The Slatest

Decision Desk HQ Was First to Call the Election for Biden. What Is Decision Desk HQ?

Joe Biden grins and pumps his fist next to his wife, Jill, who waves to the crowd.
Jill and Joe Biden at a drive-in election night event in Wilmington, Delaware. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Everyone thinks Joe Biden is going to win Pennsylvania, which means everyone thinks Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States. But as of 8:50 a.m. Eastern on Friday, Nov. 6, none of the major decision desks had stepped out on a limb and called the race. Enter Decision Desk HQ.

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Decision Desk HQ made the call on Twitter after a batch of ballots came in from Philadelphia that put Biden in the lead by 5,587 votes in Pennsylvania. With more than 100,000 ballots still left to be counted in the state, and with those ballots tilting very heavily toward Biden, there is no realistic path for Donald Trump to win Pennsylvania. And yet, all the networks have hesitated to say unequivocally that Joe Biden will be the next president. Decision Desk HQ did not equivocate. Nate Silver, among others, thought that it was right to make the call when it did.

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Decision Desk HQ was launched by Brandon Finnigan, whom Ben Smith described as “a right-wing truck dispatcher” in a 2014 BuzzFeed profile. At that point, according to Smith, Finnigan was working as an election tracker for the conservative blog Ace of Spades HQ “along with his dozens of volunteer Google spreadsheet jockeys.” Here’s how Finnigan described his mission:

“I want to fundamentally change how results are reported,” Finnigan told BuzzFeed News. His goal is both to modernize the local election boards and to deflate what he sees as false drama imposed by slow Associated Press calls and desperate television commentators. “I understand you need an element of suspense and you need something to jibber-jabber about on election night. But you got to jibber-jabber all year. I just want the results.”

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Finnigan told Smith that he first got interested in election forecasting because he was frustrated by the networks’ slowness to call the presidential race for George W. Bush in 2004. (In the networks’ defense, they were obviously going to be skittish after wrongly calling Florida for Al Gore in 2000.) Per BuzzFeed, Finnigan “started the informal ‘Ace of Spades Headquarters Decision Desk’ in 2012,” but it wasn’t until 2014 that “his team began to really take on the AP at its own game: not just projecting elections based on public results, but also calling county offices directly to feed the tallies into a spreadsheet.”

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In 2017, Decision Desk HQ partnered with BuzzFeed “to provide live coverage of elections across America” in what was described as a six-figure deal. It began working with Vox that same year; Vox said in a piece this March that Decision Desk HQ “uses gold-standard methods to call elections.” After Decision Desk made its call this morning, Vox affirmed it from its own Twitter account.

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Here’s how Decision Desk HQ works circa 2020, according to Vox:

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Media outlets pay them to do the extra work necessary to pull results together. Decision Desk uses an API, or application programming interface, that essentially allows the firm to get the information at the same time as it’s published on the website, provided by election officials. It also scrapes information directly from other public sites. And it uses old-fashioned methods, like phone calls and faxes—though to a far lesser extent than the AP does.

Those new-school and old-fashioned methods culminated in a call that, as of 9:56 a.m. Eastern, has been retweeted more than 55,000 times and quote-tweeted almost 30,000 more.

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