vision 2020

Will Fox News Save Democracy With an Accurate Election Night Call?

Fox’s most famous viewer was very pleased with this call on Election Night in 2016. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Those who want to dismiss the red mirage scenario of an early Trump victory claim on Election Night attributable to a big partisan tilt in voting methods have on occasion assured us Chicken Littles that the great big adults of the mainstream media will stop that by refusing to call the election for Trump if their “decision desks” see contradictory data. A more concrete assurance has now been offered by the New York Times’ Ben Smith, who has profiled the decision-desk captain of Fox News, the TV network most likely to accept instructions from the White House to cook the books on Election Night:

[A] new office on the third floor of [Fox News’] headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, known by employees as the “nerdquarium.” That’s where a prickly, bespectacled 65-year-old named Arnon Mishkin and his staff of data-crunching wonks will come to work on Election Day. And this Nov. 3, Mr. Mishkin may be the last bulwark against the most frightening prophecies of electoral insanity.

Mr. Mishkin runs Fox News’s “decision desk,” the team responsible for telling Fox viewers — also known as Donald Trump’s base — who won the election. The team and its sister polling unit are among the few endeavors at Fox that have proven immune to the president’s takeover of the network. Mr. Mishkin is a straight shooter — a registered Democrat who told me he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and is paid as a consultant, not as a Fox employee.

“There will be no one putting their finger on the scale in either direction,” he told me with matter-of-fact confidence[.]

Part of the argument Smith makes is that Fox News is too disorganized to put anyone in a position to make Mishkin a liar — or drive him to publicly blow the whistle on an order from The Top to cut Trump some slack. That is a rebuttable presumption at best. But Mishkin does have some street cred thanks to his famous refusal to bend to televised intimidation from Karl Rove on Election Night in 2012, when the decision desk pushed back at the Mishkin’s efforts to dispute a “call” of Ohio — and thus the election — for Barack Obama.

As Smith notes, a refusal by the Fox decision desk to ratify a Trump “victory” based on a grossly premature slice of votes will likely produce an on-air backlash far stronger than Rove could muster:

The nightmare scenario goes like this: It’s a close race, and Mr. Trump leads in the early vote count in Pennsylvania, and needs just that state to win the election. Tens of thousands of votes are still untallied, and the counting may take weeks — but Mr. Trump has already declared that he’s been re-elected. He’s demanding that Fox do the same, making calls to Fox Corporation’s co-chairman, Rupert Murdoch, or working back channels to the executive who effectively runs the network, Viet Dinh. Mr. Trump’s most loyal acolytes at Fox, the prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, are backing the president’s claim on the air. And Fox faces the temptation it often succumbs to: offering its audience the alternate reality it wants.

That’s not exactly right: The more likely scenario is an Election Night with Trump leading in multiple battleground states with perhaps a third to half of the total vote still uncounted. While the White House would lift heaven and earth to secure a major-network endorsement of an Election Night victory claim — thus neutralizing all the other news organizations’ determinations with we said/they said confusion — Trump’s Fox News friends could probably generate enough triumphalist noise to offset any sober pushback from the decision desk. And that would still set the stage for a Trump campaign effort to delegitimize or stop the counting of mail ballots later.

What would really throw sand in the gears of any Trump effort to steal the election would be decision-desk announcements that Biden would ultimately win, once heavily Democratic mail ballots are completely tabulated, even with Trump leading in the raw vote. There could well be data to support such an unprecedented claim. Check out these numbers from a new Times/Siena poll of (yes) Pennsylvania:

At present, since Pennsylvania cannot begin to process, much less count, mail ballots until Election Day, the odds are very high that the above configuration would produce a temporary Trump lead certain to give way to a later Biden win. The models decision desks deploy, which combine exit polling of in-person voters with traditional opinion polling of those who vote by mail, should show that pretty clearly.

Would Mishkin and his Fox News superiors have the chutzpah to call an election for Biden with Trump in the lead, particularly with the president and his allies bellowing that all those subsequent mail-in ballots will be skewed by Democratic fraud? That’s the true acid test. Otherwise the country could drift into a post-November 3 twilight world in which “both sides” are making equally complicated claims as lawsuits to shut down and protect vote-counting swirl, protesters clash in the streets, and the December 8 deadline for certifying electoral votes approaches.

Will Fox News Save Democracy With an Accurate Election Call?