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The Man Behind the Fox News Decision Desk
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The Man Behind the Fox News Decision Desk

An early call in Arizona shines light on Arnon Mishkin’s outsize role in Fox News’ election coverage.

Fox News’s decision to declare Joe Biden the winner in Arizona at 11:20 p.m. Tuesday prompted a swift response from the Trump camp. Campaign adviser Jason Miller said that night on Twitter that the network was “a complete outlier in calling Arizona,” and that Fox News was trying to “invalidate” the 1 million outstanding votes in the battleground state Trump won in 2016.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey also pushed back on the network’s early decision to throw Arizona into Biden’s column. “It’s far too early to call the election in Arizona,” Ducey said on Twitter late Tuesday night. “Election Day votes are not fully reported, and we haven’t even started to count early ballots dropped off at the polls. In AZ, we protected Election Day. Let’s count the votes—all the votes—before making declarations.”

But Arnon Mishkin, the Fox News Decision Desk director, stood by his election team’s call. “I’m sorry, the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes,” Mishkin told his Fox News hosts on air shortly after the announcement. “We’re not wrong in this particular case.” Mishkin plays a crucial role every election cycle by calling winners and losers for the most-watched cable TV network in America. But he’s a strange creature in the Fox News universe. A 65-year-old registered Democrat—who told the New York Times in late September that he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016—Mishkin has been contracted as a paid consultant rather than a full-time employee for the network since 2008.

Since Election Night, the race in Arizona has tightened and all the other outlets that call winner—aside from the Associated Press, which called Arizona for Biden at 2:50 a.m. Wednesday—have left the state uncalled. As of late Thursday night, Biden leads Trump by 46,000 or so votes with 90 percent reporting, a lead of 50.1 percent to 48.5 percent.

Mishkin’s decision to stand by the call, which he reiterated on Thursday, has not escaped the Trump campaign’s attention. In a Thursday afternoon press release that started, “A Clinton-Voting, Biden-Donating Democrat Runs the Fox News Decision Desk,” the campaign alleged that Mishkin’s own politics undermine his credibility as an election consultant:

Arnon Mishkin, the director of Fox News’ election decision desk, prematurely called Arizona for Joe Biden before hundreds of thousands of ballots had been counted. Even left-leaning election analysts like Nate Silver have criticized the decision, but Mishkin is standing by his terrible decision despite and refusing to retract his unjustified call.

Why would Mishkin put his finger on the scale for Joe Biden before so many votes are counted? Mishkin is a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, worked as a Democrat political consultant, and has a long record of donating to Democrats, including the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign.

But the Decision Desk isn’t a one man show. Mishkin works with a team of eight statisticians, journalists, political scientists, and pollsters who crunch election numbers as they are reported by the Associated Press and the NORC at the University of Chicago. The team doesn’t use exit polls to gauge how candidates are performing. Instead, they rely on the Fox News Voter Analysis, a survey tool that contacts more than 100,000 Americans to estimate vote count leading up to Election Day.

Mishkin has a knack for making the right calls and his team is seen as a secret weapon for the cable news giant, even as it faces scrutiny from some of the network’s hosts.

“There has been a great deal of pushback from the president, his staff, the governor of Arizona. Apparently more than a million ballots still to be counted,” said Fox News host Tucker Carlson soon after the call. “I’m not privy to the math, I’m not certain how that … decision was made. So, you know, I’m sure there was a reason for it. I don’t know what it is.” 

“The president has a good shot, according to observers and people on the ground that I’ve been speaking to in Arizona, to overtake that state and win the state of Arizona,” said host Sean Hannity during his primetime show Thursday. “Any call of Arizona was premature, based on everybody I’ve talked to that knows the numbers out there.”

Mishkin has waved off his pundit colleagues’ skepticism of his work in the past. “The primetime schedule at Fox is the opinion part of Fox,” Mishkin said during a remote interview with The News Project prior to the election. “And, you know, the great thing about opinion is everyone can have an opinion. I’m sure within our audience there are also a lot of people who also watch Fox and love it.” 

“I will tell you that Election Night is run by the news division at Fox,” Mishkin added. “The mission on Election Night is to tell our audience—and our audience has the same interest as any other audience, it really doesn’t matter how people vote—on Election Night, you have one question on your mind: Who’s gonna win this thing and what does it mean?” Mishkin was not available for an interview with The Dispatch.

This is hardly the first time that a call that went unfavorably for the GOP caused tension. At about 11 p.m. on November 3, 2012, Special Report host Bret Baier went on air to declare Barack Obama’s victory in Ohio, basing his call on data analysis straight from Mishkin’s decision desk. Mitt Romney’s campaign disputed the call as premature, and Fox News contributor Karl Rove—George W. Bush’s former deputy chief of staff and senior advisor whose super PAC, American Crossroads, had fundraised more than $300 million for Romney’s campaign—voiced those complaints on air. 

In an effort to mediate Fox News’ warring factions, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly famously walked down the hall, camera crew in tow, to interview Mishkin and Stirewalt on air. “You tell me whether you stand by your call in Ohio given the doubts Karl Rove just raised,” Kelly said to Mishkin. “We’re actually quite comfortable with the call in Ohio,” Mishkin responded. “This is Democratic territory,” he said of the state’s outstanding votes, “And we’re quite comfortable with the idea that Obama has carried—will carry Ohio.” 

The exchange looked a bit like Bret Baier’s conversation with Mishkin Thursday evening, when the Fox News host asked the data cruncher to defend his Arizona call on air in light of criticism from the Trump campaign. “The Trump campaign was very upset with the Arizona call, they’ve actually mentioned you specifically, your politics, your past donations,” Baier said. “Can you talk about, you know, dealing with that? And also your team is Democrats and Republicans, statisticians, political people, just talk about the whole thing.”

Mishkin was transparent about his experience as a Democratic political consultant, and acknowledged his political donations to both Republicans and Democrats in the past. “Essentially, everyone on our team is very interested politically, and so they all vote,” Mishkin said. “The team—when we come to Fox—we basically check our politics at the door and focus our statistical or political analysis on the computer and what the numbers show. And that’s … that’s it.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.