November 5, 2020

As the drama of the presidential vote count in five key states continues to unfold, a big media story bubbles just beneath the surface.

Fox News and The Associated Press deemed Arizona a win for Joe Biden on election night, making their calls three hours apart. President Donald Trump and his campaign howled in protest against Fox.

Now, a day and a half later, CNN and other broadcast networks insist that while Arizona may be leaning Biden, the race is still too close or too early to determine the winner.

Why that disparity?

Formulas for vote counts and projections are wildly complex mathematically and expensive to create, but there is a simple explanation.

AP and Fox pulled out of a consortium of networks after the pooled effort had produced shaky results in 2016. The rest of the networks stayed in, thinking the system could be tweaked while the AP had concluded it was broken.

The issue was whether the accelerating move to early voting and mail-in voting, advancing cycle after cycle, made traditional election day exit polls invalid. AP said yes and embarked on inventing a new methodology. The Fox News decision desk, an AP client, agreed and collaborated.

The decision desk mainly operates independently of the newsroom and feeds its findings to on-air broadcasters — Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum on Tuesday night. The forecast team is wholly independent of Fox’s evening and morning opinion hosts, who denounced the call.

Ditching exit polls, the new formula relies on votes counted so far plus an informed estimate of how many votes remain to be counted and where. The likely split can be inferred by party affiliations, the mix in a given county of those who already voted and other factors.

Sally Buzbee, executive editor of AP, explained her thinking in an email interview with me last week:

“We made the difficult decision to pull out of the network exit poll consortium. Working with NORC at the University of Chicago, we developed a new methodology and tool called AP VoteCast, which also captures early voters and which has proven highly accurate and robust.

“We did not develop AP VoteCast for the pandemic: We developed it because we saw the long-term trends. But it has proved a huge blessing given the pandemic.

“I have to admit that I offer up a fervent ‘thank you’ pretty much every day … about the fact that AP is not dependent on exit polls any longer this year.”

In a pre-election webinar in which Buzbee participated, Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief of CNN, explained why his network went another direction, sticking with the consortium and its vendor, Edison Research. Simplifying just a bit, Feist said that he and others who stayed believed that a supplemental version of exit polls could be constructed for the early voting and mail-in segments.

That’s the fork in the road. Major newspapers are similarly split. The Wall Street Journal election map awards Arizona and its 11 electoral votes to Biden as of mid-afternoon Thursday. That shows him with a total of 264, six short of a majority.

The New York Times and The Washington Post are not yet ready to call the Arizona race so they show Biden at 253.

The AP published its own explainer earlier Thursday — a clear description of how the call was made but with no reference to the 2016 split or Fox. The Washington Post had a fuller story including that element.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and his former employer, The New York Times, argue that there are quirks in the order that absentee and other mail-ins are counted in Arizona that still leave the door open a crack for a Trump win.

Silver explained: “Wait — outstanding mail votes? Shouldn’t those be good for Biden, as in other states? Well, not necessarily, because Republicans have a fairly strong mail voting program in Arizona and — this is the key part — the mail ballots that were returned later in the process (the ones yet to be continued) were significantly redder than the ones that came in earlier on, as Democrats sent their votes in early. For instance, the party registration of the votes that came in Monday and Tuesday were: 23 percent Democratic, 44 percent Republican, and 33 percent independent or other parties. That is to say, a 21-point GOP edge, which would put Trump on track to tie things up.”

In the normal course of things, the merits of the dueling methodologies might have been the stuff of a respectful symposium months later.

Instead, the approaches clashed in charged fashion early as the tight, high-stakes election results were starting to be counted. The next report from Arizona, conceivably decisive, is promised for 9 p.m. Eastern Thursday evening.

In the media part of this contest, only two results are possible. AP and Fox News could be proven right — and fast, too.

Or in the event of a surprise Trump turnaround, the two organizations will have (borrowing a Tom Brokaw quip from 2000), enough egg on their faces to make an omelet.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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