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Relitigating the 2020 Biden call in Arizona is suddenly all the rage

Pro-Trump protesters allege voter fraud at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center in Phoenix on Nov. 7, 2020. (Caitlin O'Hara/The Washington Post)

Bill Hemmer was understandably surprised.

“Why is Arizona blue?” he asked during Fox News’s live coverage of election night on Nov. 3, 2020. “Did we just call it? Did we make a call in Arizona?”

As it turned out, the network had, predicting that the state would be won by Joe Biden. It was the first to do so — by a margin not of minutes or hours but, relative to most other news outlets, by several days. It was a bold call that, nearly two years later, a Fox News veteran is newly defending and one of Donald Trump’s most senior advisers is blaming for upending their night.

That’s even as the question of what happened in the state has gained new saliency with the looming election of Arizona’s next governor.

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The call

Over the weekend, Politico published an adapted excerpt of Chris Stirewalt’s new book, “Broken News.” Stirewalt was Fox News’s politics editor at the time of the election, a position he lost a few months later. The Arizona call became a locus of irritation among Trump supporters — more on that in a moment — and his firing was broadly perceived as being backlash for the heat the network took. It is a perception Sitrewalt has embraced. (Fox News attributes his firing to a reorganization.)

Given how closely associated his tenure at the network is with the call, the essay includes arguments mirroring the defense he offered when testifying before the House select committee probing the Capitol riot: It was the right call, properly made.

“Despite a successful decade as politics editor at the Fox News Channel, I got canned after very vocal and very online viewers — including the then-president of the United States — became furious when our Decision Desk was the first to project that Joe Biden would win the former GOP stronghold of Arizona in 2020,” Stirewalt writes. “The call was the handwriting on the wall for Trump’s chances, and it delighted Democrats almost as much as it infuriated MAGA land. Regardless of who won, we were proud to have beaten the competition yet again and defended the title network promos had given us as ‘the best-in-class Decision Desk.’ ”

The only problem was that the call was hardly the prescient slam-dunk that Stirewalt suggests.

Here, you can see how the Fox News decision desk’s Arnon Mishkin justified the call soon after it was made.

Trump, he said, would not be able to “eliminate that seven-point lead” that Biden had at the time. The president’s team’s claim that he would get 61 percent of the uncounted ballots would not manifest, Mishkin insisted, with Trump instead winning “only about 44 percent” of them. Not enough to pull it out.

This was broadly wrong. At the time of the call, as you can see in that clip, Biden had 1,316,185 votes and Trump 1,128,103. From that point until the race was certified, Biden added 355,958 votes — and Trump added 533,583. That’s just about exactly 60 percent of the remaining vote. Trump did eliminate the 7-point lead, almost entirely.

Stirewalt attributes their getting the call right to having better incoming information.

“We had better survey data than the competition, thanks to our partnership with the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center,” he wrote. “You can’t do an exit poll if nobody is exiting the polls, so while our competitors were scrambling to put together a system to accommodate the change, we had already tested our superior product in the 2018 midterms.”

But that data wasn’t as good in the moment as Stirewalt suggests. The AP/NORC VoteCast figured that Biden would win Arizona by six points when polls closed. He won by about 0.3 points.

Most outlets waited days to call the Arizona race as the results continued to narrow. About 24 hours after polls closed, poll expert Nate Silver stated directly that “the calls that were previously made should be retracted now.” But, under enormous fire, Fox News stood by the call. That it was ultimately correct can probably be more safely attributed to luck than insight. One wonders if the network might have followed Silver’s advice if they hadn’t been forced to so vigorously defend it.

The White House response

No one was more frustrated by Fox News’s call than Trump’s team monitoring results from the White House. In his new book, “Breaking History,” Jared Kushner offers a truly bizarre assessment of what happened once the network announced its decision.

“The shocking projection brought our momentum to a screeching halt,” Kushner writes. “It instantly changed the mood among our campaign’s leaders, who were scrambling to understand the network’s methodology.”

That latter point is certainly fair, as articulated above. But the former point, about “momentum?” Baffling.

There was no “momentum” of any importance in the overnight hours of election night. There was nothing that the Trump campaign needed to build on in any useful way. There was no series of dominoes that were knocking each other over, just dominoes that had already fallen and needed to be counted.

We often forget that Donald Trump and his team had experience in precisely one general election before Nov. 3, 2020. Kushner was not an experienced political observer (however he might cultivate that image) and may truly have believed that the counting of votes represented some meaningful evolution of the electoral contest. It’s a common misunderstanding, that the counting of votes represents some actual dramatic evolution. But it is a misunderstanding, one derived largely from the need to fill airtime until results are finalized.

In the case of Kushner, of course, there was a real “momentum” that Trump wanted to preserve: the sense that things were going his way and that the election was his to lose. The president planned to present himself as the winner before the vote-counting was finished, part of an effort to suggest that Biden was stealing away what was rightfully Trump’s. The Fox News call interrupted that dishonest momentum, certainly.

Trump went ahead and declared that, frankly, he did win the election. Kushner explains what followed.

“My phone rang a few minutes later. It was Karl Rove, the man who in 2000 had helped George W. Bush win the closest presidential election in U.S. history,” he writes. "‘The president’s rhetoric is all wrong,’ he said. ‘He’s going to win. Statistically, there’s no way the Democrats can catch up with you now.’ ”

Rove, of course, had famously made a similarly incorrect case in 2012 when the state of Ohio was called for Barack Obama. Live on Fox News, Rove disagreed with the call, prompting then-anchor Megyn Kelly to wander the network’s offices to interview the decision desk team directly.

Arnon Mishkin assured viewers that Obama would, in fact, carry the state. He did.

The months after

What’s interesting about the 2020 results in Arizona is that the state became a locus of theorizing about tainted results despite how the vote-counting unfolded. In many states, like Pennsylvania, Biden closed a Trump advantage as days passed, ultimately being determined the winner. But in Arizona the opposite happened: Trump gained and gained until he landed just short.

But the state was nonetheless a center of numerous theories of malfeasance. There was the “audit” of the vote total that aimed to undercut confidence in the result (even as it reinforced the accuracy of the count). The state was a focus of the discredited film “2000 Mules.” To this day, high-profile Republicans in the state are arguing that the 2020 result should be considered invalid.

That includes Kari Lake, who earlier this month won the GOP primary to represent the party on the gubernatorial ballot in November. In April, she called for the results of the election to be “decertified,” a proposed action rooted far more firmly in imagination than reality. Lake has made rejection of the 2020 results in Arizona a centerpiece of her campaign, repeatedly highlighting the issue as important in debates and interviews.

There’s a throughline here, as you’ve noticed. It’s not that Fox News made a tough call that reshaped the trajectory of the Arizona results, leading to speculation about what unfolded with the state’s voters. It’s that every stage of this — the call, the White House response, the politicking — has been tainted or shaped by Trump’s suggestion that the election was undermined by broad illegality.

What happened in Arizona was that Joe Biden won a narrow victory in a result that, by itself, didn’t determine the outcome of the presidency. Everything else is rationalization, reframing — and politics.

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