In the world of TV news, reporters and producers always want to be first. But on Election Night, they know they need to be right. Executives at Fox News Channel had worked for months to make certain they would be both.
Just a few minute after 9:30 p.m. last night, Fox News Channel anchor Bret Baier made a bold declaration: Democrats were likely to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. No other news outlet had made that call. NBC News and CNN would not follow with similar projections until much later in the night.
The early call proved a highlight that may have helped boost Fox News performance. More TV viewers tuned into Fox News Channel’s election coverage than any single broadcast or cable network’s coverage. Fox News also won the more important category of viewer – people between the ages of 25 and 54 who represent the demographic most favored by advertisers in news programming. Fox News lured an average of 7.78 million viewers and 2.39 million in the demo. The second most-watched news outlet, NBC News, captured an average of 5.69 million viewers overall, and 2.28 million viewers between 25 and 54.
Fox News’ insight added new luster to a news operation that often gets overshadowed by the cable-news network’s primetime opinion hosts. But the network’s ability to make the call didn’t come from some last-minute polling. It had been building for months, the result of a decision made after the 2016 presidential election to invest in a new system that took into account the fact that more U.S. citizens were voting earlier than the day of the election.
“You can’t do exit polls when people aren’t exiting the polls. We had to acknowledge that as early voting comes to eventually dominate, the exit method wouldn’t work anymore,” says Chris Stirewalt, politics editor at Fox News Channel, in an interview. “That was a bold step that the company took, and it was exciting for us to try to build something like that.” He says 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch played a significant role in the decision. “Mr. Murdoch made the call. He wanted something better than an exit poll. He understood the risks He understood the costs. But he wanted something better.”
The new Fox News methodology, says Stirewalt, comes from setting up online interviews with 120,000 people from around the country to get a sense of voter attitudes at play. “There’s a trail there about how people have voted historically. It helps you set prior what the expected vote is, and what the established behavior is for each precinct and geographic unit.”That information helped the network build models, he added, which could then be tweaked as the actual tallies began to manifest.
Stirewalt had no fear that Fox News would be out on a limb with its projection. Executives had tested its polling technology during primaries, he says. “You either believe in what you made, or you don’t, and if you don’t believe in what you have made, what the hell are you looking at it for, right?”
And with that, Stirewalt had to leave. After staying at Fox News until 2:30 a.m. this morning, he had to get ready this afternoon to make new appearances.
(Above, pictured: Fox News’ Chris Stirewalt)