2020 ELECTION: America’s Media and our Political Roller Coaster Ride
October 6th, 2023
This weekend, former Vice President Joe Biden (D) was elected as the 46th president of the United States, but the confirmation process is still ongoing. How is media and the country handling the chaos?
Greg Marshall, Account Executive of Grayling NY, breaks down the most recent presidential election results between Donald Trump (R) and Joe Biden through the lens of communications and strategy – providing a different perspective of political messaging and analysis within the nation’s top media.
Leading up to Election Day
As tensions in 2020 continued to rise and summer turned to fall, the presidential election became the primary focus of most Americans, imagining what the future had in store for 2021 and beyond. Leading into election day, “early voting” and “absentee ballots” became nationwide buzz words – trending from protective precautions to combat another spike in national COVID cases this fall. Little did we know that “conceding the election results” would be a common phrase for the months leading up to Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021.
Polls showed that the majority of Americans were losing confidence in President Trump’s handling of COVID, some showing approval numbers as low as 37% for the president’s handling of the pandemic. President Trump made it clear in his first debate that he was not a fan of early voting, addressing the security of voting and mail ballots, and carried his message throughout September and October.
Both campaigns had been aggressively pushing their agendas for months on end, leading to what many believe to be the most important election in U.S. history and the world’s future. According to an estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics, the total cost of the 2020 election would nearly reach an unprecedented $14 billion when all is said and done, making it the most expensive election in American history and twice as expensive as the previous presidential election cycle.
The pandemic forced candidates to forgo in-person fundraisers with wealthy donors. Campaigns have increasingly relied on virtual fundraising using texts and emails, a strategy that works better when Americans are more engaged in politics. Political groups have spent over $1 billion this year to advertise on these platforms, according to OpenSecrets’ online ads database.
Leading up to election day, national polls were in the spotlight once again. The need for trustworthy polls was something to keep on the radar in 2020, with previous polls in 2016 notoriously misinformed and influenced the American public on the projected election outcome – some believing them to be one of the major reasons why Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Over course of the last four year, many pollsters made efforts to improve their data collecting and analysis to make sure 2016 was just an anomaly. Many theories of poll inaccuracies have already started surfacing, including the thought that some Republicans, particularly Trump supporters, are less likely to pick up the phone and answer a survey.
Messaging through media endorsements
An August study from Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 86 percent of Americans say the news media is biased, and 73 percent say the bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective is “a major problem.” The study also states that nearly three in four Americans (74%) say news organizations they distrust are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint, while 16% say they are trying to report the news accurately and fairly but are unable to do so. As media distrust (and sometimes hate) continues to plague the progression of political conversation, some believe the idea of editorial boards publicly endorsing candidates only puts more wood on the fire.
For American print media, opinion boards publish unsigned editorials that supports one candidate over another and makes a case for why readers should do the same. News outlets try to make it clear that opinion boards make their candidate endorsement separately from the views of their newsroom, however the distrust of many Americans with news media to be unbiased with their political affiliations does not match the claims of these opinion boards.
Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-Large, wrote a thought-provoking column on editorial boards and political endorsements in early October, echoing the mindset of many Americans consuming more political content leading up to the election from mainstream media. He says “not only do editorial board endorsements confuse people, it also makes it harder for great reporters who work at these institutions to do their jobs. People point to the editorial board endorsement of Biden and say, ‘Well, we know who your paper wants to win!’”
How can the American people rely on quality journalism and reporting from sources that publicly endorse political figures? That question still remains unanswered.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (largest newspaper in Western Pennsylvania) sent some shock waves throughout the Keystone State and blue-collar, industrial-powered Allegheny County as it endorsed President Trump on Halloween, the newspaper’s first republican endorsement since 1972. The paper praised the commander in chief’s record on the economy and China, but was also critical of the president’s behavior. “We share the embarrassment of millions of Americans who are disturbed by the president’s unpresidential manners and character — his rudeness and put-downs and bragging and bending of the truth,” it said.
This endorsement caught the attention of many local and national audiences for different reasons, but some believe their counterbalance of support and criticism for a candidate upholds their credibility for providing multiple opinions and willingness to recognize imperfections.
The name of the game for presidential elections: the first candidate to secure 270 or more electoral votes wins. Winning state races that have the most electoral votes (based on population) will help candidates reach the finish line the quickest. Public messaging and opinions around the electoral college have always been hotly contested, but stands the test of time as a staple of American democracy.
Every major news outlet in the United States across broadcast, print, online and social media were fully invested in election headlines and trends from the very start, just as the American people were. Most media outlets use decision desks (data and research teams) to carefully predict, analyze and report state races based on a variety of exit polling metrics. It’s become a tradition for broadcast outlets like CNN and MSNBC to rely on veterans political correspondents for breaking down the ballot counting process for the casual voter, using interactive trackers to call races based on analyses of precinct- and county-level vote returns.
