One of the silliest but most amusing stories of the election, just because Fox calling Arizona prematurely is almost completely meaningless. The only risk it poses is to Fox’s own reputation. In a healthy political culture, the universal reaction to them predicting on Tuesday that Biden would win there would be, “Boy, they’re way out on a limb. It’ll be hugely embarrassing for their decision desk if Trump pulls it out.”
In our deeply sick political culture, taking any risk that seems to benefit the “enemy” is an unforgivable betrayal.
To be fair to Trump here, he’s right that Fox called Arizona too soon. Even pros not aligned with the GOP agree. Steve Kornacki threw a scare into Rachel Maddow last night on MSNBC by running the numbers on the latest votes counted in Maricopa County and concluding that, yeah, there’s a path for Trump potentially. It’ll be tough, but it’s possible. Nate Silver agrees, going so far as to call on Fox to formally retract its call for Biden. MAGA fans aren’t blowing smoke in thinking FNC jumped the gun.
They’re just being weird in caring so much about it when it can only harm Fox’s own prestige. The votes in Arizona will be counted, whatever Fox thinks is destined to happen. But the president himself was reportedly irate when they made their call on election night:
What ensued for Mr. Trump was a night of angry calls to Republican governors and advice from campaign aides that he ignored, leading to a middle-of-the-night presidential briefing in which he made a reckless and unsubstantiated string of remarks about the democratic process. Standing in the East Room at 2:30 a.m., he dismissed the election as a “fraud” and claimed he wanted to stop the counting of votes and leave the results to the Supreme Court.
The Trump campaign knew Arizona could be up for grabs, but the Fox News call putting it in Mr. Biden’s column was symbolic, making it the first state that appeared to have flipped from the president’s 2016 batch of winning states. Gov. Doug Ducey, Republican of Arizona, had been on the phone all night with administration officials and campaign staff members, adamant that there were still Republican votes to be counted in his state…
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was also in touch with Rupert Murdoch, the Fox News owner, as the night wore on.
One rumor circulating yesterday had it that Trump himself phoned Murdoch to demand that Fox retract the call. To his credit, Murdoch refused to bow to the pressure. Trump then deployed surrogates, including the governor of Florida, to go on air and complain about Fox’s projection: “With Trump, they never want to call the state. Biden, they will do it right away. It’s inconsistent and unacceptable. Look, North Carolina should be called for the president, for sure. Arizona — Fox should rescind that call.” Elsewhere DeSantis said of Fox’s decision to call Arizona for the Democrat, “I don’t think that that was done without some type of motive, whether it’s ratings, whether it’s something else.”
Not even Fox News is above suspicion in the alleged deep-state vote-counting hoax.
And so here was the scene last night in Maricopa County:
“They’re actually chanting Fox News Sucks” pic.twitter.com/XqfiHln6Mt
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) November 5, 2020
Poll workers inside felt sufficiently threatened by the crowd outside, some members of which were armed, that they closed the building to the public and to the media to continue their work. Cops were deployed to make sure things didn’t get hairy:
Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies now ready in tactical gear inside the elections center to potentially make a move on the protesters and demonstrators outside as the crowd continues to grow. #azfamily #arizona pic.twitter.com/XAhvE1hbIK
— Briana Whitney (@BrianaWhitney) November 5, 2020
Staff at the @maricopacounty Elections Department will continue our job, which is to administer elections in the second largest voting jurisdiction in the county. We will release results again tonight as planned. We thank the @mcsoaz for doing their job, so we can do ours.
— Maricopa County Elections Department (@MaricopaVote) November 5, 2020
Bear in mind, the work going on inside was favorable to Trump. He’s trailing in Arizona and they were counting ballots that are expected to trend red and possibly close the gap. Showing up with guns to chant “count that vote” at them, as if they were reluctant to do so, only made for a scene that the media was happy to circulate.
Meanwhile at Fox, hosts spent yesterday scrambling to undo the damage of the call of Arizona for Biden:
Mr. Hannity did not appear on Fox News on election night, but he returned on Wednesday evening, echoing some of the president’s talking points about the integrity of the vote count. He stopped short, though, of Mr. Trump’s baseless claim of outright “fraud.”
“Do you trust what happened in this election?” Mr. Hannity asked viewers. “Do you believe these election results are accurate? Do you believe this was a free and fair election? I have a lot of questions.”
Mr. Hannity had few specific arguments, tossing in a reference to “dead people,” and at times his monologue sounded like a regular episode of his program, not a postelection special. His lead-in, Tucker Carlson, also spoke ominously about the vote results while avoiding an outright embrace of Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about winning states that had yet to be called.
There are three factors driving the grossly exaggerated backlash to Fox’s Arizona call. One is that Trumpism, at least in its strongest form, is a cult of personality that requires absolute loyalty to the leader. Fox didn’t show that loyalty when it made a call for Biden with the result seemingly still in doubt. It’s an unforgivable breach of the norms that define the movement.
The second is the odd but persistent belief that partisan trends at different points of the vote-counting process are somehow inherently suspicious. They aren’t. I wrote about the blue mirage/red shift versus red mirage/blue shift yesterday. Votes from different counties can lean very heavily towards one candidate or another depending on whether voters there are blue or red. Same-day votes and mail-in votes also have very pronounced partisan leans this year due to Trump’s months of polarizing comments about the latter. It’s totally possible that the votes in Arizona that were counted earlier had a bluish tint to them and that the last batches will have a red tint that ultimately hands the state to Trump. If so, Fox shouldn’t have made an early projection. But that’s an “oops” moment, not a “I’LL NEVER WATCH THIS LIBERAL NETWORK AGAIN” thing.
The third reason for the backlash is the most sinister. Trump was pissed off at Fox because his entire game plan in the event of a likely narrow defeat to Biden was to try to gaslight the country into believing that he’d won everywhere. And that argument would have been a tiny bit easier if all major battlegrounds were either projected to go to him or too close to call on election night. It still would have been feasible if only the “bad” networks, like CNN, had called a battleground for Biden. That would be dismissed by Trump as “fake news.”
But for Fox to call Arizona for Biden shattered the lie that Trump was en route to a repeat of his showing four years ago such that any “blue shift” in the Rust Belt that ultimately delivered the presidency to Biden would be necessarily suspect. It was an early statement by the most powerful right-wing media outlet in the country that this wasn’t 2016. One of Trump’s most famous quotes as president came when he told an audience in 2018, “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” That was his strategy this year to spin defeat, at least for MAGA Nation: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening. Fox popped that bubble in a small but meaningful way with their projection. Some people will never forgive them for it.
I hope the story of how the decision desk arrived at its dubious Arizona call is written someday. I wonder if the fact that they *knew* this was Trump’s strategy — he’d been telegraphing it for weeks, if not years — informed their decision to roll the dice on their projection. It’s unethical for an analyst to declare that they’re confident about an outcome if they really aren’t. But I can imagine them talking themselves into believing that that was a venial sin in this case relative to the mortal sin of the president trying to destroy the public’s confidence in the election results by claiming that the early state returns proved he had won everywhere.
I’ll leave you with this clip of two scenes, one from Arizona where Trump was behind and the other from Michigan where Trump was ahead (at first). There’s no principle at work here beyond “do whatever helps Trump.” Which is perfectly true to the leader’s own view of the world.
Trump supporters: "Stop the vote!"
— The Recount (@therecount) November 5, 2020