Primary Scream

Around 10:30 a.m., Mr. Matthews dialed into MSNBC for a conference-call meeting with John Reiss, the executive producer of Hardball, to chew over some logistics for the night ahead. Mr. Matthews was set to host Hardball from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on MSNBC. Immediately afterward, he would hop in the anchor chair, alongside Keith Olbermann, in a studio deep in the bowels of Rockefeller Center and host MSNBC’s coverage from 6 p.m. until at least 2 in the morning. Maybe longer.

Shortly after noon, Mr. Matthews arrived at Rockefeller Center. He was wearing a gray sweater and carrying a handful of new ties, still in their plastic wrapping. During a typical week, Mr. Matthews films both of his shows (Hardball and his NBC-syndicated Sunday morning talk show) closer to his home in Chevy Chase, Md., at a building on Nebraska Avenue, in Washington, D.C., that also houses Tim Russert, Tucker Carlson, and fellow Saturday Night Live inspiration, John—“WRONG!”—McLaughlin.

In D.C., the studio’s blue background made wearing blue shirts all but impossible. You practically disappear on the screen. But in New York, the lighting was much better. Blue was an option. But Mr. Matthews had decided to go with two combinations: a pastel tie against a pink shirt, and a blue tie against a white shirt. He would change sometime during the night.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Matthews sat in a small windowless room in NBC studios and took another look at the rundown, which producers had cobbled together in recent days, mapping out the marathon coverage. “Lester w/ exit polls: 2 minutes, 6:04.” “Brokaw & Russert: 3 minutes, 8:26.” “Guest Governor Haley Barbour: 3 and ½ minutes, 10:39:30.” And on and on.

“It’s kind of like the map of the world before they found out that the New World existed,” said Mr. Reiss, who would be working the control room for the duration of the night. “It’s kind of like crossing the Atlantic in the 15th century hoping to find China. It’s very good to map out a plan. But we’ve had plans now every Tuesday or Saturday. And not one of them has survived an hour.”

Luckily for Mr. Reiss, Mr. Matthews isn’t much for maps anyway. “Some people like to be scripted or planned,” said Mr. Reiss. “That’s great. That’s what works for them. That’s not what works
for Chris. There may be moments where I’ll be like, let’s talk about race or gender or about conservative voters. And he’ll turn on a dime and do that. That’s part of the fun of it. You don’t even have to wind him up. He’s already wound up. All you have to do is point him in a direction and he’ll get you there.”

Which is not to say that Mr. Matthews doesn’t prepare. On Monday morning, he spent an hour in the studio, practicing reading the big board of results. Too close to call. Too early to call. Projected winner. He wanted to make the important calls without relying on anybody talking into his ear. It was a mechanical process. But each incoming set of data would signal a direction, a pattern, an opportunity for a story.

Mr. Matthews made sure he had state-appropriate anecdotes lined up ahead of time. For Massachusetts, a Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks riff might work. For Connecticut, perhaps the fact that Jerry Brown won the state in ’92 based on—savvy voters!—his flat tax proposal. For the South, mental maps of African-American demographics in the old cotton states would come in handy.

For California, Mr. Matthews was considering digging into his vault of personal memories. He had a killer firsthand story at his disposal about seeing Bill Clinton appear in Santa Monica, years earlier, in front of a crowd of Birkenstock-wearing baby boomers who had greeted Mr. Clinton like the Messiah. Should the opportunity arise, Mr. Matthews would use it. They still loved Bill out West.

One of Mr. Matthews’ main assets as a political anchor is his memory, which is prodigious. He has quick recall and the references spring eternal—from the particulars of Mrs. Doubtfire to the politics of Ulysses S. Grant to the sayings of Winston Churchill. In particular, Mr. Matthews likes one saying by Mr. Churchill, which he used as an epigraph in his most recent book, Life’s a Campaign. “I like a man,” said Mr. Churchill, “who grins when he fights.”

Across town, Mr. Matthews’ competitors at CNN were holed up in the Time Warner Center, likewise game-planning for the night ahead. So far this election season, on the big primary and caucus nights, CNN and Fox News have significantly topped MSNBC in the ratings. Even so, Mr. Matthews was not overly impressed by the political acumen of his competitors. He grinned at CNN’s 2008 tag line. “Best Political Team on Television.” Ridiculous, he thought. MSNBC and NBC were the real deal. He envisioned taking on and crushing Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer in a game of Jeopardy. They could do it for charity!