It was supposed to be the coda to a long, brutal presidential campaign. The onset of a new era in American politics.
And it was – just not in the way the candidates, their staffers, voters and the reporters who covered them all had expected.
November 8, 2016, means different things to different people. For supporters of President Donald Trump, the date represents a kind of deliverance, their faith in the billionaire businessman rewarded after months of polls suggesting his campaign was doomed.
Hillary Clinton’s coalition, along with a vocal band of “Never Trump” Republicans, regard it quite differently. Many entered the Javits Center in New York City that evening for a party. For history. They left shattered.
This is the story of Election Day in 2016, from the last gasp campaign events, to the heady (for Clinton) early hours and glorious (for Trump) evening. The “day” – all 36 hours of it – ended at the White House, where President Barack Obama acknowledged the result.
This is how it happened, as viewed through social media, and in the memories of CNN reporters who witnessed it live.
CNN producer Betsy Klein:
“I was the pool reporter for the networks the day before election day, and Tim Kaine had a midnight rally at his hometown in Richmond after a full day of campaign events (Raleigh, Charlotte, and Wilmington, NC, then to Fairfax, VA). My job during that rally was to ride up in a lift about 100 feet in the air, get some nice overhead footage, then come back down. But they realized the lift was too loud to move during the rally and didn’t tell me so I got stuck up there for the entire event.”
CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny:
“More than three hours before sunrise, Hillary Clinton’s blue and white campaign plane landed in White Plains, New York, after one final rally. The Clinton staff wasn’t just counting their chickens before a single vote was tabulated, they were popping the champagne. Jon Bon Jovi was aboard, holding court with Bill and Hillary Clinton. A couple dozen Clinton friends and top aides were too. As reporters watched from the back of the plane, their words were out of earshot, but their celebration was clear as they raised their glasses to what they over-confidently thought was a job well done. Clinton thought she was going to win. Her aides told her so. It would be their only champagne toast on Election Day.”
CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta
“I’ll never forget the senior Trump official who told me early on Election Day that it would take a ‘miracle’ for Trump to win. This source was convinced Trump was going to lose in large part because of the Access Hollywood scandal.”
CNN Producer Dan Merica
“It has been a long night but Hillary Clinton felt like she was going to win.
After a Lady Gaga concert in North Carolina at 12:30 p.m. ET and a tarmac rally with some of her longtime supporters in New York at 3 a.m. ET, Clinton’s last frenetic day of campaigning was over. There was optimism on the plane, even from the woman up front who had long been careful about appearing confident.
I slept for a couple hours after getting home from the airport and woke up at 6 a.m. to go vote with Clinton. I was pool on Election Day and we were at a local school in Chappaqua, New York waiting for the first woman from a major political party to put a check mark next to her name on a presidential ballot.
Clinton, despite the lack of sleep, arrived all smiles wearing a gold pant suit. Bill Clinton was in tow sporting a blue suit and light blue tie.
The voting was inconsequential, even if it was historic. It was my interaction with both Clintons that remained with me long past her loss. As women lined up outside thanked Clinton for her campaign, I could see she was moved.
What does this all mean, I asked.
‘It’s the most humbling feeling,’ Clinton said, reflecting on the history of her campaign for one of the first times. ‘I know how much responsibility goes with this and so many people are counting on the outcome of this election. … And I will do the very best I can if I am fortunate enough to win.’
After years of covering Clinton, it was one of the first times I remember thinking she feels like she is going to win – and make history.”
CNN producer Betsy Klein:
“Tim Kaine posed for a photo aboard his campaign plane with family and staff in Richmond before boarding for New York. Festive mood, lot of smiles. On the flight, Kaine gave each member of his staff a signed harmonica, a bottle of Virginia wine, and a personal note.”
CNN Senior Washington Correspondent Brianna Keilar:
The major upset was still hours off, but here Keilar recalls another surprise – and, as it turned out, a preview of what would follow eight months later.
“It was March 8 and I was covering Bernie Sanders in Florida. He was about as far away from Michigan as he could be while his campaign waited to be slaughtered there by Hillary Clinton. Polls had him down by more than 21 points on average. He held an early event in Miami, looking forward to Florida’s contest, and the auditorium was totally empty long before polls closed so Sanders could give a speech before losing the night, common practice for a campaign expecting a primary loss. Crews from other networks left the venue. No point staying, the news wasn’t with Sanders.
As results started coming he was surprisingly close to Clinton, but pundits and even Bernie aides reasoned that as more votes were tallied she would pull away. With Sanders leading early a source close to his campaign told CNN it was nice to be in the running at least for a little while, even though they still expected to lose. The night continued on and soon it was clear that this was going to be a squeaker.
And then Sanders won. This was what his rally site looked like when the race was called. Empty except for our lonely news crew. The polls had been off by over 20 points in what would be a key state in Clinton’s general election firewall that failed to hold.”
FIRST RESULTS IN — 7 p.m. ET
CNN Exec. Director of Political Programming Mark Preston
“By 8:30 p.m. ET, the safe prediction that Clinton would win started to fade as Trump’s strength in Florida, North Carolina and the Midwest showed he was very much in this race. A senior Trump strategist started calling me around 9:45 p.m. ET to tell me that Trump would win Pennsylvania – a state the Republican Party presidential nominee had not carried since George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988.
The Trump strategist turned out to be right, and we were never so wrong. There has been a lot of self-reflection about how we ‘missed’ this election, how we ‘missed’ the mood of the country. That is healthy. But there were ‘sure signs’ that led people to believe that Trump would never win, could never win.”
CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash
The night still had some twists. But the result was a long time coming.
