still evoke a powerful nostalgia for any baseball fan who grew up using his father's car key to punch out the chads on a major league baseball All-Star ballot.)
As you hunker down on Tuesday with your beer and snacks and scorecard, smugly civic-minded with your I VOTED sticker, try to count the sports-broadcast clichés. They'll be borrowed from the NBA and NFL drafts (correspondents weigh in from various war rooms around the country) and more than 50 years of college football telecasts (college football being the only reason, barring natural disaster, that national correspondents are ever dispatched to central Ohio, rural Pennsylvania, Iowa or northern Florida).
Election Night studios will look less monastery-male than their football counterparts. Very few Candys or Katies ever anchored an NFL studio show, a genre that has given us two separate men, on two separate channels, named Boomer. But everything else will look familiar. You'll get the same demented laughter watching Carville and Coulter as you will from Howie and Terry. You'll know which channel is contracted to carry your team, reflecting your sympathies back at you. (The AFC is on CBS, the NFC on Fox. The Democrats are on MSNBC, the Republicans on Fox News.)
Rabid fans and neutral spectators—the mysterious "undecided voters"—will find it hard, as the evening wears on, to flip away from the mounting drama: The perpetual scroll of out-of-town scores, those Senate and congressional and gubernatorial races; the clock counting down until the polls close across various time zones; the cutaways to the curtained chambers of American voting booths, resembling nothing so much as the replay booths on NFL sidelines. As voters emerge from under the hood, the networks will have on hand the electoral equivalents of Mike Pereira—Fox's NFL rules guru—explaining arcane election laws.
The stakes will be infinitely higher, of course, but the basic narrative won't change much from Sunday to Tuesday, when football steps aside for politics. As the dramatic tension increases—Will the defending champ repeat? Will the challenger prevail?—millions will sit at home, watch the scores, commiserate on social media and talk back to their TVs.
They'll see the cheering crowds, the hand-lettered signs and chanted slogans, the red-white-and-blue bunting, and wonder if the World Series has been extended by a week. As with the Fall Classic, which the election always follows, this contest will end after midnight in the East with somber statements issuing from the losers' locker room and a champagne-and-confetti celebration by the victors.
That won't happen until the networks have "called" the election, the way a referee "calls" a prizefight. In a rare departure from sports convention, the newly declared winner will not put on a cap and T-shirt commemorating the victory, the manufacturer's tag still dangling from the neck hole. But like every other major champion in the United States, he will be going to the White House.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
A fan in Detroit—who confirmed he was serious—placed an ad on Craigslist offering to trade his house for World Series tickets.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW