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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Fact Check: How does the US media call a presidential election?

The AP, for many decades the gold standard for calling US election races, says unequivocally that it “declares winners” — it “does not make projections or name apparent or likely winners”.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
November 10, 2020 2:10:30 am
us elections, us election results, donald trump, joe biden, kamala harris, us media, ap, cnn, indian express newsPresident-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo: Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump, who has not appeared in public since the Associated Press (AP) and American cable news networks called the presidential election in favour of his challenger Joe Biden on Saturday, wrote on Twitter early on Monday morning (India time): “Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be? We have all learned a lot in the last two weeks!”

Was it unusual for the media to call the November 3 election?

On the contrary, presidential elections in the US are as a rule called by the media — this includes President Trump’s own 2016 victory over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. The AP, for many decades the gold standard for calling US election races, says unequivocally that it “declares winners” — it “does not make projections or name apparent or likely winners”.

The call made by the AP is independent and professional — “our decision team does not engage in debate with any campaign or candidate”, it says — and is almost never disputed. “If there’s no way for the trailing candidate to catch up, no legal way, no mathematical way, then the race is decided, essentially,” Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, told The New York Times in an interview on the eve of Election Day. “And if there is any uncertainty, or if there are enough votes out to change the result, then we don’t call the race.”

Has the AP always called US elections? What about other organisations?

The AP has been calling elections since 1848, when Zachary Taylor became the 12th President of the United States. Unlike in India, there is no central or federal mechanism to run the election, actual results may take weeks to be tabulated, and it falls on the “decision desks” at American media organisations to “call” the election for one or the other candidate in every state and, ultimately, for the nation as a whole. Broadcasters Fox News, NBC, CNN, CBS, and ABC have their own decision desks — all of them take their job extremely seriously, have formidable reputations, and are trusted widely.

The decision to call a race by a network that has its own decision desk can come either before or after that of the AP — late on Saturday evening (in India), CNN was the first to call Pennsylvania and, therefore, the presidential election for Biden; the AP followed minutes later. However, the election in Arizona had been called by AP and Fox News very early, while the other networks and The NYT held on as counting progressed slowly over the next two days.

In 2016, the AP called the race at 2.29 am ET the day after Election Day (November 8, 2016) through a simple news alert that was received by media organisations around the world: “Donald Trump elected president of the United States.”

NPR, the syndicator to more than 1,000 public radio stations, and the free-to-air broadcaster PBS rely on the AP’s call, as do the newspaper chains Gannett (owner of USA Today) and McClatchy. The NYT, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, all use AP data. The real-time results that appeared on Google’s search page, as well as the panel on YouTube, are from the AP. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How does the AP make its determination of who has won?

In the 2020 general election, the AP tracked over 7,000 races, including the Trump vs Biden contest; Senate, House, and gubernatorial races; and thousands of down-ticket races. More than 4,000 freelance local reporters collected counts from every county in each of the 50 states and phoned in to the AP’s vote entry centres, where the data were assessed and cross-checked by some 800 clerks before being fed into the organisation’s central computer system, according to a report in The NYT.

In an FAQ posted on its website, the AP says: “AP’s race callers and Decision Desk are driven entirely by the facts… AP’s race callers are staff who are deeply familiar with the states where they declare winners… They… study election rules and recount requirements and track changes and updates to election law…[,] they work with AP’s political and government reporters[, and] review and rely on information from AP’s election research group.”

The AP’s race callers use tools including “AP’s vote count, which it has conducted in every U.S. presidential election since 1848”, and data from a wide-ranging survey of the electorate. “Race callers collaborate with analysts who focus on statewide races, [and] …editors at AP’s Decision Desk sign off on every race call for President, Senate and Governor.”

When is a race “too close to call”?

This is an expression that was heard repeatedly between November 3 and November 7 as the counting progressed. The AP says it “may decide not to call a race if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 0.5 percentage points”. Also, “AP may not call winners in races for US House if the margin is less than 1,000 votes and winners in races for state legislature if the margin is less than 2 percentage points or 100 votes”.

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