Florida will count its results relatively quickly; Pennsylvania won’t. President Donald Trump already is saying that it all should be over on November 3, raising fears that if not he’ll declare victory early, or insist that the process is rigged.
Networks are grappling with a potentially complicated, long, drawn-out Election Night, the possibility that no winner will be known and even that the process will extend for days or even weeks. They have been rehearsing all sorts of different scenarios, but more than anything insist they are proceeding with a sense of caution.
“We want to make sure that our viewers understand that just because it takes longer to count the ballots, the mail-in ballots in particular, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and SVP. “If it takes a day or two to know who the winner is, that is not a reflection that anything has gone wrong in the system. In fact, it may be a reflection that the system is working exactly as it was designed. It just takes a little bit longer.”
The stakes are high: A misplaced comment or faulty declaration can follow a career for years, and the way that the results are framed can have a huge impact on the mindset of any post-election challenge.
Axios reported on Sunday that Trump is planning to declare victory if he is ahead in key states, even if a great deal of the vote remains outstanding. He denies the report. But if that happens, there will be plenty of scrutiny in how networks frame the president’s declaration against where the race stands at that moment.
“It is not easy, not that any election night is easy,” said Rashida Jones, SVP at NBC News. “What it has done is required us to be even more thoughtful of how we present the information and the data to the viewer.”
That includes explaining to the audience the different sets of rules and dynamics by state, which is something “that we really haven’t had to do before,” she said.
Networks also are preparing for the possibility that there will be a contested election that goes to the courts. “If this turns into Florida 2000, we are ready,” said Chris Stirewalt, politics editor for Fox News, referring to the protracted battle 20 years ago. He added that they have made contingencies for a long fight.
“God willing we won’t have to use them,” he said.
Here’s a look at what will be different for the networks on Election Night.
The early vote. As of Sunday, more than 94 million people had voted, including almost 60 million mail-in ballots and 34 million in-person votes, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
That is a huge, huge figure, and it puts the onus on the networks to explain the results in more granular detail. Already there is talk of a “blue” or “red” mirage — i.e., the assumption that a race is headed in one direction when, in fact, it could change completely when states finish counting.
Counties in some states, like Florida, already are processing mail-in votes. Others, like those in Pennsylvania, won’t begin counting absentees until Tuesday. What’s more, said CNN’s political director David Chalian, is that not every state and county reports out Election Day vote and absentee vote.
“Where it is available will help inform us of course and we will be totally transparent with the viewers to explain, ‘Here’s the overall vote in a given state. What is behind that vote? How much of that vote right now is only accounting for absentee vote? How much of it is accounting for the Election Day vote?’ ”
He added, “At any moment that a viewer is coming to CNN, what’s the state of play, because of the way that votes are going to be reported, we are working into our election night coverage that night the ability to separate out and explain the context of what exactly is included in that vote total that you are seeing and what isn’t.”
Networks plan to reinforce that point in how they present vote totals in the election graphics. That will be a change from cycles past, when some outlets would present totals as percent of precincts reporting, when in fact some states still had huge numbers of mail-in ballots to count. Instead, there will be reference to what the expected vote is.
“It won’t get to 99% until the count gets to 99%,” said Anthony Salvanto, CBS News’ elections and surveys director, adding that “even before 2020, as America shifted to more early vote and more mail vote, we were using percentage of the expected vote to tell the story.”
ABC News plans to feature total expected vote on its graphics, and the estimate that will come from early and absentee voting.
“We will have a lot more numbers on the screen, and we will be explaining that to the audience,” said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer of special events for ABC News. “Transparency is the watchword of the night.”
Running a close second to transparency: Patience.
The exit polls. Edison Research conducts the National Election Pool with four networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN — to provide exit-polling information that sheds light not just on voter preference, but also demographic makeup and a load of other information.
That information is typically closely held until an embargo is lifted on election night, but it has had a way of spilling out anyway in cycles past. (Perhaps most famously, in 2004, numbers leaked to Drudge and many went into the night thinking that John Kerry’s victory was a fait accompli.)
The challenge this year is that so many people are voting early or by mail, which is why the National Election Pool has been gathering data in the weeks leading up to Tuesday.
“We are doing in-person exit polls at in-person early-voting locations,” Chalian said. “This is ongoing.” In addition, they are doing a pre-election telephone survey everywhere, rather than just in states with high absentee vote.
