NewsNation’s Chris Stirewalt On Why “Everyone Needs To Just Cool It A Bit” About The Meaning Of The Midterms

As candidates and commentators warn that democracy is at stake in this year’s midterms, Nextstar NewsNation’s political editor Chris Stirewalt is a bit cool to the idea that Tuesday’s has that ultimate impact.

“The one thing I always try to impress upon people is, ‘The most important election is always the next election.’ Because we get to do it again, right? There is no finish line in a democracy. We just keep doing it,” Stirewalt told Deadline in an interview last week.

That’s not to say there are not concerns, as Stirewalt is well aware of the fallout from election denialism.

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Back in 2020, Stirewalt defended Fox News’ call of Arizona for Joe Biden, the first sign that Donald Trump would lose the election. The network’s decision desk turned out to be correct, but the network faced a backlash on the right as Stirewalt and others defended the call. He still found himself out of a job the following January, in what the network said was a restructuring and he said was a firing. He recently published a book Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back, about his experiences in the news business, and he testified before the January 6th Committee last summer as they explored Trump’s advancement of false election claims.

NewsNation has teamed with elections analysis and forecasting site Decision Desk HQ for the results. “I think they have a lot of the pirate-ship energy that we had on the Fox News Decision Desk and a real desire to be right and to be first. So they’re great to work with and a lot of fun,” Stirewalt said.

Despite what happened with his old employer, Stirewalt still thinks that they “have the resources necessary to do it right.” Arnon Mishkin is returning to Fox News to the decision desk, which, along with the AP, again will rely on data from NORC at the University of Chicago in making race projections.

“They’ve got a team of journalists who can really put out a great election night, and I hope that they do,” Stirewalt said. “I hope that they do for their sakes. But also because we have to be able to show that on around elections that we can take this seriously. And we can understand that there are consequences attached to the way we cover these things.”

Given what happened in 2020, there will be extensive scrutiny of how all networks call races, and whether than leads to some kind of backlash given the polarized environment.

Stirewalt notes that “different individuals could reasonably reach different conclusions from the same data. It’s not all science. There’s enough art to it. Now it is true that both the Associated Press and Fox News in 2020 drew our conclusions that Joe Biden was going to win Arizona, but we reached those conclusions independently, off of the same data stream.”

Deadline spoke to Stirewalt about how he expects this year’s election night to unfold, about alarmism over the potential results and why this may end up being a midterm that falls in line with historic pattens.

DEADLINE: How different is this election going to be for you?

STIREWALT: I consider my primary role unchanged, which is as a communicator, as a translator almost, between the world of data and the world of practical application and helping viewers decipher what’s going on and keeping them from from getting overwhelmed by the sheer flow of information and providing a little context. … I also like the energy at NewsNation in general, because it reminds me of what Fox once aspired to be: Fair and balanced, and a place where people could get good, reliable information on election night, regardless of which party is helped or which party is hurt, and there’s a real sort of camaraderie that that you can feel around that mission.

DEADLINE: It is up to the networks’ individual decision desks to make a call based on the data.

STIREWALT: There’s a really interesting journalistic question around the utility of ‘decision desking’ and projection — how valuable of a product is this in a media age where people do not like to hear news that disagrees with their worldview. In an era of low trust in institutions and the media particularly, how much do voters want to hear a projection?. … What we have to really do is walk viewers through the process. ‘This is why we think this is going to happen. This is what the data is saying. These are the counties that we’re watching.’ And some humility is required to do that in the right way. Some transparency is required to do that in the right way. A lot of accountability is required to do that in the right way.

One of the moments that I think best encapsulated the old-school Fox approach to election nights and why we did have the best Decision Desk was when Karl Rove and 2012 questioned our call of Ohio for Obama. We didn’t hide it, right? It wasn’t that there was a man behind the curtain who had all the magical powers. Megyn Kelly walked right down the hall, came to the Decision Desk, and talked to Arnon and me about why we made the call. And that’s the correct approach. The right way to do this is to be open and out front about it, and go through the process with viewers so that they’re coming along with you, not that you’re acting like you have magic beans.

DEADLINE: Will the disparity of mail-in votes and election day votes continue to be an issue?

