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At 8 p.m., all the networks project Barack Obama the next president of the United States

November 4, 2008 |  8:30 pm

The official verdict from the television networks came down at precisely 8 p.m., just as the polls closed in California: Barack Obama had won the 2008 presidential contest.

“An African American has broken a barrier as old as the Republic,” NBC anchor Brian Williams said. “An astonishing candidate, an astonishing campaign, a seismic shift in American politics.”

With plenty of time to prepare, all the networks made the call simultaneously, pronouncing with certainty what they had prognosticated throughout the night.

“Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States,” said ABC anchor Charles Gibson.

Over on CBS, anchor Katie Couric said: “We have breaking news, momentous news, really: CBS now estimates that  because of victories in California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will be the next president of the United States."

The network projections came remarkably early compared with 2004, when the close count in Ohio left the outcome unclear late into the night. Tonight, the picture was much clearer, and the television anchors spent much of the night trying -– sometimes in vain -- to keep from calling the race until it was official.

“Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States,” Bob Schieffer said on CBS News shortly after 7 p.m., when the network projected that the Democrat had 206 electoral votes.

Others were a bit more reserved in their assessments.

“It’s getting very, very close for Sen. Obama,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said around the same time. “And the climb for Sen. McCain -- you know, it’s hard to see how he gets to the 270.”

The relative discipline by the networks stemmed from the public drubbing the networks received in 2000 after their premature calls about who had won Florida contributed to massive confusion about the outcome of the race.

This year, the broadcast and cable networks vowed not to project a president-elect before a nominee officially had 270 electoral votes on his column. They held off awarding any electoral votes into all the polls in a state were scheduled to close, and waited for actual vote returns in close contests instead of projecting based on exit polls.

But that didn’t stop anchors and analysts from offering early hints about the way the race was leaning. The first clues came around 5 p.m., when the networks began handing Obama a win in Pennsylvania, a state Sen. John McCain had vowed to win.

“If Virginia doesn’t go the way the McCain campaign is hoping, then it becomes this iron triangle of survival for John McCain of Florida, North Carolina and Ohio,” NBC political director Chuck Todd said.

At 6:18 p.m., Fox News was the first network to give Obama the key prize of Ohio.

“Unless something miraculous happens in one of these non-battleground states, McCain’s situation is looking pretty dire,” anchor Brit Hume said.

“At the moment it still looks pretty grim for Sen. McCain and a very daunting task here,” Sam Donaldson said on ABC News 10 minutes later.

Over on NBC, Tom Brokaw agreed.

“Let’s cut to the chase here,” he said. “At this moment, this is very heartening news for Barack Obama.”

Shortly before 8 p.m., Hume noted that the California polls were about to close. “And you know what that means,” he said.

At 7:55 p.m., Williams urged viewers to keep watching because coming up, there would be “some major states, some major calls -– it gets exciting.”

Five minutes later, it was all over.

-- Matea Gold, Scott Collins, Maria Elena Fernandez and Martin Miller.