When cable news stations and election night shows on broadcast networks need to fill time without having actual news to report, they traditionally bring on pundits to speculate and vamp about the “mood of the nation.” On election night 2020, and for as many hours or days thereafter as it takes to have confirmed results, it is vital that they restrain themselves from doing this—for their own sake, but also for the survival of the premise that American elections are decided by counting votes rather than by declaring victory first and having the most lawyers.
The same goes, even more emphatically, for the cable networks’ use of their regular opinion hosts. Ordinarily, cable news goes back and forth between informational broadcasts, where anchors and news reporters tell viewers what happened, and commentary programming, where ideologically branded personalities try to convince viewers how they should feel about what happened. Starting Tuesday, the networks have a duty to keep Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity and all the rest at home, until there are concrete, nonspeculative numbers that say who has won the election.
Why? Because the space between reported facts and motivated arguments is the ground on which the election itself threatens to be contested. Last week, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion that late-arriving absentee ballots shouldn’t be counted in Wisconsin because individual states “want to be able to definitively announce the results of an election on the election night, or as soon as possible thereafter.” In fact there is no state that wants to do this; states release and update unofficial tallies after polls close, but do not “definitively” certify results until days or weeks later when counting and auditing is complete. Kavanaugh, a jurist whose presence on the court is a marketing point in the president’s campaign commercials, was possibly thinking instead of media “calls”—the ones TV networks and organizations like the Associated Press make when unofficial data shows that a certain candidate is all but guaranteed to ultimately win a certain race. In what is likely not just a crazy coincidence, Donald Trump is also obsessed with the idea that such “calls” should count as official results.
Trump moreover claims that calls should be made on election night, and that waiting any longer to do so would constitute “stealing” the race from whoever happens to be leading initially. (Historically, late-arriving absentee ballots have tended to skew Democratic.) From Sunday:
Some races, though, are too close to call on election night, and there will be more hazy races than usual this year because of the complications involved in counting mail-in and drop-off ballots. It would be some sort of miracle if the presidential election ended up getting called right after polls closed on the West Coast like it did, for example, in 2008.
TV news networks can convey this basic truth by refraining from making conclusions about the outcome of the election until every relevant state race is called. Election news broadcasts exist to inform viewers, and this year’s situation calls for a great deal of extra informing. Some states are pre-processing mail-in ballots so they can be counted faster; some aren’t. Some will have more mail-in ballots than others because they got sent to everyone; in some places you had to request one specifically. There may be ongoing court cases about which ballots should be thrown out.
Simply understanding what the unofficial rolling tallies listed for states like Pennsylvania and Florida are counting and not counting will be a much bigger job than usual. So will explaining why some states are slower than others—that explanation being that Republican-held state legislatures in the Midwest have blocked efforts to expedite counting because they want the process to seem slow and suspicious.
The good news is that there are people who will be able to make sense of what’s going on. Those people are election wonks, polling gurus, legal experts, and reporters who have been covering campaign litigation. Political analysts, moonlighting campaign operatives, and out-of-work elected officials are not included in that list! The latter group specializes in big-picture argumentation about what results mean in the context of electoral history and political conventional wisdom. Their conclusions about such matters are often made in haste, slanted to benefit their own professional interests, and amplified to the point of indefensibility for the purposes of creating drama. Their messages are dubious in the best of times, and this will not be the best of times, because there will be a longer period than usual when we know less than usual about what initial results portend. No one needs 48-plus hours of talking heads recreating the early November 2018 Bret Stephens New York Times column about how there hadn’t been a blue wave, which ended up being totally wrong because he wrote it before a number of House races were resolved in Democrats’ favor, in a situation with even higher stakes.
Actually, one person does “need” that: Trump. Given the expectation he will lose a full vote count by a wide margin because he is unpopular (the real reason) or because of, like, Chinese Hunter Biden fraud (his stated reason), the president and his campaign lawyers have openly decided that his plan will be to seize on whatever incomplete lead he might have on election night, declare victory, and sue to stop any further counting.
This will be a particularly delicate and internally inconsistent argument for Trump to make because the swing states in the Sun Belt will have pre-processed their early ballots, which could make it initially look like he is losing them big, given that polls have shown Democrats are voting early at higher rates than Republicans. On the other hand, the swing Midwestern states won’t have done pre-processing, which could make it look like he’s winning them big. So he’ll likely have to be saying that counts need to be shut down in the Midwest but not in the South.
It’s also possible the partisan splits will be even less clear and consistent than that because the pandemic, Joe Biden’s popularity among seniors, and Democratic concerns about judicial vote suppression have created unprecedented early vote vs. Election Day vote vs. late-arriving absentee vote patterns. The only thing we can really “count” on (ha ha ha ha) is that Trump and his party will try to make the process seem as confusing as possible so as to “polarize” the question of whether it is legitimate to declare victory in the election by appealing to judges that you appointed five minutes ago.
It is his goal, in other words, for TV viewers to believe that the result of the election is a matter of opinion. By putting their opinion-havers on camera—even if they only validate Trump’s argument implicitly, by treating it as one of two competing “strategies”—news networks will be doing him a favor. Instead, they should convey that shifting tallies are the necessary result of a fair effort to count every vote. The punditry’s top consumer product is hyperbolized conflict, and this week, that’s the one thing that we can be sure we don’t need more of.