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Fox News Made a Big Election Call in Arizona, Angering Trump and Buoying Biden

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It was just after 12:30 a.m. on election night, and Fox News was under fire.

“Arnon, we’re getting a lot of incoming here, and we need you to answer some questions,” the network’s chief political anchor, Bret Baier, said pointedly.

“Shoot!” Arnon Mishkin replied, his face breaking into a smile.

Roughly an hour earlier, Mr. Mishkin’s decision desk team at Fox News had made a bold call that instantly changed the tenor of the night: Arizona had gone to Joseph R. Biden Jr. The projection buoyed supporters of the Democratic candidate and sent President Trump’s aides into conniptions.

Even Mr. Trump himself took a whack, referring dismissively to Mr. Mishkin during an early-morning appearance at the White House as “the gentleman that called it.”

“It” was Arizona, a state that Mr. Trump won in 2016 but that Fox News now said had fallen into Mr. Biden’s column, just as Democrats were ruing a lackluster showing in Florida.

Trump campaign officials said they were taken aback by the Fox News projection: Jason Miller, the campaign’s chief strategist, claimed on Twitter that more than one million votes were outstanding in Arizona, and he baselessly accused the network of “trying to invalidate their votes.” John Roberts, the network’s chief White House correspondent, said the campaign was “livid.” A false rumor circulated online that Fox News had retracted its call.

Cue Mr. Mishkin, a management and polling consultant who has helmed Fox News’s decision desk since 2008. Far from caving to the pressure from Mr. Trump’s aides, he held firm, saying the campaign’s insistence that it could secure a win in the state was, simply, wrong.

“That’s not true,” Mr. Mishkin told the Fox News anchor team. “I’m sorry, the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes.” He added, “We’re not wrong in this particular case.”

This was a night when other networks were playing things cautiously. CNN, for instance, did not project Mr. Biden’s victory in Virginia until several hours after The Associated Press had already called it.

It was not the first time that Fox News’s projections had thrown an unlikely lifeline to Democrats who thought their side was headed toward early defeat.

In the 2018 midterms, early results from Florida suggested that an anticipated “blue wave” might have been over before it began. That year, Van Jones on CNN called the early results “heartbreaking,” and George Stephanopoulos mused on ABC that Democrats were having a “disappointing night.”

But Mr. Mishkin’s team abruptly called the House for the Democrats roughly an hour before other major news outlets did so. (Some Democrats were so shocked that Fox News had made a call in their favor that they speculated about a conspiracy.)

In 2012, Mr. Mishkin made another election night cameo, telling viewers why he had projected a win in Ohio for Barack Obama despite the doubts of a star Fox News analyst, Karl Rove. (Mr. Obama ultimately won the state.) It might not have been a household-name-making moment — a subsequent summary of the telecast by The Atlantic described Mr. Mishkin merely as “Nerd 1” — but it underscored his behind-the-scenes importance at a network whose polling operation has won the respect of rivals.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mishkin once again faced skepticism from conservative colleagues. The pundit Katie Pavlich, an Arizonan, told viewers she was doubtful that her home state had gone for Mr. Biden, and the host Tucker Carlson told viewers that Trump officials were skeptical about a Biden win in the state.

At 2:51 a.m. Eastern — about three and a half hours after Fox News had made its call — The Associated Press made its own projection in Arizona: Mr. Biden would win.

As Mr. Baier wrapped up his Wednesday interview with Mr. Mishkin, before The A.P.’s call, he had a couple of follow-ups for his colleague. Was he “100 percent” sure?

“Yes,” Mr. Mishkin replied.

“All this pushback, you’re going to say we made the right call when we made it?” Mr. Baier pressed.

“We made the correct call,” Mr. Mishkin replied, “and that’s why we made the correct call when we made it.” He added, a bit sheepishly, “I’m sorry.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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