News organizations preparing for the midterms face a tougher atmosphere than ever when predicting winners on election night.
Former President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, his anger at Fox News for calling Arizona about Joe Biden, and the dozens of GOP candidates who have followed his example to challenge the validity of the election results into question, making the forecasting of the races a more strenuous process than before.
“You can go back to the 2000 election, you can certainly go back to the last election, the way Fox News called Arizona and the way the Trump campaign has responded, it’s a tough position , which is where news organizations are in the sense that they don’t want to be the center of the story,” said Benjamin Toff, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“It’s a really uncomfortable situation for the people involved to be in and that’s why they’re all very careful not to want to cancel a race prematurely because of insufficient data and evidence,” he said.
David Scott, who oversees one of the country’s largest election coverage operations as vice president of news strategy and operations at The Associated Press, told The Hill this week that the AP is braced for the biggest election night spotlight to have featured the outlet since 2020 .
“Even at this moment for our democracy, when there is a lot of misinformation and an intense focus on vote counting, we take comfort in the standard we have used and the care and effort that goes into organizing races . That has always served us well and is the right thing to do at this moment,” said Scott.
Across the country, dozens of news leaders are preparing plans to deliver real-time race calls, a complicated and laborious science that uses reports from various locations, data from recent elections and exit polls to quantify leaders and eventual winners in races around the House, Senate and other competitions.
Forecasts have been controversial or wrong in the past. On the night of the 2000 presidential election, networks incorrectly named the race for either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush.
More recently, Trump has been furious and complained about the Arizona projection at the highest levels of Fox management before falsely telling his supporters he had won.
Fox has heeded the call, bringing back Decision Desk Director Arnon Mishkin, who was heavily criticized by Trump supporters in 2020, for the network’s coverage of the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Trump has continued to make unsubstantiated claims about the election, and a number of Republicans running for office at this year’s midterms have supported those claims.
These denials are affecting public opinion. An ABC News poll earlier this year found that only 20 percent of Americans have a high level of trust in electoral systems.
That’s why industry experts say it’s more important than ever for news organizations to lift the curtain on their audiences and explain the nuances of how votes are counted and forecasts are made.
“We have the decision desk set up right in the studio and I can speak directly to our viewers so you get it straight from us. If we see something, we show it to viewers,” said Anthony Salvanto, director of elections and polls at CBS News. “My goal is to always be able to explain exactly what is happening.”
Salvanto said his network will place a renewed focus this cycle on explaining to viewers what types of ballots will be counted on election night, citing partisan trends in same-day voting versus early or mail-in voting.
“That’s going to be a challenge because we’ve seen it appear in larger numbers over the last few cycles,” he said.
For national television stations in particular, the pressure to fill airtime analyzing election results can be enormous as results are reported, in some cases slowly, by local governments and others who count votes across the country.
“The things that the networks need to be careful about, and for the most part they are, is making sure the audience understands what a Steve Kornacki or a John King is doing on Election Day,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former network executive and now Dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. He referenced the MSNBC and CNN personalities associated with analysis and election night projections on those two networks.
“They don’t predict the outcome, they don’t sit there with the results and say, ‘That’s how we think people are going to vote.’ What they’re saying is, “Based on the historical models, we think it’s going to end up here when all the votes are tallied.” It’s a subtle but important difference.”
Complicating matters for the media organizations that track election results by the minute is the dwindling nationwide confidence in opinion polls and polls on election night.
In recent years, media companies have found that content on how voting works is resonating with audiences and are looking to capitalize on this trend as they work to create more transparency and trust in the process.
“Readers, viewers, news consumers, voters … they are very interested. They want that information,” Scott said. “Some of the content that we would call explanatory journalism, where we pull back the curtain and explain what we’re doing, is some of the most popular stories and videos and stories that we do on election night. It really signals an interest in democracy. People want to know what’s happening.”