Fox News rolled out a new methodology for calling elections ahead of the 2018 midterms, and the man at the helm told Insider before the election that the network would be much better equipped to deal with mail-in votes in 2020 compared to other models.
Arnon Mishkin, director of the Fox News Decision Desk, did a Q&A with Insider before the election to discuss the challenges of calling an election on live TV like the American public has become accustomed to over the years.
The new Fox News Voter Analysis system, Mishkin emphasized, is not designed to call elections faster, but simply more accurately.
Fox News was aggressive in calling races on election night well before many other outlets, with their call of Arizona for Democratic nominee Joe Biden reportedly irking the White House.
Fox News raised eyebrows on election night with their early calls for several states that other outlets waited on.
In particular, the network's call of Arizona going for former Vice President Joe Biden made the White House "livid," according to Fox News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Fox News decided to ditch the time-trodden model of using exit polls to help them call races as votes came in.
Instead, they took on a new approach: surveying upwards of 100,000 Americans ahead of Election Day to see where people were voting by mail or in person, and using that large dataset to make sense of the returns on election night.
Fox News Decision Desk Director Arnon Mishkin told Insider before the election that the new method — the Fox News Voter Analysis system — was designed simply to call elections more accurately, not necessarily more quickly.
However, Mishkin noted that an advantage of this system during the coronavirus pandemic is its fine-tuning around mail-in voting, which has proven to be far more widespread in 2020 than in past elections.
Below is a Q&A with Mishkin where he explained how the network approached calling the election amid rampant uncertainty and confusion around voting by mail.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jake Lahut: Could you start by walking me through what the previous system for calling elections was at Fox, and what this new one is doing differently?
Arnon Mishkin: From the get-go, we were part of the National Election Pool (NEP) consortium, which basically ran the exit poll or purchased the exit poll — both the exit poll as well as the vote counts from the Associated Press. Following 2016, we were concerned about two things — and it wasn't just us, I think folks on the NEP were equally concerned. The two concerns were primarily the growth in the mail-in vote, and whether or not the exit poll was covering those people adequately enough. And the second was a tendency, for whatever reason, for there to be differential non-response — people who voted for one party seemed to be overrepresented in the sample than were represented when you actually count the vote. So there was a tendency for the results to skew.
We'd gotten sort of comfortable with realizing, well, if there's a lead here, that doesn't mean it's a lead because we know there's going to be a skew with the results. After 2016, the leadership at Fox said, "We really need to come up with something new. The consortiums won't innovate, so we're pulling out, and you guys have to come up with something new."
Lahut: Wow, so could you tell me what that initial meeting was like once you were tasked with coming up with a new model?
Mishkin: We were sort of puzzled. Like, how are we going to do this without an exit poll? Then we met as a team here at Fox and developed what we thought would be a different way of approaching a "voter x-ray," if you will — sort of understanding the voters. And we thought, let's do sort of a combination of a phone and internet poll across the country in the days before an election, which we thought would be the same tool for covering early voters, Election Day voters, and mail-in or absentee voters.
This was at a time, when we pulled out after 2016, when roughly a little over 40% of Americans were voting early or absentee. And we thought that the way the exit poll handled that was insufficient. So we developed a different approach.
We were very much told by our leadership here at Fox that we're not here to try and do something that's designed to give us a competitive advantage. We're trying to do something to improve the accuracy of the system. And we tried to explain that to our friends at NEP and at VAP. So we got the AP to join us, and we developed what we call the Fox News Voter Analysis and what they call AP VoteCast, working with the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago to come up with this combination phone and internet poll.
Lahut: Could you tell me a little more about these surveys? Are they predicting the breakdown of the mail-in vote by offering a pattern of how those returns will split compared to the in-person votes?
Mishkin: OK, so it's one standard tool. In every interview we find out if the voter is going to vote or has the voter voted, and also by what method they voted. So whether you're an in-person voter or a mail-in voter, you're taking the same survey. Based on that, and based on demographics of the country and various other things, it estimates — I wouldn't say predicts — what percentage are voting by mail, what percentage are voting in-person early, and what percentage are voting on Election Day. And those estimates are then also correlated with other estimates we get to make sure they're on track with what various other vendors provide on how many people have voted by mail.
Lahut: Are there any rough benchmarks or circumstances where this model would allow you to call the race on election night or within 24 hours of the final votes being cast?
Mishkin: The timing of the call is going to be a function of how wide the margin is between the two candidates, and not just in the presidency, but also in the various other statewide races. In the event that there's a wide margin, I think all of the networks are going to be able to make a call fairly quickly. In the event that the margin is much closer, you won't be able to make that call because you won't be able to see if there's a difference until later in the evening — and that's true in any election.
What makes this election more complex than most is that in most elections, mail-in voters differ a little from Election Day voters, but not that much in this election. For whatever reason, it has become almost an article of faith that Republicans should be voting on Election Day in person, and Democrats should be voting early or by mail. And so when you look at any or all the polls that have come out, it shows huge swings between how the mail-in vote is going to look and how the Election Day vote is going to look. That makes it far more complicated on election night, as we start seeing the vote to understand what exactly we are looking at.
We think that the combination of the three tools we'll have on election night to study the vote will give us a good idea of what's really happening, but it is much more complicated than it is historically. Those three tools, I should point out, are the Fox News Voter Analysis, the sample precincts that we'll be getting from the Associated Press, as well as the actual raw vote that you're getting county by county.
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