Amid the flurry of coverage surrounding the 2020 presidential election, one voice cut through the rest. It belonged to 31-year-old CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip, who, alongside Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent, and Dana Bash, its chief political correspondent, patiently announced and analyzed election results as they trickled in over the course of five taxing days. A Harvard graduate formerly of ABC and The Washington Post, Phillip was widely praised for her astute commentary, cool composure, and, yes, her unfaltering glow, emerging from the election a star in her own right.
“Abby has an intellect that is unmatched,” CNN political director David Chalian told the New York Times for a recent profile on Phillip, “and she has a pretty unique ability to synthesize information quickly both in her reporting and her analysis, and deliver it in a way that meets the viewers where they are.”
Phillip joined CNN in 2017 and made headlines the next year when in November of 2018, during a press gaggle on the White House lawn, President Trump called her question for him “stupid,” going on to tell her, “You ask a lot of stupid questions.” Trump had previously insulted other Black female reporters on numerous occasions, and this incident further highlighted his contempt for the media underscored by notes of sexism and racism.
In January, Phillip again took the spotlight when she was selected to moderate the seventh Democratic presidential debate. Her commendable performance left her well-poised to take on a bigger role at CNN.
As a first generation American and the daughter of Trinidadian and Tobagonian parents, Phillip’s perspective felt especially suited to the 2020 election. The day before the race was called, she lauded Black women for their crucial role in increasing voter turnout, which ultimately made a Biden/ Harris win possible. If they won, she said, “Not only would Black women put Joe Biden in the White House, but they would also put a Black woman in the White House as well.” Further musing on what she called the “historical poetry” of it all, she noted that “Donald Trump’s political career began with the racist birther lie,” and that “it may very well end with a Black woman in the White House.”
Over the phone, BAZAAR.com spoke with Phillip about her first on-air election coverage experience, including how she managed to keep her energy up between segments (coffee and Leslie Jones), as well as how we can keep the momentum going from this ground-breaking moment.
You’ve just come off of what must have been an incredibly exciting, stressful, and successful few weeks—how does it feel?
I think we made it. Both personally and as a country—[all of us at CNN] feel like that. Ultimately, everything went the way that we thought it would. Just before the election, various people were gaming out how long it could take and my guess had always been that it would be Friday or Saturday, and that turned out to be exactly what it was. It feels good to be past that part of it but obviously, now, it’s a whole new thing. We’re still going.
This was your first time covering a Presidential election in this capacity—how were you able to keep up with the constantly-changing data in real-time on air?
Oh my God! I don’t know. It was sort of a miracle. My biggest fear going into this whole process was being tired. It was the one thing that I was the most terrified about because when you’re tired, you can make mistakes. The thing that surprised me was how much that kind of adrenaline of the moment helps you power through. When we were sitting on the set it was easier to be awake and to be present.
In terms of the material, I was preparing all along to know what was going on state by state and to have a good understanding of what the voting rules were and why we might see states looking a certain way at one point and then changing at another point depending on which votes they were counting. We have a lot of raw data, like the data on the Magic Wall and on the screen that shows all the election results, so I always kept an eye on that. I had our CNN Election Night map up for 2020 and I had the map up for 2016 because I like to compare performance year to year. If we knew we were going to be talking about a certain state, it was about digging in as much as you could to what was happening there.
I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t take in information. It was ultimately not as scary as I thought it was going to be.
What did a typical day look like?
It was pretty relentless. On Election Day, I came in around 2:00 pm for hair and makeup, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and then I changed into my TV clothes and headed to the set. At that point, Dana [Bash], Jake [Tapper] and I touched base with our producer for a few minutes before we went on and then we started. You can tell this when you’re watching, but it’s a cycle of our analysis and then John King at the Magic Wall and Wolf doing race alerts and exit polls but it’s a very unpredictable cycle. We never really have any idea what’s going to happen. There’s no plan for the night. So, we’re just sitting there and we’re listening and waiting to find out when we’re on.
Then, it’s 6:30 and there’s food somewhere. We get two seconds to go get some food. We can take it back onto the set, eat our dinner and then we just keep going. The election night we went until maybe 3:00 in the morning and were back in the office at 6:30. Literally, it was like that for the next five days.
My husband and I don’t have any kids, so I told him, “You’re probably not going to see me for most of this week.” At some point in the week, we took our dog , Booker T., to my parents’ house so that he could get walks and attention.
It was honestly pretty intense, but this is what we’ve been preparing for all year.
What did you do between segments to keep the energy up?
There was a lot of coffee. We tried to stand when we could. At one point, Jake started playing music on his phone—things were getting pretty loopy. We just were chatting with each other and looking at internet memes and watching Leslie Jones—she was watching CNN and MSNBC and was making these hilarious videos.
As the election unfolded and the results were coming in, what ideas became important for you to clarify or stress?
Obviously, the main thing was that we just had to wait. There was a point, I think between Tuesday and Wednesday, where I was sitting there and I was like, “We can’t say anything else about what is going on here until more votes have been returned.” It was as frustrating for us as I’m sure was for the American people to not really have clear definitive answers, but I’m glad that we were so disciplined about doing that.
Then at a certain point, when you’re dealing with misinformation from the President where he’s talking about illegal votes or whatever, then you have to remind people that it’s not illegal for people to vote by mail. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to vote in different ways and it’s all legal in all these various states. I think there was also a shift at some point where we had to have a different conversation about some of the misinformation that was being spread about voting in general.
Speaking of misinformation, Trump declared himself the winner in a Tweet on Tuesday night. How did you approach covering that?
First of all, we all knew that that was coming. We had been preparing for it. So, the fact that he [declared himself the winner] wasn’t a surprise but there was another tweet of his, making a series of false statements, that a lot of other people were re-tweeting. I made a concerted choice to not retweet anything that the President tweeted because even by re-tweeting it, you’re amplifying the falsehood. You have to be really careful about how you debunk these things without also spreading them further. Believe it or not, we didn’t react to any of these things with any kind of surprise.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has made a point of telling the American people they shouldn’t trust the media. Do you hope that break in confidence is somewhat restored come the Biden/ Harris administration?
Whether President Trump is in office or not, his supporters still are going to distrust the media. I don’t have any illusions that that’s going to suddenly change just because there’s a new president. But I do think that it matters whether the most powerful person in the country and the world is denigrating journalism and attacking reporters, including attacking people individually by name and putting them at risk. When that stops, it will be a positive thing in terms of just decency and not making regular people who are just doing their jobs scapegoats.
Can you describe your emotions surrounding Vice President Elect Harris’s historic win? Does her appointment feel especially impactful given the moment we’re in?
I think the story of Black women in American history has been one of perseverance. And I do think there’s a special resonance to the country electing a black woman as VP after one of the most explicitly racially divisive elections we’ve had in decades and also after a summer of powerful activism around racial equity. The election of a Black woman as VP is a special moment for our country and what I celebrate most about this moment is the hope that it will not be the last.
More people voted than ever before. What can we do to keep that momentum and political engagement going?
One of the most exciting things about this election was that so many people voted. I really think that’s a great story for this country and it just goes to show that once we start bringing voting into the 21st century and giving people flexibility and the ability to cast ballots in different ways, people will actually vote. It’s not like they don’t want to vote because they’re lazy and they don’t care about the country.
And so, I hope that that actually stays and that we can have more people participate, but I also think that there was so much focus on encouraging people to vote this year and I hope that continues too. Ultimately, this system works best when more people participate in it.