Why Is the Associated Press So Confident Calling Arizona for Biden?

Kate Storey
·5-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, when the Associated Press confirmed Fox News’ call that Joe Biden had won Arizona, the mood of the election shifted. Biden flipping the traditionally red state, which President Donald Trump had won by 4 percentage points in 2016, seemed to set Biden on a much surer path to the presidency.

But, unlike the race calls for most other states, the other TV networks never followed Fox’s suit. Hours passed and Arizona remained in the “too early to call” column for NBC and ABC. The AP has been early in race calls before, most notably when it called the presidency for Donald Trump at 2:29 a.m. EST on November 9, 2016. In the 20 minutes following that momentous call, the AP stood alone in their declaration. But fast forward to 2020: days have passed and Fox News and the AP remain the only media outlets with Arizona colored blue. As votes continue to be counted, the margin between the two candidates has only narrowed.

Arizona’s most significant vote update came Wednesday when Maricopa County released the results of 140,000 ballots and Trump received about 57 percent of the votes, close to the share experts had estimated he’d need from the remaining ballots to pull ahead of Biden. As it stands on Thursday, Biden’s lead over Trump is 2.35 percentage points, an advantage of about 68,000 votes, AP reported Thursday. But Arizona state officials say there are about 450,000 ballots left to be counted. Trump supporters are protesting at the Maricopa County vote-counting site, and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday she believed Trump would win in Arizona "by about 30,000 votes." Officials in Maricopa County have said they’ll release the next batch of votes Thursday at 9 p.m. EST.

Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images
Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images

As of Thursday afternoon, the AP hadn’t pulled back on their call.

The AP’s executive editor Sally Buzbee told me in a statement, “The Associated Press continues to watch and analyze vote count results from Arizona as they come in. The AP declared Joe Biden the winner in Arizona at 2:50 a.m. EST Wednesday after an analysis of ballots cast statewide concluded President Donald Trump could not catch up based on the ballots left to be counted. We will follow the facts in all cases.”

When I spoke to editors at the AP last month, they explained an important change during this chaotic election cycle was an increased effort to explain the calls coming from its massive and complex race calling operation, which consists of a team of 60 analysts. On Wednesday, the AP published a short article titled “EXPLAINER: Why AP called Arizona for Biden.”

“With 80 percent of the expected vote counted, Biden was ahead by 5 percentage points, with a roughly 130,000-vote lead over Trump with about 2.6 million ballots counted,” it reads. “The remaining ballots left to be counted, including mail-in votes in Maricopa County, where Biden performed strongly, were not enough for Trump to catch up to the former vice president.”

If the AP was to reverse its call on Arizona, it would be an incredibly rare case of such a change. The non-profit news organization, which has been calling presidential races since 1848, is almost never wrong. Almost. The AP famously reversed its race call in November 2000 when the organization, along with all of the TV networks, announced Al Gore had taken Florida. AP later reversed that call and, in the end, unlike the TV networks, never called the race for Gore over George W. Bush, saying it was too close to call.

Photo credit: Robert King - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert King - Getty Images

2000 is the horror story which comes back to haunt us all every four years. But that chaos has eluded us thanks to a talking to the AP and the TV networks got when they were called before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to testify about the race calls that night.

The AP’s Election Decision Editor Stephen Ohlemacher was a lot more relaxed about this year's count than you might expect—a mix of a confidence in his experience and that of his team and the AP’s centuries of institutional knowledge. When I asked if they were treating this year any differently because of everything going on in the world, he brought up the example of mail-in ballots. He listed off all of the states which are generally slow to report votes and explained his team would simply be applying the level of caution they’ve always used with those states across the board.

Most importantly, he stressed that accuracy over speed was the priority. Now here we are, the AP and Fox News standing alone, nearly two days after one of this election cycle’s most crucial calls.

“Our goal is not to be first. Our goal is to be accurate, at all costs. And I have the backing of Sally Buzbee, our Executive Editor, who has told me in no uncertain terms that our goal, our number one priority is always accuracy,” Ohlemacher said. “We're journalists. Everyone wants to be first. But being first is a far distant second priority to us than being accurate. We understand what's going on in this country and we understand that folks may not have as much faith in our institutions as they once had. And we are committed to making sure that we provide accurate information to them on Election Night. And if that means that we have to wait and if that means that we're not first, that's perfectly OK.”

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