Why Fox News Called the House So Early (and More Midterm Media Narratives)

Bret and Martha on Election Night - Fox Publicity 1 -H 2018
Courtesy of Max Whittaker

By the time the House began to break decisively Democratic, the discussion at the anchor desks shifted to what a divided Congress would mean for Trump.

The early narrative of election night 2018 was the lack of the so-called Democratic Blue Wave that would sweep Republicans out of power in two houses of government and deliver a decisive repudiation to President Trump’s race- baiting rhetoric. Early in the night, anchors were divining a disappointing finish for the Democrats. On ABC News, George Stephanopoulos declared it a “disappointing night.” On CNN, emotion-prone Van Jones pronounced it “heartbreaking.” CBS News anchor John Dickerson quipped that the “planet house is not spinning the way the Democrats want it to.” On Fox News, Laura Ingraham declared that President Obama and Oprah “will have egg on their faces” if Florida and Georgia governorships are held by Republicans. 

Of course, those who study data sets and election district minutiae with a dispassionate eye knew the 2018 midterms would go almost exactly as they did. “It’s pretty close [to] what we predicted going in,” CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Chris Stirewalt, Fox News politics editor and the network’s resident election night vote-cruncher, notes that many of us — anchors and viewers — tend to see what we want in polls, especially now when the electorate is so deeply divided. "What went wrong in 2016 was the expectation [and that] was not in line with the data," explains Stirewalt. At Fox News, he continues, “We marry up different data streams to talk about probabilities in different way. There’s a difference between probability and vote share.”

With coverage anchored by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, Fox News was the first network, at 9:33 p.m. ET, to call the House for the Democrats, though there were not a lot of results in yet. NBC News followed about an hour later.

The network unveiled a new Fox News Voter Analysis ahead of the midterms, using proprietary methodology based on surveys conducted in every state and overlaying that with voting results collected by the Associated Press. As Stirewalt explains, the network’s decision desk is not just regurgitating numbers from a spreadsheet. “Our decision desk team has a mix of Republicans and Democrats, we have political professionals, we have journalists. There’s more to know than the polls. There was a belief a decade ago, if we just had enough data we could turn on the machine and it would spit out an answer.”

"The big challenge that I both enjoyed and was frustrated by at times in the early hours was that we didn’t have a lot of results to talk about,” notes NBC’s Chuck Todd, who anchored alongside Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie. “And then in the 10 o’clock hour, we couldn’t fully keep up with how fast races were being called. I was sort of bummed, because I was like, 'Hey, I want to riff on that race for a moment.' That’s one of the challenges of a race like this one, when you have so many competitive races.”

Some vaunted data models failed altogether. The New York Times projection needle was down during the early part of the night, causing Upshot correspondent Nate Cohn to explain on Twitter that “technical difficulties persist.” And Nate Silver had to reset the FiveThirtyEight live election day forecast because, he said, it was “definitely being too aggressive and [we] are going to put it on a more conservative setting.”

By the time the House began to break decisively Democratic, the discussion at the anchor desks shifted around to what a divided Congress would mean for Trump: subpoenas (for those Trump tax returns), a renewed House investigation into Russian election meddling and, as CNN’s Dana Bash summed it up, “more gridlock.” 

When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, sitting next to Jake Tapper and Bash, noted that the three Senate seats the Republicans flipped would be a victory for Trump, Tapper shot back: “And Mazel Tov, but the bottom line is this is not a good night for the president. [The Democrats] are going to make his life a living hell.”

Fox News’ Chris Wallace, a refreshingly contrarian voice on the network, threw cold water on the credit the network’s pundits were heaping on Trump for an expected Senate victory.

“The fact is, this was a historically difficult year for the Democrats,” he said, referring to the Senate map. “[They] had 26 seats [to] defend, the Republicans had nine seats they had to defend and Donald Trump won in 10 of the states the Democrats were trying to defend. I’m just saying let’s stop with all the hosannas to how Donald Trump pulled this out because, frankly, the Republicans should have won given the map of these states.”

Of course, the Democratic majority in the House will position Nancy Pelosi — assuming she retakes her position as Speaker — to a prominent role as the media-cast Trump foe. And coverage of Trump could certainly shift from the mendacities emanating from his Twitter feed to the very real-world consequences of a house of Congress that does not rubber-stamp everything that emanates from the White House.

“There’s no total victory for anyone,” notes Stirewalt. “Now we get to find out, with divided government, what are we going to do next?”

Predictably, Trump, whose Twitter feed was conspicuously quiet while the polls were open, preemptively called out the Democrats in an early morning Tweet: “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!" 

It was harbinger of things to come. Adds Todd: “There’s a divide in this country and now the levers of power reflect that.”