Friday, September 04, 2020


David Brooks writes:
On the evening of Nov. 3, Americans settle nervously in front of their screens to await elections results. In the early hours Donald Trump seems to be having an excellent night. Counting the votes cast at polling places, Trump is winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those states don’t even begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, yet Trump quickly declares victory. So do many other Republican candidates. The media complains that it’s premature, but Trumpworld is ecstatic.

Democrats know that as many as 40 percent of the ballots are mail-in and still being counted, and those votes are likely to be overwhelmingly for Joe Biden, but they can’t control the emotions of that night. It’s a gut punch.
Why? Why should what's happening be a gut punch? Why should it be perceived that Donald Trump is having an excellent night?

It shouldn't be if the political press does its job -- not in an extraordinary way, but in the way it regularly operates just after polls close.

It isn't just Brooks who's predicting a shock to the system as the returns are counted -- many pundits who are much smarter than Brooks are saying the same thing.

But we all know that Democratic votes will lag Republican votes. The media just has to tell us what's happening, more or less the same way it always does.

What happens on TV on election nights? On MSNBC, to take one example, Steve Kornacki stands at a digital map and discusses not just the current vote totals but the nature of the votes that haven't been counted. In a pre-COVID election, he'd tell us that the untallied votes come from precincts or counties that are stronger for one party than another. He'd give us a sense of what it would take for the candidate who's trailing to make up the deficit. And up to a point in every contest he'd say: This is why we can't call the race yet.

Every broadcast network and cable news channel has someone doing the same thing. The New York Times and other online news sources that assess the state of the race as votes are tallied provide similar analysis.

The only difference this year is that there'll be more uncounted votes. But we know already that they'll be disproportionately Democratic, and wer should at least know which parts of the various states they're from. In all likelihood, most of them will be from Democratic strongholds.

So no matter what Trump is saying, the people reporting on the vote count just have to hold firm, the way they do in a non-COVID election when they don't have enough ballots counted and assessments of key precincts to call a race. So when Trump beats his chest and makes a premature declaration of victory, they just have to treat it as empty bluster that isn't based on fact. (Over the past four years, the press has actually become fairly good at that with regard to Trump.)

In states with close races, midnight on Election Night will be the equivalent of twenty minutes after the polls close in a normal election -- way too early for a call. The press just has to say that, and keep saying that, and keep telling the public what percentage of votes have yet to be counted, and emphasize that they are legitimate votes.

CNN, MSNBC, and the three broadcast networks ought to be handle this. Hell, even Fox News ought to be able to pull it off -- remember that Fox called Ohio for Barack Obama in 2012 over the strenuous on-air objections of Karl Rove, who was then escorted to the back room where Fox's number-crunching nerds were making an honest and correct assessment of the Ohio vote.

That's what we need once the polls close: a rejection of Trump's fairy tale in favor of the facts about the provisional nature of the Election Night tally. We need the media to just keep calling the race the way it's always called other races, but with a somewhat different set of late-arriving votes. And we need the press to hold firm on telling us what the reality is.

Is that too much to ask?

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