As state results began to pour in on election, it was clear that the race to 270 would take longer than just one night. Even once the early and in-person ballots were counted, a significant number of votes could still be outstanding. Only nine states were expected to have at least 98 percent of unofficial results reported by noon the day after election day. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia allow postmarked ballots to arrive after Election Day, so the timing depended on when voters return them. Many “battleground” states that were so close in voting margin on election night, it was unanimously reported by all major media outlets that Americans would have to wait – but it was undetermined how long the wait would be. States included Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Throughout the course of last week, we could see journalists and newsrooms exhausting all their resources into their hour-by-hour coverage of ballot tallying as it stalled for multiple days. According to the University of Florida, as of Friday afternoon, over 101 million early votes had been counted with 27 million left to be counted – breaking 2016 record of 47 million by Election Day morning. As ballot counting continued, President Trump’s campaign continued to push out messaging on voting fraud, kickstarted a social movement that supported a stolen election and insisted that state election jurisdictions stop counting votes because they were not counted on Election Day. Biden’s campaign rejected these claims on numerous occasions and pushed their own messaging to assure the American people that all votes will be counted. For many decision desks, no state races are projected/confirmed until they are at a minimum 99.5 percent confident of the winner – especially broadcast networks that had a checkered history of calling elections prematurely.
After Election night concluded, President Trump made a premature election speech declaring himself the winner. All the major networks carried Trump’s address at the start, but NBC News and MSNBC cut into the address to note that he was peddling falsehoods and spreading misinformation. “We’re listening to the President speaking at the White House, but we’ve got to dip in here because there have been several statements that are just frankly not true,” NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie said as the network broke away from Trump’s remarks. On MSNBC, Brian Williams told viewers the network was “reluctant” to interrupt the President’s speech but said Trump’s remarks were “not based in the facts at all.”
Networks like CNN, FOX News and CBS News also shared the same perspective. “Almost everything President Trump said in his declaration of victory was not true,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper said. “This is an extremely flammable situation and the President just threw a match on it,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace noted. “He hasn’t won these states.” CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell said Trump was guilty of “castrating the facts of the election results.” According to CNN Business, many network news executives were well aware that Trump might move to prematurely declare victory on election night. The executives had been reluctant to talk publicly about such a scenario, but people familiar with their thinking told CNN earlier in the week that such claims would be aired in context.
FOX News, traditionally a conservative news network, also made headlines last week as they battled a surge of phone calls on election night when their decision desk called the race in Arizona as a Biden victory. According to the New York Times, Trump and his campaign advisers erupted at the news. If it was true that Arizona was lost, it would call into doubt on any claim of victory the president might be able to make. Jason Miller, Mr. Trump’s political adviser, disputed the accuracy of the call on Twitter and frantically called Fox News, asking the network to retract it. He was unsuccessful.
As absentee ballots were counted on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, Biden widened his electoral vote lead on the President and proved that the race was not over – not in the slightest. As Biden approached almost 250 electoral votes, all eyes were on Pennsylvania, containing 20 electoral votes, that could put him over the top. Friday morning, Biden had taken the lead in Pennsylvania after hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots were counted overnight in the metro areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Once the decision desks had confirmed over 99.5% of the votes were counted, the race was officially called and Americans finally had an answer to their biggest question of 2020. Joseph Robinette Biden will be the next President of the United States.
Rejoice and erupt
As the news became official, people in cities across the world hit the streets to celebrate, honking horns, hugging, and gathering in squares to relieve their pent-up anxiety. American cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia were at the epicenter of celebration and cities across Europe like Edinburgh, Scotland, and Berlin, Germany joined in as well. In 2008, Barack Obama earned 69,498,516 votes in the presidential election, the most ever. Mr. Obama’s former vice president, has surpassed that tally, with a record 74,446,452 votes (50.5% of the total), and counting, in the 2020 election.
Many Trump supporters and voters took to the street as well, protesting the legitimacy of the election results. There were two separate demonstrations in Salem, Oregon on Saturday, police said in an email. One began at noon PST at the Capitol, and the other started at 5 p.m. PST as protesters marched to the Capitol. Four people were arrested during the day; two of the arrests included assault charges. In Sacramento, fights broke out between dozens of supporters of Trump and Biden supporters on a city street. Punches were thrown, but there were no reports of serious injuries. In Lansing, about 500 Trump supporters packed the steps of the Michigan Capitol and spilled onto the lawn, charging that the election was rigged in Biden’s favor.
What happens from here
Some votes remain to be counted and lawsuits have been filed over ballot counting. Still, the results won’t be set in stone until states and the Electoral College follow a set of traditional protocols.
Several states allow campaigns to request recounts if the difference in votes for candidates falls within a certain margin. The Trump campaign has already made it clear they would request a recount in Wisconsin, where Trump trails by about 20,000 votes. In Georgia, where Biden’s lead is much narrower, state officials said a recount would also be conducted.
The Wall Street Journal provided an excellent guide to the next steps from now to the inauguration and what could be done to contest the election results.
- States are supposed to resolve any outstanding issues about results by Dec. 8, the deadline for states to certify their electoral votes and the electors who will cast them in the Electoral College.
- Each party chooses a slate of electors – often before the election – and the electors pledge to vote for their party’s candidate if their slate is sent to the Electoral College for certification.
- The governor of these states certifies the election results and the winning party’s slate of electors who will be sent to the meeting of the Electoral College.
- The electors meet in the capitals of their respective states on Dec. 14 and vote to finalize their state’s election results.
On Monday, President Trump blocked government officials from cooperating with Biden’s team and ordered Attorney General William Barr to probe unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud – making the presidential transition even more difficult. Biden moved forward nonetheless on Monday and Tuesday building out his administration, assembling a team of experts to tackle the surging COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the Trump campaign is struggling to convince state judges that election officials did not follow proper procedures while counting ballots. As of Tuesday night via the Washington Post, they are 0-6.
So yes – we may not know definitely the election results until six weeks after election day. But at the pace the year 2020 is going, are we really that surprised?