Election Night: Witnessing History

It was an unusually warm November evening marred only by a few sporadic raindrops — Election Night 2008. A hum of anticipation weaved its way through a growing crowd gathered on NBC’s “Election Plaza,” and within hours, that buzz escalated into a symphony of cheers, chants and applause, climaxing the moment NBC declared Barack Obama the first African-American president of the United States.

For pollsters and political junkies, few things compare with the excitement of Election Night. This year, though, was different. History would be made regardless of who won, and the team at the Marist Poll had ringside seats to witness the monumental event unfold.

Nestled seven floors above “Election Plaza,” the “MIPO” staff crunched exit poll numbers in the WNBC newsroom. After releasing an exhilarating and exhausting 29 high-stakes polls this general election season, the team was primed for the outcome. Throughout the evening, the staff analyzed data and prepared stories for NBC New York’s coverage. One-by-one, the network called the states, and just after eight o’clock, Barack Obama achieved a major victory and John McCain a crushing blow. Pennsylvania went blue. Like so many of the political pundits, the pollsters at Marist spent many days (and nights) discussing the importance of Pennsylvania. When the announcement was made, a colleague and I looked up from the stack of papers assembled between us and stared at each other. Pennsylvania had fallen quickly — a major indicator of the direction of the national electorate. A little more than an hour later, what many considered John McCain’s political death knell rang. Barack Obama carried Ohio.

As each state fell, an explosion of cheers erupted outside. The crowd’s elated cries permeated the walls of 30 Rock. Then, it happened. Just before eleven o’clock, NBC News announced internally they were going to declare Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States.

With cameras in hand, the MIPO staff raced down to WNBC’s broadcast platform overlooking the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink. There, Dr. Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist Institute, sat with WNBC anchor David Ushery awaiting their next report. Throughout the evening, Dr. Miringoff provided WNBC viewers with exit poll analysis, and everyone on the staff was familiar with the route down to the rink. On this, our final journey down to the location, however, the end was far different. We gathered, not only to help ensure a successful broadcast but to witness a great first in American history.

Atop the platform, an overwhelming energy emanated from the crowd surrounding us. When the official call came down declaring Barack Obama the next president of the United States, the scene mirrored that which is seen in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. While many listened politely, the chants and cheers continued as Senator John McCain made his concession speech. But, soon the mood changed. The giant plasma screens hoisted high above the plaza showcased President-elect Obama inside Chicago’s Grant Park, and as he approached the podium, the crowd outside of 30 Rock hushed – a silence seldom heard in New York’s bustling midtown. If for just one brief moment, white, black, young and old were joined together to witness history and bound by a renewed sense of hope toward the future.