It was, as Bill Clinton told us at the Democratic convention, about the arithmetic. And last night, the arithmetic won.
Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States. The polls, beaten up for weeks by partisans as being “skewed,” were generally correct. Polling nerds like Nate Silver, pooh-poohed by some pundits, proved even more correct. After billions of dollars of spending, the election was remarkably predictable, and predicted.
But in a bizarre interlude last night, Fox News analyst and GOP rainmaker Karl Rove went to war against the math–his own network’s.
It was an earlier night than expected even by many who thought Obama would win, as NBC and Fox called his re-election at about 11:15 p.m. ET. But after Fox called Ohio and thus the US for the President, Rove immediately began complaining, on Fox’s air, that Fox had called the election too early. “Do you believe that Ohio has been settled?” Chris Wallace asked him. “No, I don’t,” Rove said, adding that he had the director of the Romney Ohio campaign on the phone. “I would be very cautious of intruding in this process.”
But Rove was not cautious of intruding in Fox’s independent election-calling process. Fox, like many networks, keeps a separate “decision desk” of analysts to make calls on states independent of influence by anchors and on-air talent. It’s not unusual to call states, even if there’s only a small gap in the reported vote, on the basis of what they know about the vote yet to come in. (And as it turns out, they were absolutely right.)
What is unusual–really, one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen on cable news–is for one arm of a network to basically turn against itself on-air. “Here’s what we’re going to do!” said anchor Bret Baier. “We’re going to get someone from the decision desk and we’re going to bring them in here and we’re going to have them on air and we’re going to interview them about this decision.”
That’s right: One of you nerds had better get in here and explain yourselves to Karl Rove! You have made an important Republican very upset!
As it turns out, a network decision desk is rather busy on a Presidential election night, so Fox instead had anchor Megyn Kelly walk down the hall–the camera following her in an Aaron Sorkin-style walking-and-talking shot–to interrogate the decision desk. Whose data guys, smiling uncomfortably, basically demolished Rove’s complaints. “We’re actually quite comfortable with the call,” one said. “Cleveland is overwhelmingly Democrat. As the vote comes in, we would expect the president’s margin to rise.”
It was a fitting moment for an election that often seemed to be a campaign over the idea of mathematical knowability itself. But it was also a glaring, and embarrassing, example of the extent to which Fox News has become an arm of the Republican Party and is expected by GOP operatives to behave as one. Rove may be a party big shot, but he’s just a guy giving analysis on Fox’s air. He does not run the network, even if his friends do.
And yet apparently no one in Fox’s studio felt empowered to tell him that, just because he’d raised a squillion dollars for his Republican SuperPAC this election, he is not entitled to have the decision desk hauled out to answer to him like chefs who sent out an undercooked steak. It’s the sort of thing that might cause you to examine your mission as a journalistic network. I’m not waiting up for that to happen, though.
In the end, Rove is a numbers guy too, and he finally had to concede to the arithmetic–but not before creating a defining image of a partisan, and a network, at war with the very reality it could not avoid reporting. Kelly, who at least took the whole interlude in good humor, at one point deadpanned, “That’s awkward.” Yes, it was. And kind of amazing.