The media’s slow call

I’ve seen quite a few complaints over the past few days about the glacial pace at which the media moved toward calling the election for Joe Biden, with some suggesting it was because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of President Trump. I have no special insight, but I can think of several reasons why I’d be reluctant to pull the trigger if I were in charge of making the call.

  • Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden with lightning speed. Yet here we are, five days later, and it’s still not 100% clear that Arizona will end up in the blue column. It now looks like Arizona was a premature call, and it may have made news orgs hesitate about calling other states.
  • News organizations may have set some benchmarks for calling Pennsylvania — and then the vote came in more slowly than expected.
  • Trump has unleashed a horde of lawyers upon the land to sue and challenge outcomes in key states. Those actions are, by all accounts, frivolous and abusive. But the courts are filled with Trump judges, right up to and including the Supreme Court. No doubt the media wanted to make sure that they didn’t call the election only to have the courts halt the count in some cases. It now seems reasonably clear that isn’t going to happen.
  • And yes, there’s no question that media decision-makers knew that calling the election for Biden would unleash a hellburst of rage from Trump. That’s not a reason to hold back. But it is a reason to make absolutely.. certain that Biden was the winner.

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No surprises, really. So why do the early election returns feel like a punch to the gut?

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Woah!

Previously published at GBH News.

Four years ago I was watching CNN as John King poked and prodded an interactive map of Florida while Wolf Blitzer looked on. King was explaining why the state was likely to go for Hillary Clinton. And then it happened — the map flipped red. Donald Trump was on his way to victory in Florida and to a narrow Electoral College win nationwide.

So it was with a deep sense of foreboding Tuesday night as I watched King and Blitzer pore over the same map. The early lead Joe Biden had built up over President Trump in that state was beginning to fade. And sure enough, Trump moved ahead in Florida while the two were talking, just as he had in 2016.

But this is not 2016. As I write this, in the early-morning hours on Wednesday following a sleepless night, the race has not yet been decided. The headline on The New York Times home page reads “Election Turns Into Nail-Biter That May Extend for Days.” Moments after I crawled out of bed and turned on the TV, a lead that Trump had maintained in Wisconsin all night suddenly went Biden’s way. The election could go in either direction, and Biden is still very much in the running.

Among those of us who are appalled by Trump, the sickening feeling we experienced last night was based entirely on Biden’s inability to break through in solidly red states that had seemed to be within his grasp. Texas was never ridin’ with Biden. Nor was Florida — not quite an all-red state, but one that has been trending increasingly Republican in recent years, a trend that has been boosted by voter suppression. Nor was Georgia (or so I thought; at the moment it’s actually trending toward Biden).

In fact, if you strip away the fantasies of a Biden landslide, the map looks very much like what we had expected, with the race coming down to the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Last night it struck me that the only real surprise was there hadn’t been any surprises. So I was reassured to see Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson confirm that judgment. In her daily newsletter, “Letters from an American,” she wrote, “Tonight, we wait, as returns from this year’s election are about what we expected. … This is the scenario we all foresaw.”

As Cox and others have pointed out, the reason that the mail-in votes are taking so long to tally in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is that Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent them from being counted before the polls closed. As the liberal economist Dean Baker put it, Republican complaints about the slow pace “is pretty thick hypocrisy even for Republicans.”

This is also the moment when Trump, cornered and desperate, will be at his most dangerous. Trump is attempting to capitalize, railing against the media in a middle-of-the-night speech and — as we all knew he would — falsely claiming that he’s won and threatening to take the election to the Supreme Court on some unspecified grounds.

“This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.

In the hours and days ahead, the media must exercise all the discipline it can muster and keep reminding viewers, listeners and readers that the election isn’t over until all the ballots have been counted. We all know what happened this year — about 100 million ballots were cast early, many by mail, because of the COVID pandemic, and that has created delays and confusion. Republican leaders need to speak up for a fair election as well, but I’ve pretty much given up any hope that they’ll do the right thing.

A couple of other points.

First, Democrats must be shocked to see Hispanic voters shifting toward the Republicans. As The Texas Tribune reported, “Even as Biden performed well in large suburban counties that used to be reliably Republican, he failed to notch wide margins of victory in some critical Democratic strongholds, massively underperforming Hillary Clinton in the mostly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. For example, Trump was leading in unofficial results in Zapata County — where Clinton won with 66% of the vote in 2016.”

Noting there were also signs that Black voters were not as monolithically with Biden as had been expected, the conservative pundit Byron York said on Fox News: “This is something the Republican Party has been trying to do for a long time.”

And yet Trump has shown in word and deed that he’s a racist, going all the way back to his earliest days as a real-estate developer. As the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted, “No matter what happens tonight, we will have to reckon with the millions of people who chose Trump after seeing his racism, bigotry, and xenophobia over the past 4 years.” Democrats have some serious soul-searching to do as to why that’s the case.

Second, although it’s too early to pass judgment given that millions of mail-in ballots have not yet been counted, it may be that the long-predicted polling apocalypse is upon us. A lot of observers said that four years ago, too, but the polls then really weren’t that bad. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote was within the margin of error, and Trump barely squeaked by in the Electoral College.