STIREWALT: There always is. The way Trump was able to try to steal the election was that he knew, because this is an iron rule of politics, that Democrats traditionally outperform Republicans on early and absentee voting, and Republicans outperform Democrats on Election Day. That iron rule was the basis for the whole scam, and we have to be transparent about that. Whether this is Fox talking about the reliability of election counts, or whether this is CNN and MSNBC or whomever talking about voter suppression at drop boxes in Arizona or whatever, people on air, and people who are writing on election night, who are doing it live, have to be careful. They have to be careful, cautious and earnest. They have to be responsible, because the easy thing to do is to say ‘Well, we’re hearing a lot of really suspicious stuff out there, right?’ Well, guess what? There’s suspicious sounding stuff every single election. And there are lawsuits every single election. It is how it goes. It’s a very normal part of this process. And people who are covering this have to put that in context for news consumers because the temptation will be there. If you’re on Fox to talk about irregularities in voting, right? Because that’s what a lot of Republicans are going to want to hear about. And if you’re on one of the outlets that has a Democratic leaning audience, it is going to be tempting to talk about voter suppression.

And I would just say, we live in a golden age of democracy in the United States. It has never been easier to vote, and the process of voting and tabulating has never been more secure. And that’s the truth. Not to say that there will not be a small amount of voter fraud and not to say that there will not be some voters who want to vote but can’t get to do it. That is not saying it is a perfect system, but it’s a very good system. And it is has a lot of integrity in it that is built on the backs of 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of our friends and neighbors and family members who go to volunteer and go to work in elections offices around the country.

So as people start this talking about this and get ready for this, you better have enough love for your country to show a little respect to your fellow Americans and not go for the easy clicks and the easy hate watching to to stoke unfounded fears.

DEADLINE: President Biden warned of the threats against election workers. How much of an issue is that?

STIREWALT: It is obviously an issue. One of the hardest parts of election week 2020 for me was listening to Republicans allege massive corruption in the election process in Pennsylvania, and I remember I was sitting in the Decision Desk room and I was watching on a monitor. We had the streams coming in from every every place that was still counting. And here is this young woman and she’s wearing a sweatshirt. She’s in Pittsburgh, she’s in Allegheny County, and she’s there she’s counting ballots and by the way, it’s in the middle of a pandemic. Everybody is masked, distanced and trying to do this stuff. And I thought, this woman, she’s probably got kids, she’s got family. She’s giving up her time. She’s there for, if any money, not much, counting these ballots. Do you really think that she is stealing these ballots? It hit me how personal this is. It’s very easy to spew hate about faceless strangers. But these are not faceless strangers. This is us. These are our neighbors. These are our fellow Americans, and the insane degree of hatred that fills our politically addicted national media dehumanizes these people. So on the one hand, you have the dehumanization of election workers, which makes them targets for potential violence. We also have the dehumanization of Trump supporters as just racists or blind followers or whatever. We need to start showing humanity for each other and think things through. Would a reasonable person really subject themselves to a five year federal prison term for trying to steal a handful of ballots while they’re on camera? No, that’s not what people do. Again, I’m not saying there’s no fraud, but think it through. This is somebody’s mother. This is somebody’s daughter. This is a real-life human being.

DEADLINE: We see a lot of references on the news channels of democracy being at stake in this election. But in your book, you criticize media outlets for apocalyptic characterizations. Is that the case with this?

STIREWALT: It’s like talking ourselves into a nervous breakdown, right? And it is, much like a recession, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people think the country’s going into a recession, you can make a recession. If enough people think that there’s a crisis in democracy, you can make a crisis in democracy. We don’t have a crisis in democracy. We could talk ourselves into one if the partisans on both sides decide that given the circumstances. It is that ‘deadly cause’, right? It’s the ‘in times like these cause.’ ‘Well, because of the circumstances, we are therefore excused to engage in the following behaviors.’ Therefore, those behaviors create the necessary circumstances for the other side to engage in excess, and it becomes a self-licking ice cream cone. This is the problem, which is each side creates a new permission structure for the other side to engage in worse and worse and worse behavior. And so it is self validating, all the way down. This is a serious problem. And this is how you talk yourself out of having a republic.

I truly believe that much of the concern is sincere. I do not think it is cynical. I don’t think it is mostly cynical. I do not think that people are making it up, that this is a reflection of how they feel. But what I am saying is the escalation of this elimination-ist and sort of esciological talk about the country is self fulfilling. And the one thing I always try to impress upon people is, the most important election is always the next election. Because we get to do it again, right? There is no finish line in a democracy. We just keep doing it.