“So combine all that, when you see the exit polls on Election Night and you see those results, they are inclusive. That is representative of all the voters in the country, irrespective of how they voted,” he said.
After 2016, Fox News left the consortium along with the Associated Press, and they are relying on their own data. Fox News Voter Analysis combines survey data from NORC at the University of Chicago with voting results from the AP.
Stirewalt said that their analysis has taken into a much better account early and mail-in voting. “Our competitors have been scrambling to make something like we did four years ago,” he said.
Yet the other networks insist that they will be ready with a complete analysis on Election Night. CBS News’ Salvanto said that while the early vote presents a challenge, “the good news is the data is available. We have more data about the electorate than we ever had before. We will be able to deliver a really targeted picture of the electorate.”
All of the networks will also be running results and coverage on their digital side.
Catherine Kim, global head of digital news for NBC News and MSNBC, said that “it is a pretty meticulous plan we have in place. It has been an interesting last few days in making sure we consider all different storylines.”
“What most unusual is what we have all been seeing is that there is so much early voting and absentee voting. How that plays into the result and how it will be reported will be different. That to me is the biggest thing we will be looking at in terms of data coming in and the vote counts.”
Projections. This is where the networks say they are being super cautious.
“Accuracy is number one, number two and number three,” NBC News’ Jones said. When it comes to projections, she said, “it is more important to be accurate than first.”
Has there been a wrong projection? Yes.
But you have to go back to 2000 where it happened in a big way, and that was in the contested results in Florida that determined the presidential race. First Al Gore was called the winner, then George W. Bush was, then that call was retracted.
In the 20 years since then, networks have become even more data-driven, which is why it’s probably all the more imperative for decision desks to explain exactly why a race was called. An insight into that came in 2012, when Fox News called Ohio for President Barack Obama, and Karl Rove challenged it on the air. Then-anchor Megyn Kelly took viewers back to their decision desk, and they explained how they came to that result.
In 2018, Fox News was the first of the networks to make the call that Democrats would win control of the House of Representatives.
Stirewalt said that “we have a lot of confidence based in what our tools did in the special elections and in 2018. We also make sure that we are testing ourselves and our assumptions.”
“In the end the projections are human decisions,” he said.
Salvanto said that it is also important to explain to viewers how a projection is made.
“It is just as important to explain it as it is to make a projection,” he said. “…When we describe a race, I should be able to tell what it is we are seeing in our data and in our models. At the end of the day, who wins is information everyone has. It’s up to us to give an understanding of why.”
The coronavirus. The night will look different from past election nights, as social distancing and other protocols have forced networks to be extra cautious in how many people fill their studios and control rooms, or how reporters and crews protect themselves in the field.
“You can’t underestimate the effect that COVID has had on this election,” Burstein said, referring to not just the presidential race but the coverage of it.
Fox News, which like other networks has plans in place for social distancing, mask use and testing, won’t even be passing note cards around their personnel, Stirewalt said.
NBC News has in past cycles transformed Rockefeller Center into Democracy Plaza; this time, they will be relying on more “dynamic signature graphics” than in past cycles, Jones said.
“You will see a few folks in studio, a few folks at home and a few across the country,” Jones said. “We don’t want to compromise our health and safety standards for production value.” She said that they will have 1/3 to 1/4 of the people that they normally have in the control room.
Katie den Daas, managing editor for ABC News Live, which will be on air all day, said there will be “far fewer people on set than we have had in the past. They will be more spaced out,” in addition to a number of other COVID protocols for things like testing and air filtration.
Endurance. Although it could take quite a while to know a winner, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be some indications of where the race is headed early in the evening. Polls close in Georgia, and most of Florida, at 7 p.m. ET.
den Daas said that “historically we have gotten through election and really taken a big sigh of relief, it is over. This year we are running a marathon. We want to make sure [staffers] are not burning out.”
“I am going to get a good night’s sleep on Monday night and eat some healthy meals on Tuesday,” Burstein said, adding that he doesn’t think he can deviate from his routine of waking up at 5:30 on Election Day.
“This is what we do,” he said. “This is the Super Bowl of news. In some ways we have been preparing for this for years.”
Chalian said, “America sort of holds a mirror up to itself and sort of figures out who it is as a people, where they want to go as a nation. That reveals itself throughout the night, and we follow that along and bring that story in real time to our viewers. No matter the overall news context, no matter that pandemic at the moment, that is always exciting and different.”