“For me, the Republican debates were defining, and telling. They showed that the power of the Trump message and personality far surpassed requirements voters had in the past for candidates to offer substantive plans, and be familiar with fundamentals.
I remember asking Donald Trump in one of the debates about his health care plan. He mentioned being able to buy insurance across state lines, but when pressed by his opponents, and by me, to put more meat on the bone, he didn’t. And it turned out that voters didn’t much care.
Another example was when my co-questioner Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about the nuclear triad. The billionaire businessman clearly had no idea what he was talking about. For most candidates that would have meant lights out for their campaign, but not Trump.
GOP voters held him to a different standard. It was a clear stark illustration of how the candidates who knew more about such issues, like Marco Rubio, seemed to suffer for their insights.”
CNN Producer Cassie Spodak
“I remember around 10 p.m. ET the huge monitors in the (Clinton) press filing room campaign turned off the cable news feeds of election results and we were forced to watch different promotional videos from the campaign. That felt like a turning point.”
CNN Producer Betsy Klein
“One of the more jarring moments of the evening – around this time it has become clear in the Javits Center that things are not going Clinton’s way. So what do they do? They play a long celebrity video of Clinton’s signature ‘Fight Song.’”
CNN Lead Political Anchor Wolf Blitzer
“It was during the 7 p.m. Eastern hour when we started getting initial voting results from Florida and I noticed that Hillary Clinton wasn’t doing all that great in the largely Democratic counties in South Florida.
She was winning in Miami Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County but certainly not with the lopsided margins that President Obama had in 2012 when he carried Florida. For a Democratic presidential candidate to win Florida, that candidate has to do really well in those three very large counties given that much of the rest of the state is historically Republican.
I noticed that while Hillary Clinton was winning in those three counties, I began to think her margins wouldn’t be enough to carry the state. And if she didn’t win Florida, I suspected she would be in real trouble elsewhere around the country. It was then that I suspected Donald Trump had a very good chance of winning the Presidency.”
CNN Producer Dan Merica
“Clinton’s pool of reporters loaded up into the vans and made the trip into Manhattan, where we would be posted up at her campaign hotel - The Peninsula New York – for the rest of the night. Clinton would remain ensconced in a suite at the top of the hotel, while the pool of reporters sat in a conference room (featuring two roll away beds) to watch the results with a small group of Clinton campaign staffers.
No one in Clinton’s campaign started out the night thinking they were going to lose – and most of my conversations with campaign staffers during the day had been upbeat and hopeful.
Sure, they had their concerns, but nothing different than normal Election Day jitters.
That changed when Clinton lost Florida. The campaign had been banking on winning the states Obama had won in 2012 and Florida was key to that. She made 13 visits to Florida as the nominee, more than any other state in the country, including three visits in the last eight days of the campaign. It didn’t help that the Florida loss came just minutes after Ohio – where Clinton made 11 trips since the convention – was called for Trump.
After filing a quick note about Florida, I got up from my table and walked into the hallway to refresh my coffee. It was looking like a long night.
It was there that I found Varun Anand, a stunned 22-year old Clinton staffer with his eyes glazed over. Anand, the Clinton campaign’s press wrangler, had worked his way up from an intern in Clinton’s office, giving his life over to the campaign for two years.
‘What do I tell my family,’ asked Anand, whose family immigrated to the United States from India when he was six. ‘What do I tell them after the country elects Trump?’
Earlier in the night, Anand’s father called him concerned about the results in Florida and North Carolina. Anand assuaged him and listened as he talked about having trouble sleeping after former FBI Director James Comey briefly reopened the investigation into Clinton’s emails on October 28.
It was the first time that night that a Clinton campaign staffer, with any seriousness, acknowledged that Trump was on the verge of winning.
‘I saw the writing on the wall,’ Anand says of the exchange today.”
11 p.m. ET: THE END IS NEAR
National Politics Reporter MJ Lee
“The mood inside the Javits Center seemed to turn quickly. The cheerful atmosphere had turned overwhelmingly dark. You could feel it and see it all around – so many blank stares and hushed tones and, eventually, the tears. At some point the big screens in the building, which had been going back and forth between campaign videos and the news, also went sent.
The most clarifying moment was probably when I noticed that people were starting to actually leave the party, even though the results had not been called. The crowd in front of the stage had thinned out (earlier in the evening, you could barely move in the pit) and a stream of people were walking out of the building, many of them huddled together and physically holding onto friends and family.
One woman, Kerry, was weeping as she headed toward the exits, saying she had to hurry home to her 16-year-old daughter.
‘Because I promised her hope. I promised her hope. And this man is despicable,’ she told me, sobbing. ‘I don’t know what happened. I’m so disappointed in this country, and I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know what to tell her.”
CLOCK STRIKES 12
THE CALL, AND THE CALL
CNN Producer Cassie Spodak
“I watched John Podesta speak around 2 a.m. and than caught a cab across town to Trump’s election night party at the Hilton to try and interview the supporter I had been shadowing. I hadn’t been able to get credentials to the actual party so I was waiting in the lobby while Trump spoke and then watched as his supporters streamed out. I saw Mike Pence’s Press Secretary Marc Lotter come out. I asked him if he was going to move to Washington and he didn’t even know what to say.
People were fist bumping and hugging in the lobby, with a look of stunned excitement on their faces. “The silent majority has awakened,” said Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire adviser who had caused controversy by seeming to threaten Hillary Clinton.
A hour or so later, around 5 a.m., I saw Kellyanne Conway walking through the lobby of the hotel, she was on the phone with Trump, telling him she’d take any position he wanted for her.
A handler tried to keep me and another reporter away but Conway wanted to talk.
‘President Obama did call him,’ she said, ‘they had a great conversation and they’ll be getting together soon in Washington.’