Around 11:20 p.m. on election night, Fox News made its first truly surprising call of the evening. The network’s designated “map guy,” Bill Hemmer, who had been standing at the network’s big map outlining potential Trump and Biden paths to victory, was caught by surprise when the state of Arizona—which had voted for Trump in 2016—flipped to blue before his eyes. “What is happening here? Why is Arizona blue?” Hemmer asked. “Did we just call it? Did we just make a call in Arizona?”
Fox had—and the network had done so before any other network had been willing to make the same call. “OK, time out. This is a big development,” said co-anchor Bret Baier, going on to note that “Biden picking up Arizona changes the … math.” This new math made a lot of conservatives very unhappy, including former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who 20 minutes later did a Fox hit from the White House lawn. “I’m still not sure if that was a premature call,” said Sanders. “I think there are some people that still think that might have been a little bit early.”
Five minutes later, Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt came on to defend the decision. “How can you call Arizona, but we can’t call Ohio?” asked Bret Baier.
“Because the races are very different,” said Stirewalt, going on to explain that the margins were too wide in Arizona for Trump to make up any significant ground. As for Ohio, Stirewalt noted that Fox News’ decision desk was not yet ready to make a call in the Buckeye State. “There is just too much vote out, and there’s too much potentially heavily Democratic mail vote that may flop in at the end to get too froggy right now with Ohio,” said Stirewalt. “We’re going to be careful, cautious, and earnest.”
President Donald Trump has been anything but careful, cautious, and earnest with his campaign rhetoric about election logistics this year. The president has clearly been terrified by the number of early ballots that have been cast in the 2020 election, fearing that most of those votes will go to Biden. Consequently, Trump and his surrogates have tried very hard to prevent those ballots from swinging the election. They have consistently disparaged the security and reliability of mail-in voting. They have filed lawsuits in states all over America, attempting to disqualify early votes and make it harder for Democratic ballots to be counted. Many state-level Republican politicians took steps to make it exceedingly difficult for voters in those states and counties to vote early.
Backgrounding all of this has been the low-lying worry that, in the event of a tight race or a slight Trump lead at the end of election night, Trump will just flat-out declare himself the winner and then spend the rest of his term attempting to delegitimize the mail-in ballots. It would be hard for this trick to succeed without the help of Fox News, though, which is why some had worried that Fox’s decision desk would fall under the sway of the network’s prominent opinion personalities and preemptively call certain swing states for Trump on election night, thus giving the president an opening to declare victory before it was actually clear whether he had won.
Fox has not done this, much to the credit of its “nerdquarium” on the decision desk, and much to the evident dismay of many of the other people on the network’s election night coverage team. Fox was indeed quick to call certain states like Florida on Tuesday night, quicker than plenty of other outlets. But its decision to call Arizona for Biden contradicted the narrative that the network would be thoroughly in the tank for Trump—and infuriated many on the right who had counted on the network to be in the tank for Trump. Though Fox’s decision desk ended up calling Ohio for Trump less than a minute after Stirewalt had deemed it too soon to call Ohio for Trump, that bit of good news for the president did not stanch any of the right-wing rage over the network’s Arizona call.
“There has been a great deal of pushback from the president, his staff, the governor of Arizona. Apparently more than a million ballots still to be counted,” said Tucker Carlson, on air, a few minutes later. “I’m not privy to the math, I’m not certain how that—even after the explanation from Chris Stirewalt—how that decision was made. So, you know, I’m sure there was a reason for it. I don’t know what it is.” Soon after that, back at his map, Bill Hemmer seemed to echo Carlson’s confusion. “Everybody’s getting the pushback on Arizona,” he said, pointing at the state. “I don’t know if this is gonna change or not, you know? Listen, our decision desk went with it. They’re telling us there’s a million votes out there. We’ll see if that’s the case throughout the night.”
There was more: “The Trump campaign is, how shall I put this, livid about the fact that Arizona was called,” Fox White House correspondent John Roberts reported around 12:20 a.m. “Frankly, there have been public calls for Fox to pull back that call. I’ll leave that to the decision desk, but that’s what the Trump campaign is saying.”
Around 12:30 a.m., Fox brought Arnon Mishkin, the director of the network’s decision desk, on the air to justify the Arizona call. “Arizona. Are you 100 percent sure of that call, and when you made it? And why did you make it?” Baier asked.
“It’s been clear for a while that the former vice president is in the lead in Arizona and was most likely to win the state,” Mishkin said (and it’s worth quoting in full):
Yes, there are outstanding votes in Arizona. Most of them are from Maricopa, where Biden is currently in a very strong position, and many of them are mail-in votes, where we know from our Fox News voter analysis Biden has an advantage. We don’t know how exactly many mail-in votes there are, but what I think we’ve heard from the White House is that they are expecting that they need just to get 61 percent of the outstanding vote and there are 870,000 outstanding votes, and they’ll be getting that. That’s not true. The reality is that they’re likely to get only about 44 percent of the outstanding votes that are there. We’re right now sitting on a race that is Biden at 53 percent, Trump at 46 percent. I’m sorry, the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate that 7-point lead that the former vice president has.
And that was that, more or less, and Baier went on to ask Mishkin about other states that had yet to be called. But they went back to Arizona to close the segment. “Let’s finish where we started on Arizona? You’re 100 percent sure?”
“Yes!” Mishkin said.
“And so all this pushback, you’re going to say, ‘We made the right call when we made it’?”
“We made the correct call, and that is why we made the correct call when we made it,” said Mishkin. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you don’t have to be sorry,” said Baier. But it clearly wasn’t the news that Fox and the right had wanted to hear.
There’s precedent for Fox’s numbers guys thwarting the will and wishes of the network’s on-air pundits and opinion personalities. In 2012, after Karl Rove begged the network’s decision desk to reverse its call of Ohio for Barack Obama, Megyn Kelly famously marched off set and through the Fox News hallways into the decision desk inner sanctum to see if it still stood by its decision. The desk stood by it then, just as it is standing by its Arizona call now. The decision desk’s relative independence has not changed—nor has the desk’s talent for occasionally exasperating their less rigorous Fox colleagues.
Around 1 a.m., Fox’s election night team began to realize that the desk would almost certainly not have enough data to call the election before the morning, when certain swing states would resume their counts. “So wait a second,” Baier asked decision desk analyst Daron Shaw around 1:30 a.m. “Now you’re saying that Georgia is probably not tonight. Michigan is probably not tonight. Wisconsin’s not tonight?”
“I think there’s a good chance that that’s where we’re sitting,” said Shaw, and though the on-air team did not seem thrilled that their long night would be continuing—“I’m out of here at 2 [a.m.],” vowed Brit Hume—the rest of us should be relieved that the decision desk has decided to take its time. It’s one of the few parts of the Fox apparatus that has not been corrupted by partisan pressures, and its independence drives the network’s biggest hacks crazy. The president seems to bend reality to his will, thus imposing crazy on all those in and near his orbit. On Tuesday night, Fox’s decision desk resisted his gravitational pull. We should all join Brit Hume in getting some sleep. Crazy will be back in full bloom when we wake up.