In 1952 television was just beginning to make serious inroads in the American living room. Household penetration that year was at 34.2 percent, a sign of the coming boom that would take that number close to ninety percent by the end of the decade. The 1952 election marked a sea change in politics, in that it was the first year that candidates used television to communicate to voters.
That year also brought another new phenomenon: election night as a television event.
LIFE photographer Al Fenn spent election night in 1952 visiting network newsrooms to document their coverage, which was headlined by the presidential race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.
While the network news productions from 1952 inevitably look dated in comparison to what we see in modern digital age, plenty is not that different from what we know today.
For starters, the graphic concepts are more or less the same, even if the vote totals had to be changed manually. You see photos of Eisenhower and Stevenson hanging on the wall with their current electoral vote totals beneath them, providing a template for today’s digital equivalents that are flashed to full screen with the press of a button. CBS also had a dedicated wall for Senate races, with the familiar head shots of the opposing candidates side by side. Another graphic display charted the changing composition of the Congress.
But the most notable aspect of the 1952 election coverage was the urgency to let viewers know who was going to win—and it was especially true at CBS. The network deployed a room-filling UNIVAC computer that promised to predict the presidential election based on early voter returns. It was a good idea, but CBS’s problem in 1952 was that while the network had the technology, it didn’t trust the computer’s predictions, leading to a historic lost opportunity.
Political prognosticators had expected a close race between Eisenhower and Stevenson. So when the CBS computer predicted at 8:30 p.m. that Eisenhower would win the electoral vote by a landslide margin of 438-93, the network news director decided not to share the projection because it was so out of line with conventional wisdom. But in fact the computer had it right, almost exactly. The final electoral college result was 442-89 in favor of Eisenhower. Only hours after the original prediction did CBS reporter Charles Collingwood tell viewers that the computer had been way ahead of everyone else. This was a watershed demonstration of the power of technology, and of early data. In the coming years the practice of exit polling would help networks call many races as soon as the polls closed.
The modern detail that was notably missing from the 1952 election coverage was a big one—color coding for political parties. While you can see a shaded electoral map in the background of one photo, back then colors weren’t as meaningful or codified because Americans were watching in black-and-white. The idea of blue states and red states was still a ways away.