It has been weeks since the election, and yet the stress and tension of this presidential cycle have barely gone away. The image of political journalist Steve Kornacki standing at his computerized electoral map has been burned into the public mind, as one of the main symbols of 2020’s election coverage.
It was in those five long days, between the polls closing and Joe Biden’s being declared president-elect, that the fate of the republic seemed to rest on Kornacki’s shoulders. It didn’t — not really — but because the MSNBC elections analyst knew everything before we did, we watched him closely.
We knew he’d tell us what was going on, but always, we wanted to know more. We wanted to read his mood and find out what he thought was going on. We wanted to know what he believed would happen next.
Kornacki, a Boston University alum and author, has such a familiarity with the voting patterns of every county in the United States. If a county votes a couple of percentages differently, one way or the other, Kornacki knows what that portends for that county, that state, and sometimes for the nation as a whole.
The rap on Kornacki has always been that he’s too much of a numbers guy, morally removed from the consequences of what he’s reporting; that he’d count up the casualties of a cataclysm with all the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old geek describing his science project. He even cultivates a certain robotic vibe by wearing the same outfit all the time: khakis, white shirt, thin tie, no jacket.
In fact, there’s a real-live human being under the façade, and this election he revealed it — after almost five days on little sleep, he almost had to. This year, viewers got to see that there are actually two Kornacki modes. The differences are subtle, but unmistakable, and they reveal that Kornacki did have a rooting interest in this election.
Basically, whenever he delivered news that was good for Biden, he was full of bright energy. He threw himself into it. He pointed out the various counties. He wrote figures on the “big board.” And when he finished, he’d turn back to the anchors with the look of a contented puppy, proud to have brought back the ball.
When he delivered news that was good for Trump, he was different. He was all about the facts. He had the same energy, but it was a dark energy. He plowed through it. He gave it to viewers straight, but like he had to harden himself. He was like a surgeon impatiently delivering bad news, so he can get it over with and go to lunch.
On election night, it was the bright and buoyant Kornacki who quickly tabulated the results out of Maricopa County in Arizona and correctly predicted — nine days ahead of the NBC projection — that Trump wouldn’t be able to catch up with Biden. It was also the bright Kornacki who, on election night, calculated that the mail-in vote from Detroit would almost certainly enable Biden to win in Michigan.
But it was the just-the-facts Kornacki who added up the remaining vote in Milwaukee, compared that to Trump’s lead and expressed doubt that Biden could win Wisconsin. Biden did win that state, but we had to wait until morning to find out.
There was also a revealing moment early on: Trump was still leading in Pennsylvania, but almost 2 million mail-in votes were left to be counted. The Trump campaign was insisting that Trump had won the state, but Kornacki went through the numbers, then turned to the camera and flatly said that it did not look, at all, like a clear-cut Trump win. Instead, he said, “It looks like a competitive race.”
That phrase, issued sternly was as far as Kornacki has ever come to expressing outrage on camera. If Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Nicolle Wallace had collectively lit their hair on fire and screamed, it would not have had the same impact.
It was as if, in that moment, Kornacki were looking at the millions of viewers and saying, “This is my election, folks. Mine! And nobody — not even the president; no, especially not the president — is going to mess with it.”