Covering Obama's re-election - the story of a lifetime

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Covering Obama's re-election - the story of a lifetime

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Euronews’ US correspondent, Stefan Grobe, covered the US election night in Obama’s headquarters in Chicago. Here is personal account of what it meant to cover such a historic story live on Euronews

For me, the reelection of Barack Obama was the final highlight of an extraordinary year of covering US politics. Something I always wanted to do since graduating from University in Germany and figuring out how to organise a career in journalism. After euronews had sent me to Washington as the channel’s permanent US correspondent in July, I got considerably closer to the presidential campaign, following Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the trail for months. I had already met Romney during the New Hampshire primary and thought of him as a formidable challenger to President Obama. It was clear from the outset that a smart and successful moderate Republican candidate would pose a much more serious threat to the popular incumbent than a conservative warrior like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

And this is exactly what happened in the run-up of the election: Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate catapulted Romney from the polling lowlands into frontrunner status in the national surveys, although Obama kept a small but consistent lead in most of the all-decisive battleground states, thanks to his superior ground operations of professional operatives and grassroots volunteers. In fact, the race was so tight, that on the eve of November 6, nobody in political Washington had an idea of what the outcome of this election would be, not even my colleagues at ABC News, experienced veterans of election coverage. “At this point, we normally know who will win”, one of them told me Saturday night over drinks in a DC bar. “But this time… I have no clue whatsoever.” And with that in mind, I fly to Chicago the next day.

On Election Day, Brian Henderson, my cameraman, and I take up our workspace position in the vast McCormick Place Center complex early on Tuesday. It is in this vast cavernous convention hall on Chicago’s lakeside where the Obama campaign wants to celebrate election night. I wonder why they skipped Grant Park, where the now historic victory celebration took place four years ago, and changed it for this bunker-like indoor location. It takes some time to find the euronews desk among hundreds of pre-booked seats for the thousands of media representatives from around the world. We are right beside the huge three-level riser from which the television outlets feed the correspondents’ stand-ups, facing the stage that will later see a victorious president, cheered by thousands of ecstatic supporters. For most of the evening though, the room is virtually empty – if it weren’t for the crowd of media people. A bad sign for Obama. Why don’t his people show up massively? Do they have a hunch that something goes wrong? Of course, nobody wants to listen to a concession speech. We also see no prominent Democrats, except Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the host of the night…

As polling stations across the country close with every hour, the tension is mounting substantially. Romney wins the Deep South and the Bible Belt, Obama New England and the East Coast. No surprises so far. Then uneasiness starts gripping the room. It’s palpable. New Hampshire too close to call, Ohio, Virginia and Florida too close to call, PENNSYLVANIA too close to call. North Carolina offers some relief, as it is not in the Romney column – yet. As the night rolls on there is still no clear sign where we are heading. Could there be no winner at the end of the day? Are we to face nightmarish recounts and protracted legal battles? In an early live interview I predict an outcome tonight, that we will have a winner, one way or the other. Not based on numbers, just a gut feeling… Two hours later, in the next live hit, my anchor Jon Davies in Lyon is teasing me for that. “We might be up for a long night”, I now say. “Well, Stefan, earlier you predicted a clear result…” But I stick to it. “You know, Jon, the night in Chicago has just started…”

The crowd of supporters now gets bigger and bigger, a colourful mass of faces, mirroring the Obama coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, women and organised Labor. They follow the incoming projections on giant screens and are entertained by emotional Obama campaign videos. Then boisterous cheers, Michigan and Wisconsin have been projected pro-Obama … and New Hampshire and PENNSYLVANIA. And Iowa! It is getting so loud, you can hardly have conversations on the riser. I look at my watch, it’s almost 10. The West Coast is about to report. “Let’s go to the ABC feed point”, I say to cameraman Brian. We need to be there early, because we have to shoot with our own camera. As we work our way through the packed media center, there are more big cheers from the crowd. California, Hawaii and Washington State all go Obama. I wonder what to say in my live interview. My talking points are where exactly Obama is running strong in still uncalled Virginia and exit polls on minorities. Not really sexy. We are waiting for Oregon any minute, and, of course, Ohio. ABC’s correspondent Karen Travers is at the live position, doing her hit. I am waiting for my turn. Heidi, the ABC producer tells me that I have to wait for a few more minutes, there is the Al-Jazeera correspondent who would be on before me.

Finally it’s me. Our camera is rushed to the tripod position, I am putting on my microphone, Heidi hands me a headset, as the crowd in the hall gets louder and louder. “You need this now”, she says. Suddenly commotion and deafening cheers in the hall, up to 10,000 supporters have filled the room by now, and more and more are flocking in. My first impulse is: Obama has carried Oregon. “Karen, what’s going on?” I shout at my ABC colleague who sits at her makeshift desk again, where she is looking at the numbers on her laptop, trying to make sense of the noise. “I don’t know” she shouts back, not taking her eyes off the computer screen. “CBS and Fox have called Obama the winner.” “You mean in Ohio?” “No, the winner of the whole thing!” I am now seconds away from going live. I see ABC’s Jake Tepper standing a few meters from me, talking into the camera, but I cannot hear what he says, the noise is now deafening. Then the link to Lyon is established, we are live now. “Jon, some American networks have just declared Obama reelected…” I start the duplex, as the excitement of the crowd turns into thunderous cheers. Heidi steps behind the camera holding a piece of paper on which she has just scribbled something for me. It can barely read “ABC to call Obama the winner any moment now”. That’s it, it seems! The people down on the floor behind me go wild, shouting “four more years!” and dancing and singing the night away. I go live on euronews describing the atmosphere and suddenly Jon Davies back in Lyon interrupts me that ABC News is calling Obama the winner. The minutes of my live duplex feel like seconds, I remember talking about the electrifying atmosphere in the room. Any journalist’s dream, to be live on air when the breaking news cuts into your sentence and having the chance to report on it immediately!

Two days later. I am sitting in my Washington office, looking back at those thrilling moments that are already history. For the first time in weeks, even months, I do not have to sift through files of polls and countless memos from pundits, but I have to think of stories unrelated to the campaign and this is probably where the hard part of my new job starts…