NEW YORK – Karl Rove gave Republicans hope for about a half hour after Fox News called Ohio, and the election, for President Barack Obama, thus kicking off a dramatic, must-watch moment on the network after an evening of downbeat conservative commentary.
Rove told anchor Chris Wallace that it was "premature" to call Ohio for Obama and began rattling off counties in that state that still hadn't been fully counted. Rove -- who predicted a Romney win last week and oversaw outside groups that spent around $300 million on the 2012 election -– still wasn't swayed after anchor Megyn Kelly, trailed by a camera, got live confirmation from the network's Decision Desk that they were "99.9 percent" sure of their pick.
The man once best known as "Bush's brain" only relented after Fox News analyst Michael Barone came on set to break down the numbers in front of him in a made-for-Twitter moment that led to a flood of social media responses.
Bret Baier, co-anchor on election night, closed the book on the internecine Fox News fight by saying that "we're all on the same page now."
But once Fox News, as a network, got on the same page that Obama had indeed won, a couple commentators agreed that Obama didn't have a strong mandate for his second term, given the close popular vote, and harshly criticized his reelection campaign.
"This is not a mandate either in the numbers or in the way he campaigned," said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. "He did not campaign on any ideas."
"It's not much of a mandate," said Pat Caddell, a former pollster for Jimmy Carter who more recently has been bashing the media on Fox News, adding that the president went from "hope and change to what I call 'divide and conquer.'"
Kelly, looking specifically at the popular vote, mentioned that so far "more have voted for Romney than have voted for Obama tonight." And Baier at one point said that "it looks now that this president will be reelected with fewer electoral votes than he won the first time -– the first president ever to be reelected with fewer electoral votes than the first time and probably a popular vote total that is very close."
When Rove finally accepted defeat, he echoed Baier's fact about Obama's win. "This is the first president ever reelected to a second term who has gotten a smaller percentage of the vote and a smaller vote in the electoral college the second time around," Rove said.
The post-victory emphasis on division and supposed lack of mandate wasn't out of step with some other prominent forces in the conservative media. The Drudge Report, which continued showing Romney's popular vote lead long after Obama was declared winner in the electoral college, splashed a cracked Liberty Bell image across the site along with the ominous headline: "The Divided States of America." Of course, Rove and others were less likely to question the mandate of George W. Bush after he beat Al Gore in the electoral college while losing the popular vote.
It's not surprising that Fox News hosts and commentators would question Obama's mandate given how the network -- run by former Republican operative Roger Ailes -- has covered the Democratic candidate down the stretch.
In September, Fox News hyped a 14-year-old, out-of-context clip in which Obama talked of "redistribution," just as Romney's comments dismissing 47 percent of Americans were getting significant coverage. A couple weeks later, Fox News -- along with The Drudge Report -- played up another old Obama video from a 2007 speech that was covered extensively at the time, including on Fox. And last week, Fox's primetime hosts virtually ignored Hurricane Sandy to continue hammering the Obama administration over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, complete with suggestions of a White House cover-up.
Throughout Tuesday, Fox News ran video several times of a member of the New Black Panther Party outside a polling site in Philadelphia on Tuesday, echoing the network's seeming obsession with the fringe group a couple years back.
Election results aside, Fox News' Tuesday night broadcast at times resembled a typical night in primetime, with the network's obsessions -- such as Benghazi and "liberal media bias" -- receiving attention between calling states for one candidate or the other.
When Kelly noted that exit polls showing that Americans gave Obama "kudos" for his handling of international affairs, she followed up with a question to Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson about whether such numbers relate "to the media coverage, or lack thereof, on that issue," presumably Libya.
"Yes, I do," Carlson responded, adding that 2012 "press coverage has added points to the president's scoreboard."
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly appeared during the 8 p.m. hour, his normal time slot, and also mentioned Benghazi, while also talking about how the "the white establishment is now the minority" in the United States -- at topic that wouldn't be out of place on his show. O'Reilly already seemed to view the election going Obama's way when talking about how "people feel that they are entitled to things" and suggested the presidency would go to "the candidate, between the two, [who] is going to give them things."
And conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who has filled in at times for O'Reilly on his top-rated show, criticized the Romney campaign's strategy before the candidate officially lost, specifically mentioning his decision to "play is safe" by, in her view, not appearing enough on Fox News.