In separate pieces published over the weekend, subjects with whom Los Angeles Times media reporter Steve Battaglio and New York Times media columnist Ben Smith spoke both stressed how the 2020 presidential election will likely morph from a traditional Election Day event (in this case Nov. 3, 2020) into an “election week.”
For years, networks have bragged about being the “first to call” certain states or the election in its entirety on Election Day. However, being the first TV news outlet to call the 2020 presidential election, either for Trump or for Biden, might not be quite as much of an accomplishment. It’s going to take more time for votes to be counted this year, and networks will need to be patient, hard as that might be.
For one, only 60% of 2018 midterm voting was done in-person, and it would be reasonable to expect that percentage to plummet for the general election over fears from the Covid-19 pandemic and less of a desire for Americans to stand on line at voting precincts and risk getting sick.
With Trump down in essentially all of the legitimate national polls, this is likely why he is so intent on casting doubt on the whole “mail-in” voting process, and stating false claims about mail-in voter fraud; to decrease voter turnout.
“There’s a lot of planning for the whiz-bang graphics, and not enough planning for avoiding undermining trust in the American electoral system,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist and one of the authors of an April report on how to run a fair election during the pandemic. “It’s not going to be great TV, it might not be viral content, but it’s the truth.”
Smith also cited NBC News political director Chuck Todd, and how he said a couple months ago that he has been having “major nightmares” about the election, and his First Read newsletter has been referring to “election week” instead of Election Day.
CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, and the CBS News elections and surveys director, Anthony Salvanto, told Smith their respective networks are moving away from using the “percent of precincts reporting” measure this year, a popular graphic during past network election night coverage.
That’s a start.
In his story for the LA Times, Battaglio reminds us that only twice in the 12 presidential elections since 1972 have viewers gone to bed without knowing the winner of a presidential race.
In 2020, it’s almost a certainty to happen again.
“It’s not ‘What hour of the night do we need you to stay around?’” said Fox News vp of the Washington bureau and politics Cherie Grzech. “It’s ‘Let’s plan for staying for the full week and what we’re going to do at certain hours when people have to sleep.’”
CBS News congressional correspondent Ed O’Keefe added: “I have told my wife, my family and my friends that election night might be the beginning of a days- or weekslong saga, potentially. I think Americans have to prepare mentally and emotionally for that.”