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Inside NBC News' late-night coverage of Trump's stunning win

As election night turned into Wednesday, the political commentators floating around the gleaming red, white and blue set at NBC’s Rockefeller Center’s studio appeared dazed over the unexpected results that tilted toward Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.

“The stun is palpable,” said the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt after appearing with NBC News political director Chuck Todd.  “Nobody I know predicted this, and anybody who says they saw this coming is lying.”

It was less a partisan reaction and more astonishment over what is arguably the greatest presidential election upset in history, with Trump, a political novice who repeatedly made incendiary statements, toppling the most seasoned of opponents in Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Hewitt described himself as “the classic reluctant Trump voter” who cast his ballot for the candidate. But he expected the night to wrap up by 11 p.m. Tuesday with Clinton as the winner.  “I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who didn’t think it would be called by then,” he said.

Instead, it was past midnight and Trump’s electoral vote count continued to grow. Hewitt noticed Democratic strategist and long-time Clinton supporter James Carville preparing to join the anchor table.

“James - is there a path?” said Hewitt, asking if there were still enough to states that were within Clinton’s reach.

“No,” a visibly dismayed Carville barked as he dug his hand into a bowl of candy and came up empty.

Throughout the night, NBC’s anchors stared at their digital devices with a degree of disbelief, as the polls had given them no indication of what they were reporting. Tom Brokaw, a veteran of NBC’s presidential election coverage, tried to explain it as he headed off the set to grab a sandwich.

“This is our Brexit,” said Brokaw, referring to the equally stunning vote by United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union. “People are not entirely sure about why they’re pissed off. I was just out in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa – things are good. But they feel like they have to be pissed off.”

Brokaw returned to the table with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and the network’s political director Chuck Todd, and then tested a line he received from pollster Peter Hart that summed up the race in pop culture terms.

“This election was much more about ‘Duck Dynasty’ than ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

Todd, the “Meet the Press” moderator who made his name in political coverage with his granular understanding of voting patterns, tried to make sense of the data that defied the predictions of nearly every expert and pollster. He was on his phone in constant touch with the voting data analysts at the election decision desk – referred to as “the boiler room.” He asked producers to get graphics ready with the results in congressional districts in Maine and Nebraska. At one point, Todd went to the electoral map touch screen with Holt and showed how the red and blue states could divide into a 269-electoral vote tie between the two candidates.

Standing nearby, NBC News Chairman Andy Lack noted how he requested the “what-if” scenario. He then thought about what could follow – and came up with the potential of an election going to a Supreme Court with only eight justices. The prospect brought a flashback to his first term as the chief of NBC News.

“I was here in 2000,” he said, referring to the disputed results of George W. Bush’s contest with Al Gore. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Lack summed up the Trump-Clinton race with an abbreviation that Brokaw had been using throughout the campaign.

“UFO,” Lack said before heading to cable news network MSNBC one floor below. “It’s the unforeseen that will occur.”

Outside 30 Rockefeller Center, the midtown Manhanttan area that NBC transformed into “Democracy Plaza” had turned somber by 12:30 a.m. Many of the people in the thinned-out crowd sat and silently stared up the at the giant screens broadcasting MSNBC’s coverage as it got closer to naming Trump as the victor.

A pro-Trump crowd gathered round the corner outside of Fox News studios on the Avenue of the Americas. They cheered and became more excited as Trump’s unlikely victory approached.

It was a sign that the election may be over, but the cable news battles will keep on going.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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