On Saturday, after days of uncertainty, CNN became the first major news network to call the presidential race for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Within minutes, NBC, CBS, The Associated Press, and finally Fox News followed CNN’s lead. This type of call would be easy and uncontroversial in an ordinary election year -- but as it has proved in myriad ways, 2020 is not an ordinary year.
By the time the race was called, President Donald Trump’s campaign was already days into a barrage of unfounded legal challenges to the vote totals. Trump wasn’t about to give up, and neither were his supporters in pro-Trump media. An interesting narrative emerged on the right that news outlets should not be calling elections at all; that they should instead wait for states to certify results.
“Attention media! Why are you claiming Biden is president-elect when not a single state has certified electors?” tweeted right-wing Fox News host Mark Levin. “Why are you ignoring the Constitution?”
“The media do not get to select our president. The American people get to elect our president,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo. (Cruz, like other Republican politicians, has been publicly pushed by Trump and his family to mount a defense of the president’s attempt to cling to power.)
The Trump campaign, pro-Trump commentators Diamond and Silk, former CNN contributor Paris Dennard, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson, former Trump administration acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and right-wing radio host Steve Deace were among those who either rejected reports of Biden’s win on the basis that the press doesn’t decide the winners of elections or offered some convoluted explanation involving the fact that state results hadn’t yet been certified -- a task which won’t be completed until next month.
This argument is bizarre and disingenuous.
News outlets go to great lengths to explain how they go about declaring winners and what those announcements mean. After calling the state of Pennsylvania for Biden, which put him over the threshold of 270 electoral votes needed to win the election, the AP provided a thorough explanation for why it believed that Trump would not be able to make up the necessary ground for a come-from-behind victory.
The AP called the race for Biden, who held a 34,243-vote lead, after it determined that the remaining ballots left to be counted would not allow Trump to catch up. The news agency has already declared Biden the winner in both Michigan and Wisconsin.
Biden held a .51 percentage point lead late Saturday morning. Under Pennsylvania law, a recount is automatic when the margin between two candidates in a statewide race is less than 0.5 percentage points. Biden’s lead over Trump was on track to stay outside of that margin as final votes are counted.
There are roughly 62,000 mail ballots remaining to be counted. Biden has won the overwhelming majority of mail ballots cast in the state.
Occasionally, races are called too early or incorrectly projected, as was famously the case with Florida during the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The reason that example so easily comes to mind is that it is extremely rare for a presidential race that could determine an election’s outcome to be incorrectly called. The Florida race was determined by just 537 votes. None of the several states that would need to be overturned for Trump to claim legitimate victory are anywhere near as close.
The argument being made by Trump’s allies is a hypocritical one that doesn’t hold up to even light scrutiny.
There are two ways in which the case being made by Trump and his allies is wildly hypocritical. First, there’s the matter of the campaign’s willingness to accept calls by the media — but only when they’re victories for him. For instance, when NBC’s Decision Desk called North Carolina and Alaska for Trump without waiting for the states to certify their vote totals, the Trump campaign happily celebrated those wins.
Similarly, while many of Trump’s media allies have insisted that it’s not right to acknowledge that Biden won the election and that terms like “president-elect” not be used to describe him, this isn’t consistent with their own handling of the 2016 results. For example, in the early hours of November 9, 2016, Levin offered his heartfelt congratulations to Trump, and even used the term “president-elect,” a far cry from the sputtering rage he’s worked himself into in response to Trump’s loss.
In 2016, before Trump had even crossed the 270-vote threshold, then-Fox Business host Trish Regan commented on the fact that Hillary Clinton was not going to concede the race that night and instead waited until the day after the election to deliver a formal speech. This year, Regan complained that Fox News called the race on the basis that “no state authority, nor FEC has yet to declare the winner.”
Fox Business host Lou Dobbs went from tweeting congratulations to Trump for becoming president-elect after news networks called the race in his favor to calling on the Supreme Court to intervene to keep Trump in power.
Right-wing TV host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee appeared on the November 11 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle to sarcastically joke, “The Constitution was secretly rewritten so that it’s no longer the voters who make the decision, it’s the media networks who get to make the decision as to who is the president.” Like others on the right, Huckabee pointed to the fact that election results had yet to be certified and said Biden was “getting a little ahead of himself” by claiming victory after every major news outlet had called the race. This was a major departure from 2016, where Huckabee started calling Trump the president-elect and said that it was “time for a transition of power” more than half an hour before the AP called the race for Trump.
While Trump’s legal challenges continue through the courts and pro-Trump media, that shouldn’t stop others from acknowledging the obvious: Biden is the president-elect.
Trump’s campaign hasn’t been able to provide evidence of widespread voter fraud that could potentially overturn the election, but it is more than welcome to continue to pursue those legal avenues. Toward the end of November 2016, the Clinton campaign took part in the recount campaigns financed by supporters of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But news media didn’t stop calling Trump “president-elect” in the interim.
Trump’s presidency has been marked by chaos and crisis for many of the country’s institutions, so it’s only fitting that on the way out the door he would sic his campaign and his supporters on the media as a final way to undermine faith in American democracy.