By the time NBC and MSNBC National Political Correspondent Steve Kornacki sat down with me for a 30-minute Zoom interview on Tuesday, Nov. 10, I was surprised he was still able to sit upright: The 41-year-old had just survived leading the news network’s map board throughout the election night that nearly turned into an election week.
In those five days of uncertainty, between when the polls closed and when we finally knew we’d have a new President-elect, Kornacki stood in front of a digitized Electoral College map carefully calculating how many votes in the latest data drop were going to President Donald Trump’s versus Biden’s totals; explained to anxious viewers why some states, like Pennsylvania, were initially too early to call; and helped quell concerns about why a state like Michigan at first showed Trump in the lead only for Biden to usurp him in the end. (Hint: the answer is not voter fraud.)
Kornacki did all of this with extreme precision and little sleep. “I had two full 24-hour cycles where we were on the entire night without a break, so I can’t remember exactly which day was which,” Kornacki admits.
But as the number of hours he clocked increased in the days following Nov. 3, so did his fandom. After getting a little shut-eye, he spoke with TIME about how he survived the madness, how close the race initially seemed, and how he feels about his new nickname.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you prepare to talk about the election live on air, with such granularity going down to each specific county?
I likened it in the final month or so before the election to cramming for a final back in college and committing as much to muscle memory as I could: Census data, voting history, demographic trends. Which [counties] are becoming more racially, ethnically diverse? What counties have the greater share of the sort of blue collar white population where Trump is expected to do well?
You sometimes whipped out a calculator to establish why states were too close to call. Why not have someone backstage crunch the numbers?
My producer Adam Noboa and I could get those results from the official county website sometimes a little bit faster than it would appear in our system. The folks doing our system would get it at the same time, but they would have to enter it in and it would take a minute to refresh it. So there was a bit of a lag there. I think it worked. But it was also probably for the best. Hopefully, the viewers get a sense of what this math is and how to think about the returns that they’re seeing come in, and why I’m saying I see this pattern toward Biden.
Your viewers seemed to appreciate that attention to detail. Some started musing about your posterior looking good in khaki pants and calling you “Map Daddy.” Did you know you were becoming a heartthrob at the time?
That’s a very loose use of the term ‘heartthrob.’ it took a couple days to realize that stuff like that was happening. I didn’t recognize anything about it election night or probably the day after. But I started getting family and friends sending me things. There are worse fates in life than that. Some of it made me a little squeamish, but it was all coming from a good place.
People are calling Steve Kornacki “map daddy” I’m done
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) November 6, 2020
How did you survive the grueling hours?
We had a little setup right behind the board there. I would go back there, and take a seat and it would hit me, I would feel it, especially when we were in these 45-minute waits for new votes. I could feel dead tired, barely holding my eyes open, and then the minute the new vote came in, there was a bit of a rush in something new, and in “let’s see how it changes the board.”
I came in on Saturday morning, thinking, “This may not get called for a couple days,” and trying to figure out, “How am I going to do this for a few more days?” Because I really wasn’t sure I could.
At any point, were you evaluated by a medical professional or given an IV that keep up with hydration?
An IV would have been a good idea. But no, unfortunately, we didn’t.
Do you think we need to overhaul polling going forward so that people are not as surprised by the results that you were monitoring so closely on Tuesday through Saturday?
Yes, but I don’t know how. And I don’t know that anybody does know how.
[Polls] missed in the same places [that they did in 2016]. One of the biggest misses in 2016 was Wisconsin. Once again, one of the biggest misses was Wisconsin. Now, it didn’t miss all the way, where Trump actually comes around and wins the state—but he got within 20,000 votes, [whereas] we had polls showing [Biden up] 8, 9, or 10 points in Wisconsin.
This was a close election. I know Biden’s going to win the popular vote, [and] it’s going to be by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton had, but you could stitch together a pretty simple scenario, with a swing of maybe 40,000 votes in a couple states that would get Trump into a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College.
President Donald Trump has used the polling being off as a way to allege that fraud was widespread. Based on your knowledge of how large the margins are, do you think any instances of voter fraud carried out would be enough to tip any states?
Look, the burden is on anybody who wants to make a claim like that to present the proof, and when you look at where the margins are in the [key] states—it’s about 45,000 votes right now statewide in Pennsylvania, it’s a little over 20,000 in Wisconsin. In Georgia, it’s about 12,000—no one’s put forward proof of anything remotely on that scale. Now I know Georgia is going to a recount, but again, the history on recounts is that they might move 300 votes from one side to the other in a truly razor-thin race. [If it’s] just a couple hundred votes or even less, the recount can swing it. At 12,000, that’s a lot of padding to take into a recount.
I think it’s fair to say that we can learn something from every election. I’m wondering whether you think the thing that we learned from this election is to slow down in calling states, especially as we experiment with things like vote-by-mail on a national scale. For example, Fox News called Arizona late on the night of November 3. The Associated Press called Arizona just before 3 a.m. on November 4, but your employer, NBC, is still yet to call the state. Do you think that Fox and AP should have slowed down a second to see all the results trickle in?
I would put it this way, I think NBC made the right decision not to call it. Since, I want to say, Wednesday, the day after the election, Biden’s margin in Arizona has come down from 90,000, to now barely 10,000. And it looks like there’s still more room for Trump to chip away at. It looks, based on the trend right now, that Trump is not quite winning enough share of the outstanding vote to actually overtake Biden, but it’s very close and going to get closer, and could even get close enough to trigger a recount. And I think it’s one of those where even if it lands at Biden winning the state by 6,000 votes or something, to me, that doesn’t vindicate a decision to call it very early on. The Atlanta Braves’ old manager Bobby Cox, I think his line was: “Don’t confuse favorable outcomes with good decisions.”
Were you ready for it to take this long to know who won? Did you pack extra clothes?
I got a couple of ties here. I had a few pairs of clothes, but let’s put it this way: I saved some money on laundry last week.
What advice do you have for people who aren’t yet convinced we have a presidential victor?
This was close. This was closer than the polls indicated. There was a moment on election night when I really was looking at it saying, “I think Trump might squeak his way through here again, in the Electoral College.” But there were just enough shifts in just enough states there for Joe Biden, where he’s over 270. And the question now is not if he’s going to be the next President, the question is going to be just how many electoral votes exactly does he land on? We know it’ll be at least 279. Will it go higher? And if so, how much?