We live in a very evenly divided nation. And whether the Republicans hold the House or don’t hold the House or what the majorities are in the Senate, I understand why it’s a big deal if you’re a hyper partisan. In the grand scheme of things, this is not like a historically important election. And if you don’t like how the results go, you get to do it again in two years. What you’re supposed to do when you lose an election is say, ‘We’ll get them next time.’ You guys wanted rats, but we’ll get you next time. Instead, what we say is if the other side wins, ‘The world will end. This is the end of democracy as we know it. This is the end of freedom as we know it. This is the end, and if they win the next election, it’s all over.’ Now, how are you supposed to say that you are going to then go compromise and work with people who you said are going to destroy America if they get control one of the chambers of Congress? Makes it impossible. So we have to scale back the rhetoric, and I really hope on election night, people are careful in what they say and don’t go for the cheap shots and don’t go for the easy stuff. I know that that’s not going to be the case for everybody. But I think there are enough people in our business now who understand that maligning your fellow Americans for fun and profit is not healthy for the country, and we’ve got to do better.

DEADLINE: What did you think of Joe Biden’s speech last week warning of the future of democracy?

STIREWALT: Joe Biden has not succeeded in this. I think using this as an election issue, and saying that you have to elect Democrats in order to stop the bad people from destroying democracy, he is failing an important test is Commander in Chief. What should be doing is trying to unite people, not make this into a bid to hold onto seats in Congress. I’ve been really disappointed in Biden on several occasions that in his rhetoric he has had opportunities to get people together, but he has gone for division. Donald Trump is the most divisive political figure, certainly of modern American political history, and he takes advantage of the deep antipathies that Americans feel for each other in this day and age, and knows that he cannot be held accountable by people who his supporters believe are illegitimate fundamentally. Joe Biden and Democrats have to craft a message that speaks to Republicans of goodwill that says, ‘It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay not to want to vote for me or vote for them. But you’ve got to stand up for these institutions and you’ve got to stand up for the republic.’ When Joe Biden compared changes in voting laws in Republican states to Jim Crow 2.0, it really broke my heart, not only for the ways in which it made less of what Jim Crow really was, the shameful chapter in our history, but also just further escalating the rhetoric. This issue works for Democrats. It works for keeping their base together. Talking about the threat to democracy from Donald Trump helps keep the base together and helps motivate them in the same way the issue of crime does for Republicans. But talking about it in the way that they do, both threats to democracy and crime is often scaremongering. It is often stoking these kinds of anxieties. And I think that that Biden has made a mistake in campaigning on the on the issue in the way that he has.

DEADLINE: I saw someone refer to this midterm as perhaps just falling into historic patterns.

STIREWALT: That’s exactly what I expect to happen. What I’d really like to have happen would be a very boring midterm result. My range of seats is 15 to 25 seats in the House… If that’s the case, that would be very normal. The average number of seats lost by the party in power in the president’s first midterm since 1982 is 28 seats. It’s a lot of seats. Democrats can only afford to lose five. In the Senate, you would have to imagine that toss up races go mostly one direction, right? There’s a breeze that blows and they mostly go in one direction. So it should surprise no one if Republicans end up with 51 or 52 Senate seats, and there will be political consequences to that.

But when you say democracy is on the ballot, if a person goes and votes for Brian Kemp over Stacey Abrams in Georgia, you’re not voting against democracy. It’s just another election with one Republican and one Democrat. And this is not the end of anything. This is a long continuation. A republic is like a family. When you have an argument the night before, you wake up with the same people the next day. They’re staring back across the kitchen table at you. So everybody just needs to cool it a little bit and remember that this is a long process. This is a hundreds of years long process that we are engaged in and this is but one little blip on that long continuum.

DEADLINE: What are what races are you going to be watching? For first, to get an indication of how how things are gonna go for the parties?

STIREWALT: We’re very lucky because we have nice early poll closings in key races. Virginia’s 2nd House district, which is Virginia Beach and Norfolk. So Virginia has a nice early poll closing, 7 PM ET, and that’s one of the districts I’ll be watching because it’s a well matched swing district. We will of course have Ohio at 7:30. So we have important contested races that very early in the evening are going to start to give us a good snapshot with early poll closing states. So by nine o’clock, we’re gonna have an idea about what the range looks like for Republicans. Is it going to be a kaboom-y, or is it going to be a whimper?

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