A new report from Axios suggests it’s highly likely Donald Trump will hold a big lead on Election Night, only for the results to change, likely in Biden’s favor, as mail-in ballots are tabulated. The projection comes from simulations run by Hawkfish, a political data firm funded by Michael Bloomberg. It suggests Democrats’ worst fear—that Election Night results will give enough rope for Trump to declare victory before all the votes are counted.
Upon reading the report, some political media members threw up their hands. They summed up that if Trump is ahead on election night it’s as good as done, and nothing will stop the president from snatching the victory narrative at the first chance he gets. However, major media’s job isn’t just to throw up the numbers and call it a night—it’s to provide context on the “night of” results, what they mean, and how they might shift. That context is more important than ever.
The Axios report was clearly designed to foster clicks and foment worry. Still, the fears around media uncritically parroting numbers as they roll in is more than founded. Axios quite literally did it with this report. Americans are used to having a winner (or projected winner) by the end of election night, and it’s more than fair to assume that some news organizations will feel pressure to deliver one—particularly from the president, who will empty his bag of dirty tricks regardless of whether he’s ahead or behind. If Trump is trailing, he’ll say the election is rigged against him; if he leads, he’ll demand “fake news” networks like NBC and CNN call the election in his favor, otherwise, you guessed it, the election is rigged against him. It’s a pretty limited playbook and we already know how it’ll play out.
The news media doesn’t need to give in to Trump’s pressure, though. Most Americans have understood this election, like so many other things this year, won’t be normal. Now’s the time to report on those state balloting processes, lay the groundwork for a multi-day vote count, and feature pollsters or political data scientists who can properly contextualize a combination of results and projections beyond election night. Sure, Trump and other Republicans have been peddling voter fraud narratives since March, and plenty of their supporters have bought into it. But that doesn’t take precedent over providing facts as they come in. This is the chance for news organizations to actually play their role as the fourth estate, checking misinformation, and preventing an authoritarian fascist from claiming victory before he’s actually won it.
Media’s—particularly cable news’—complicity in Trump’s ascent, whether conscious or not, raises doubts about its ability to actually keep him in check. No matter what’s reported on election night, some people will side with the president and believe the results are illegitimate no matter what. That’s just the cliff America is screeching towards. It’s up to major media organizations to see if the brakes still work.