A voter filling out his ballot last week for the 2020 United States presidential election. SIPA USA/PA Images
US politics

The challenges facing US media outlets this year in projecting the next elected president

Media outlets play a significant role in analysing election data and projecting a winner.

EVERY FOUR YEARS when a US presidential election is held, it is traditional for media outlets to call a projected winner on election night as results stream in from across the country. 

However, with the uniquely unusual circumstances of the 2020 election, there are a few challenges standing in the way of this practice. 

So-called decisions desks are set up by US media outlets to analyse data and project winners of each state, which will then determine the winner of the presidential race.

These desks are currently gearing up for a complicated election night amid uncertain timing for counting of mail-in and absentee ballots, along with fears about premature claims of victory.

In a campaign disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the commonly used methods of exit polls are less useful than in the past, says Costas Panagopoulos, chair of political science at Northeastern University and a member of the NBC News decision desk team.

“With the rise in early voting, absentee and mail-in voting, it’s no longer the case that we can survey voters at the polling places and make accurate predictions,” Panagopoulos said.

This is how election and referendum polls are conducted in Ireland, with a poll from RTÉ/the Irish Times/TG4/UCD/Ipsos MRBI serving as the main one reported in the general election held earlier this year.

Some fear an early tally based on votes cast in person on election day may distort the outcome and prompt President Donald Trump to claim victory before absentee and mailed ballots are counted. 

This is because several polls have shown that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote early because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Republicans are more likely to turn up to vote on the day. 

“It’s entirely possible there will be discrepancies across networks because each network has its own standards for how they reach projection decisions even though they are all using virtually the same data,” Panagopoulos said.

The forecasting process for media otlets

Associated Press is often seen as the gold standard for announcing the outcome of the election, due to its large-scale and forensic operation. 

The news wire service has more than 4,000 staffers working around the country to feed back results from local count centres, and has said that it will not call the results of any race until there is no clear path for the losing candidates to declare victory. 

Large media networks including CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS work with the National Election Pool to share results for exit polling data. 

Fox News has a separate polling arrangement. 

ABC News published a piece last Friday saying there may be delayed state results due to mail-in ballots processed in swing states.

The key swing states in this year’s election are Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. 

The ABC piece states that every ballot may need to be counted in these key states “before anyone can responsibly make a projection on who won the state”. 

CNN outlined in a recent article how it makes election projections. 

It described the process as “careful and complicated”, combining real-time ballot results with information from exit polls.

The piece reported that CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist said that although it will take some time longer to count mail-in ballots in certain states, there is a “good possibility” of having a projected winner by Wednesday or Thursday. 

In terms of deciding a projected winner too soon in each state, Feist said: “When there’s enough votes in a particular state to give the decision team the confidence that that person is going to win, then they can announce a projection.

“So, you will not see a race this year, nor should you, and that’s a good thing for the public.” 

CBS News said its decision desk will combine exit poll data and vote tallies with the network’s proprietary polling and surveys of around 100,000 people around the United States.

On Sunday, US news site Axios reported that Trump has allegedly told some of his confidants that he will declare a victory tonight if it look like he is “ahead”. He denied this allegation later that day. 

Red mirage 

Some analysts have warned of a “red mirage” which would show Trump ahead based on early vote counts, even if the absentee ballots counted later reverse the trend – a result which could prompt an outcry.

“The contest will be won not only at the ballot box and in the courts but in the court of public opinion,” said a Guardian essay by more than 20 members of the American Political Science Association.

“All media should adopt the strict standard that no state winner should be declared until the number of votes remaining to be counted has been certified to be less than the margin between the two major-party candidates.” 

A newly formed National Task Force on Election Crises has called on media organisations and the National Election Pool which gathers data for the outlets to use extra caution for projections.

“This presidential election will be like no other in our history,” said a letter from the task force which includes academics, former elected officials and activists, to media organisations.

The coalition said that as many as 70% of all ballots cast may be by mail or other absentee methods, and that the tallying will depend on different rules for each of the 50 states.

“It could take days or weeks to complete an accurate count of all votes,” the letter said.

“This period of uncertainty will add further pressure to an already strained system and allow bad actors to attempt to undermine our democratic process.”


Speaking to last week, professor of political science at Duke University John Aldrich said “nobody knows for sure” how the election will play out, but a number of key issues are different than in previous years. 

An increase in mail-in voting largely due to the pandemic, Supreme Court cases and media calling the vote too early could all factor into deciding the winner this time around.  

“Each state handles elections in its own ways and voting in its own ways, and there are 50 different answers to try to address the pandemic and make it easier and safer to vote,” Aldrich said. 

So we don’t know how they’re going to play out because, first they’re brand new procedures and second, they have been done at more or less the last minute and they’re still being changed.

While a handful of media outlets will be making calls, one being closely watched is Fox News, a favorite of Trump and Republicans.

Fox said in a statement that it will be collecting data and making projections without bias.

“The integrity of our decision desk is rock solid,” a Fox statement said.

“We will call this presidential election carefully and accurately, relying on data and numbers.”

Fox decision desk chief Arnon Mishkin told a recent podcast on the network that making calls will be complicated by the new voting patterns but touted a new tool “that is actually optimal for measuring how people are voting in an election where over 60 percent of the people are not going to be exiting poll on election day.”

Despite the fears, a Pew Research Center survey found 82% of US adults have confidence their main news sources will make the right call, with slightly more confidence among Biden supporters.

With reporting by AFP

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