Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly & Chris Wallace
Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump has made it clear that he plans to declare victory on election night. He’ll do it when the returns are primarily based on in-person voting from that day. The president and his enablers launched a massive disinformation campaign based on the lie that mail-in ballots are fraudulent so that he could create chaos by claiming that they shouldn’t be counted.

Democrats have assembled an impressive team to handle the legal challenges that would ensue. But this will be a public relations battle as well. That’s where the role of the media comes into play. Will they give credence to Trump’s claims of “victory?”

David Ignatius, the columnist with The Washington Post, talked to senior political journalists at the major news networks about how they plan to handle election night coverage. What he heard was encouraging. Even Bret Baier, who will be co-anchoring election night coverage for Fox News, said that “If the difference in the number of absentee ballots yet to be counted is too large, you can’t make the call.”

But what happens when Trump pressures Baier’s network to call the race? What happens when the president’s sycophants, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, back him up? They would likely be challenged by the decision desk at Fox News. Calling themselves “nerdquarium,” the data wonks who work there are led by Arnon Mishkin, who holds the key to making the network’s call on the presidential race.

Most of us have never heard of Mr. Mishkin. But you might remember election night 2012 when Karl Rove challenged the call of the decision desk that Barack Obama had won Ohio. With cameras in tow, Megyn Kelly, then a Fox News Channel anchor, walked back to nerdquarium to get their response. The person she talked to was Mishkin, who stood by his call. As it turned out, Mishkin was right. Rove was wrong.

Before joining Fox News in 1998, Mishkin was a political consultant with Democratic strategist David Garth and aided then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s failed 1982 run for governor of California. The Yale and Harvard Business School graduate also runs a management consulting firm advising media companies on digital marketing and strategy.

Mishkin presciently decided in 2017 to pull Fox News out of the exit polling conducted by a consortium of news organizations, which had become seriously flawed. Instead, he worked with the Associated Press to develop an alternative that involves interviewing 100,000 voters by phone in the final days of the election. It was field-tested in the 2018 midterms, but next month, it will be used in a presidential election for the first time. 

Given that so many people will have voted early or by mail-in ballot, the results from that huge sample will give the decision desk information about vote totals that wouldn’t otherwise have been available. As Mishkin told Mark Joyella, a senior contributor at Forbes, “Where we know the mail-in vote differs from the day-of vote, we will be sharing that.”

According to Ben Smith at the New York Times, Mishkin and the polling unit at Fox News run by Dana Blanton operate independently of the news or commentary divisions. Speaking to current and former employees, Smith reports that “many said that while they expect Mr. Mishkin to have to compete with Mr. Hannity and others who will echo Mr. Trump’s claims, Fox’s bizarre and chaotic internal politics will probably protect him and the decision desk from any actual interference.“ 

What all of this portends is the possibility of an epic showdown at Fox News on election night that would make the battle between Rove and Mishkin look like child’s play. The data wonk might have given the other side the ammunition they will need to attack him when he told  Smith that he’s a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But someone at Fox News would have to use that information as a way to delegitimize their own decision desk. All I can say about that possibility is, “pass the popcorn.”

It might be a bit hyperbolic, but a headline at Slate for an article by Ben Mathis-Lilley reads: “The Fox News Decision Desk Controls the Fate of American Democracy.” The point is that to foment the kind of chaos he needs to send the presidential election to the courts or Congress, Trump will, at a minimum, need his propaganda network to declare him the winner on election night. He’ll have to get by Mishkin and nerdquarium to accomplish that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.