How media outlets accurately call races on election night

Editor's Note: In the introduction to this interview, Chris Stirewalt was identified as the former political editor at Fox News on the Decision Desk. His title was indeed political editor, but in that role he did not run the Decision Desk.

On election night, media outlets will project winners in most states before all of the vote tallies are final. How do news organizations project which candidates have won and what makes those predictions accurate? Chris Stirewalt, former political editor for Fox News, who was fired after correctly calling Arizona for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On Tuesday night, as votes across the country are being counted media outlets will project winners in most states before all of the tallies are final. But how to news organizations project which candidates won before all of the ballots are counted. And what does the growing election denialism on the right mean for the projection process moving forward.

    Chris Stirewalt was Fox News's political editor on the decision desk during the 2020 election. He was fired following a conservative backlash when the desk correctly called Arizona for then candidate Joe Biden. He's now political editor for NewsNation.

    Chris, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Chris Stirewalt, Political Editor, NewsNation:

    Great to be with you.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So help us understand how does a news outlet project a race for a particular candidate before all of the votes are actually counted. What level of confidence is required?

  • Chris Stirewalt:

    What we're really talking about is matching up what is happening in a microsecond by microsecond count of the vote the most up to date possible count of the vote. And we're testing it against expectations. What did we think was going to happen? What did poll say was going to happen? And are these votes, matching up with the expectations from the polls?

    So at a certain point, you get past the ability of polling to be of service, and you're just counting, counting, counting. And then that gets to the work that is really fun that I like to do, where you're like, well, this county acts this way. And this part of this county acts this way. And here's where the votes are still out. Here's where the votes are coming in. And that's the kind of horse sense, old fashioned, sometimes back of the envelope tabulation that is required at the end.

    But early in the evening, you're waiting to see whether the real vote matches up with the expected vote. And is the polling was the polling predictive. Now, it won't be but the question is, how much is it off and in what direction? And then that sets expectations going into the rest of the evening.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    But when you talk about the back of the envelope tabulating take us back two years ago, because the Fox News decision desk, as we mentioned, under your direction at the time was the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden, it would be days before other news networks followed suit. How did you get it right?

  • Chris Stirewalt:

    Well, I wish I could take credit for having done it all, and that it was at my direction. But that was a consensus decision. And I got to tell you, it was not — it wasn't a particularly hard call to make. We had a very good poll that lined up very well, with what was happening in Arizona. And we were hitting it right on the screws. And we had high confidence.

    I can promise you that by the time Republicans started freaking out about that call, we were already down the path thinking about are we going to be able to call North Carolina, how's Georgia looking? We were thinking about other things, because that was just another call.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What did you make of that reaction? I remember reporting at the time, the ways in which Trump White House officials were pressuring Fox News to retract that call, Trump supporters were obviously very angry about it. What did you make of that response?

  • Chris Stirewalt:

    I didn't realize that what was going on in 2020 was as extraordinary as it would be right away because I didn't think that there would be enough people as deeply cynical as would be necessary to try to exploit the confusion around the Coronavirus disruptive vote, to try to help Donald Trump's steal a second term.

    So I underestimated quite frankly how enraged people would be. But I — the bigger error was that I failed to see how many people who knew better would play along with what was a really rotten game, to try to placate Trump or really help them commit what would have been the crime of the century.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, given all of that the cynicism the exploitation, as you put it, should news organizations do you think rethink the projection process is more transparency needed?

  • Chris Stirewalt:

    I think, given the extraordinary amount of anxiety that exists in both of these parties, about the condition of our democracy in the conduct of our elections, that we are obliged as journalists to take extra measures this cycle. I think we have to — transparency is good. Accountability is better than transparency, right? I own what — if you get something wrong, you got to own it, you have to explain how you got it wrong. That's really important.

    But the other thing is, take viewers along with you. Here's how this happened. Here's how this decision was made. And that's what I'm looking forward to doing this year. We're working with a team from decision desk HQ. These guys are supercharged, they are really good. And it's exciting to work with them. And my job, part of my job is to be the liaison between the viewer sort of an ombudsman between the viewer and the turbocharged nerd tank that will be working in our outside of our Chicago studios. And I want to play the role of the explainer who can help people follow along with what's going on.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Chris Stirewalt, thanks as always for your insights and for your time appreciate it.

  • Chris Stirewalt:

    You bet.

Listen to this Segment