“Biden is winning Nevada by TWO POINTS with mostly Dem ballots in Clark remaining and they haven’t called it?” marveled journalist Peter Hamby early Saturday on Twitter. “That’s just bananas. Any other cycle they would have called it.”
“It sure seems to me like not calling the race when the outcome is obvious . . . gives the president more time to spout misinformation,” fretted polling guru Nate Silver on Friday afternoon.
And then, finally, the dam seemed to break all at once. At 11:24 a.m. on Saturday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer declared Biden the winner, based on projections that winning Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, would push him past the required 270. NBC News followed on-air seconds later, followed quickly by CBS, MSNBC, ABC and the Associated Press. The Washington Post reported the projection at 11:34 a.m.
The media calls play no official role in the nation’s transfer of power — it is ultimately up to the states to certify their voting results before the electoral college meets in December. But they have taken on an outsized importance in the process, a fact underscored by the spontaneous celebrations that broke out within minutes of the news alerts, as thousands of people gathered outside the White House, in New York’s Times Square, in downtown Chicago and in other Democratic strongholds across the country. While the outcome had already become increasingly clear, the media’s call for Biden seemed to be the unofficial stamp of approval.
And it was the media’s role in providing unofficial closure to the race that especially rankled Trump’s backers, who have been claiming, without evidence, that widespread fraud took place. “The media do not get to determine who the president is,” tweeted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Saturday. “The people do. When all lawful votes have been counted, recounts finished, and allegations of fraud addressed, we will know who the winner is.”
TV networks and other major news outlets project election winners by relying on piecemeal vote returns from state officials and statistical analysis of regional and local voting patterns. Each described their reluctance to declare Biden the winner earlier — even as they said it grew likelier by the day — because of insufficient data and the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic in states that were still counting the last few thousand ballots.
Public curiosity and confusion about this process ran especially high because two news organizations — Fox News and the Associated Press — separately called Arizona for Biden just several hours after the polls closed, while most other news organizations have still deemed the state too close to call. Fox in particular has loudly stood by its call, even while mail-in ballots have narrowed the gap for Trump — a projection that drew the Trump campaign’s wrath and led his supporters to chant “Fox News sucks” as votes were being tabulated in Phoenix on Thursday and Friday.
But the variation in timing and calls among news outlets doesn’t appear to have been political. Fox and AP drew their voting data from a nonprofit research firm affiliated with the University of Chicago that it hired after the 2016 election, after it broke away from a larger consortium of the other major news organizations, which collectively relied on data from a company called Edison Research. While similar, the two data sets appear to have led to different calls on Arizona.
The decision meant that both Fox and AP essentially moved 11 more electoral votes into Biden’s column than other news organizations — a projection that put him that much closer to victory. It led to speculation that Fox — a conservative-leaning network with close ties to the Trump White House and watched closely by the president — would be the first network to call the election for Biden, especially if the network made an early call for Nevada, where Biden also led from early on.
Ultimately, Fox was among the last major outlets to weigh in Saturday, with anchor Bret Baier delivering the news to viewers at 11:40 a.m.
ABC News political director Rick Klein said media organizations had to grapple with new variables in making calls this year, particularly the huge surge in mail-in balloting and varying state rules about when those ballots could be counted. “We tried to be as transparent as we could throughout this process,” he said in an interview.
The tipping point in projecting Biden’s victory on Saturday was the release of a new batch of ballot counts from Allegheny and Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania, both heavily Democratic areas. Given Biden’s slender but gradually growing lead in Pennsylvania, the batch that came in Saturday morning gave network “decision desk” staffers confidence to predict that Biden’s advantage was insurmountable.
The desks, composed of data specialists and political scientists and all officially separate from the news organization’s reporting staffs, also had another key piece of data: a rough estimate of the number of uncounted mail and “provisional” ballots — a wild card. New returns suggested those ballots would be unlikely to give Trump enough opportunity to potentially overtake Biden.
“Look, we got just enough vote in, in order to call Pennsylvania, even if it may slip into a recount,” NBC’s Chuck Todd told viewers. “We think it’s just mathematically nearly impossible for the order of finish to change in Pennsylvania.”
Most networks spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in a kind of suspended animation as the outcome remained unclear in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, the last four states where the winner wasn’t clear and whose electoral votes could sway the election. There were multiple field reports from big urban areas, such as Phoenix’s Maricopa County and Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, where workers were gradually churning through the final ballots, followed by network analysts updating the totals on oversized display screens.
The early returns — based on in-person votes — tended to place Trump in the lead. But Biden gradually pulled ahead as more votes came in, especially from mail-in ballots that were disproportionately utilized by Democrats. Mail-in votes generally take longer for county officials to open and process, especially in Pennsylvania, where election workers were not allowed to begin processing them until Election Day.
The shifting leads, and slow-arriving ballots, created a torturous wait. It also gave Trump an opening to launch baseless allegations that the election was being stolen. “I had such a big lead in all of these states late into election night, only to see the leads miraculously disappear as the days went by,” he complained on Twitter on Friday evening. “Perhaps these leads will return as our legal proceedings move forward!”
But others thought news organizations were being far too cautious in not declaring Biden the winner. Some smaller news outlets powered by research company Decision Desk HQ made the call Friday morning that Biden won.
“Does anyone think this wouldn’t have been called hours ago if roles were reversed and there was no fear that the loser would demagogue and incite crazies against the news outlet?” Tim Miller, who is part of a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, asked on Friday afternoon.
Fox declined to make an official comment on its late call. But a network spokesperson pointed to its early call on Arizona and Nevada as evidence of its independence. The network also noted a comment by its political director, Chris Stirewalt, who amid attacks on Fox by Trump’s campaign said the network was “serene and pristine” in declaring Arizona for Biden.