This time, though, it feels different — although, if you look at the final RealClearPolitics polls of battleground states, it may turn out that the numbers aren’t that far off. Even so, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, and hopes that the Democrats would take back the Senate appear to be hanging by a thread. The wildly optimistic forecasts published by polling analysts like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (see this and this) are a separate problem, and too complex to be dealt with at the moment.

For those of us who believe that Trump is a would-be authoritarian who poses a threat to American democracy, the results so far have been shocking. But we need to get out of our bubble. It looks like Biden may have just barely accomplished what he needed to do to win, which was all we could have realistically expected. He’ll win the popular vote by a lot. The Electoral College, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a bulwark of Republican minority rule. A huge Biden win was probably never in the cards.

In the hours and days ahead, it’s important that all of us — not just Biden supporters, but Trump supporters as well — stay calm and wait for the final result to become clear.

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No results tonight

I’ve got to get up early and try to write something for GBH News. We’re not going to learn any more tonight, so that’s it for me. But one quick thought: The only surprise is that there haven’t been any surprises. Hopes that the Biden camp had of breaking through in Trump country have been dashed. Biden was never going to win Georgia or Texas, and probably not Florida or Ohio, either.

So it comes down to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And we may not know until later this week, if then, who the winner is.

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Northeastern journalism students fan out for Election Day interviews

Our Northeastern journalism students are doing a really cool project today — they’re interviewing people about whether or not they voted, taking their photos and posting them on Instagram. If you get a chance, call up the Instagram app on your phone and search for the hashtag #nujournalismelectionday.

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With the outcome out of our hands, this would be a good time to relax — if you can

Photo (cc) 2020 by Adam Schultz/Biden for President

Twenty-eight years ago today, also a Sunday, I got up in the pre-dawn hours in order to drive a neighbor to the airport. Before returning home, I stopped at my favorite diner, ordered breakfast and spread out that day’s New York Times. The coverage pointed to a victory by Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

The news in today’s Times foretells a similar outcome. The latest Times/Sienna College poll of likely voters shows Joe Biden with a lead over President Trump in four key battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Only Florida seems close enough that it could slip away. With the FiveThirtyEight model giving Biden a 90% chance of winning and The Economist up to 95%, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that we can finally put Trump in the rear-view mirror.

And yes, we all know what happened four years ago. Shocking as it was, though, Biden has held a larger, more durable lead over Trump than Hillary Clinton ever did. James Comey wasn’t around to deliver a late, devastating hit only to say “never mind.” The media have been smarter and more responsible about Trumpist disinformation, such as Tara Reade’s unsupportable allegations and the laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. Last week, NBC News even reported that documents circulating in the fever swamps of the right were not only fake, but had been produced by a fake company headed by a fake person whose fake face had been created using artificial intelligence.

In these final hours before the polls close on Tuesday, we are hearing lots of anxiety-inducing stories about voters being turned away, ballots getting lost and thugs in Texas threatening a Biden campaign bus, resulting in the cancellation of several Biden rallies. As disturbing as this is, I think we’d all be better off if we relaxed as best we can until it’s over. Have you voted? Will you vote? Good. For most of us, that’s all we can do.

Fortunately, Biden seems likely to win by a large enough margin to withstand whatever assault on the vote’s legitimacy Trump tries to mount. It’s not over till it’s over, of course. Right now, though, it looks like we can soon look forward to a victory by Biden and Kamala Harris — and to our country returning to some semblance of normal.

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Talking politics with Storify

Voters in Boston today are heading to the polls to narrow the field of 12 mayoral candidates to the two who will be facing off against each other this November. My students are learning how to use Storify to aggregate and curate Twitter and other forms of social media. Here is the Storify I put together as a demonstration.

Blabbing about the election

If you just can’t get enough of Media Nation, I’ll be on Fox 25 News today starting at 6 p.m. Not exactly sure what they’ve got in mind, but I imagine I’ll be popping up now and then throughout the evening.

And tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. EST, I’ll be a guest on “The Johnny Wendell Show” on KTLK Radio in Los Angeles. You can listen live here.

Election Day 2012

Click on image for more photos

We vote at the Holten-Richmond Middle School in Danvers, home of Precincts 1 and 2. I cast my ballot at about 9:45 a.m., and was the 407th person in Precinct 1 to do so. The polls are open until 8 p.m. Get out and vote!

The Globe’s fire-breathing endorsement of Warren

I’m often frustrated with Boston Globe editorials because they avoid strong stands and take both sides of every issue. So I thought it was interesting that its endorsement of Elizabeth Warren was so unstinting, with little good to say about Sen. Scott Brown.

After recounting Brown’s unproven assertions that Warren took professional advantage of her undocumented Native American ancestry, the editorial includes this very tough line: “By campaigning on his personality, rather than his abilities, Brown seems to be bucking for his own form of affirmative action.”

No question the Globe was going to endorse Warren. But I wonder if it might have been a little more nuanced if Brown hadn’t taken a torch to his nice-guy image.

Live debate commentary

Several hundred thousand of my close friends and I will be live-tweeting the presidential debate. I’m at @dankennedy_nu. I’ll also be contributing to the Fox 25 News live blog at www.myfoxboston.com. Hope you’ll chime in.