Media may face premature victory claims in powder-keg election

None of us has ever faced an Election Day like today, where a vast swath of the country has already voted. And that is putting enormous pressure on the media business at a time when its credibility is increasingly fading.

The normal incentives–to be the first to project the outcome in each state, and ultimately in the presidential race–have been turned on their head. Unless the contest between President Trump and Joe Biden is a blowout, the television networks in particular will have a responsibility to assure the world that the race is not over, even if one candidate prematurely declares victory.

That will take something that is usually in short supply in the media world–restraint.

Of course, even if the anchors and reporters join in a chorus that the election is not over until all the ballots are counted, commentators may rush on air or online to declare that their guy won, thus muddying the political waters. And with Trump saying he will immediately take legal action in the crucial state of Pennsylvania, we have no way of knowing right now whether the process will take days or weeks.

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Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser, delivered a pretty broad hint, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that they expect to have 290 or so electoral votes tonight, and that the Democrats are “going to try to steal if back after the election.” And the Trump team will fight any “hijinks” or “lawsuits” or “nonsense,” Miller said on “This Week.”

By using the terminology of theft, Miller invited a whole lot of media blowback. With more than 94 million Americans having voted early, the process of counting mail and absentee ballots is not “after” the election, it is a normal part of the election. And those ballots carry the same legal weight as the voters who show up in person today.

Trump said yesterday on the trail that he doesn’t plan to prematurely claim victory. Jen O’Malley Dillion, Biden’s campaign manager, told reporters on a Zoom call that there is no way Trump will be projected as the winner on Election Night. Biden says his opponent won’t be allowed to steal the election. It’s hardly surprising that this kind of rhetoric could serve to undermine public confidence in any outcome.

The backdrop here is that based on a blizzard of polls, almost everyone in the media expects Biden to win. They may be unduly influenced by the national numbers–Trump trails by 8 points in the final Fox poll, 10 points in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. The problem is a tightening in the battleground states that will decide the election–especially Pennsylvania, where Biden’s lead may be as narrow as 5 points, close to the margin of error, and Florida, which looks pretty close to tied. Arizona seems to have tightened up as well. 

And then there are the shock polls–Biden by 17 in Wisconsin, according to a Washington Post/ABC survey, Trump by 7 in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register poll. Who knows?

The media establishment, essentially convinced Biden will win in the end–but cautious about saying so because of PTSD from 2016–are on track to push back hard if and when Trump declares himself the winner. Biden may be more cautious in making such a claim, especially because he is doing better with early voters, whose ballots will take longer to count, while today’s same-day voting should favor the Republicans.

Twitter, which seems to be operating as a fourth branch of government–and which finally unlocked the New York Post’s account over the Hunter Biden story–is also taking a stand. Jack Dorsey’s company says it will label premature election victory claims by anyone–including candidates–unless there’s an official state announcement or a projection by “at least two authoritative, national news outlets.” 

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It may be interesting to find out who Twitter considers authoritative. And can you say “I think we’ve got this in the bag,” as opposed to “WE WON!!!!”?

The tense atmosphere wasn’t helped by an unfortunate incident in Texas. A group of truck-driving Trump fans surrounded and slowed a Biden campaign bus on an interstate, forcing the cancellations of two rallies. This is not exactly swiping lawn signs. The FBI is investigating the incident. And yet Trump tweeted that “these patriots did nothing wrong,” and that the bureau should be investigating terrorists and Antifa.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany took a shot yesterday at “Democrat cities…What are they saying with the boarding up and the civil unrest that they’re expecting? They’re saying if you don’t choose the left’s chosen candidate, we will send the Left out to attack you. That’s as close to extortion as you can get.”

I’d simply point out that the Democratic campaign doesn’t control what protesters do, and Biden has repeatedly condemned urban violence, most recently after a fatal police shooting in Philadelphia.

I hope for the country’s sake we find out relatively soon who won the 2020 election and that it doesn’t turn into some gut-wrenching legal battle. The next president will have a hard enough time vanquishing the coronavirus and rebuilding the economy. Right now the media have a crucial role in exercising a quality that they often find elusive–restraint.