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Fox’s Arizona call for Biden flipped the mood at Trump headquarters

As a wonky number-cruncher, Arnon Mishkin is probably not used to being the butt of political attacks.

But that’s what happened Thursday, when President Trump’s reelection campaign took aim at Mishkin, a management consultant who runs the Fox News Channel’s decision desk. The campaign has taken issue with the desk’s decision to call the state of Arizona for Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday, and to stick with it, even as the margin in the state has narrowed significantly.

Late Tuesday, after Fox’s decision desk initially called the state for Biden, Mishkin gave an interview to his own colleagues to say that even though there were more votes coming in, “the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate” Biden’s lead.

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The Trump campaign immediately objected to the call, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, got in touch with Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News’s parent company, according to people familiar with the exchange. Trump himself did not complain to Murdoch.

“If he had, I would not have interfered or changed our call,” Murdoch wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. Fox was alone in calling the state, and the more time has passed, the more public — and personal — the Trump campaign’s objections have become.

Late Thursday morning, the Trump campaign’s rapid response operation sent out a tweet that criticized Mishkin and included a screenshot of his donation history, which shows that he donated more than $1,500 to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, he gave $50 to the Democratic voting platform ActBlue in May 2019.

The campaign went even further in an e-mail blast, calling Mishkin a “Democrat operative” and a “Clinton-voting, Biden-donating Democrat.” The campaign is correct in saying that Mishkin has donated to Democrats and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — but Mishkin has been public with this information, disclosing it to The New York Times in September.

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It’s unusual for a political campaign to be directing such animus at a decision-desk analyst. Every television news network has an independent team like this that tabulates voting counts and makes predictions about state victories. Still, because of the perception that Fox is pro-Trump, its decision-desk operation has drawn outsize attention since well before the election.

Mishkin, for his part, has not backed down, and has made several appearances on Fox News to defend the call. When one host noted Wednesday that the Trump campaign maintains that it has the votes to overtake Biden in Arizona, Mishkin retorted: “If a frog had wings.”

The Associated Press, which works with the same data firm as Fox and is using the same numbers to analyze the vote, has also called Arizona for Biden. On Thursday, two Fox News hosts — Brian Kilmeade and Bill Hemmer — told viewers that the network is standing by its call in the state.

After former White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway criticized the network’s Arizona call in an interview on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday, Kilmeade responded: “That was a decision desk decision. And, you know, we stand by the Arizona decision. But that’s done by the decision desk.”

On election night, Fox News set a record for the highest Election Day prime-time viewership totals in cable news history, according to Nielsen. Between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Tuesday, 14.1 million viewers tuned in to Fox News. The next most-watched channel on election night was CNN, with 9 million viewers in the same time period. Fox’s viewership has consistently outstripped its rivals. Even the top broadcast networks drew less than half the audience of Fox.

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The Fox News Channel did not respond to a request for comment about the campaign’s attacks on Mishkin, who is not a network employee but runs the decision desk as a consultant.

After Fox News called Arizona for Trump Tuesday night, Trump and his advisers erupted at the news. If it was true that Arizona was lost, it would call into doubt on any claim of victory the president might be able to make.

What ensued for Trump was a night of angry calls to Republican governors and advice from campaign aides that he ignored, leading to a middle-of-the-night presidential briefing in which he made a reckless and unsubstantiated string of remarks about the democratic process. Standing in the East Room at 2:30 a.m., he dismissed the election as a “fraud” and claimed he wanted to stop the counting of votes and leave the results to the Supreme Court.

The Trump campaign knew Arizona could be up for grabs, but the Fox News call putting it in Biden’s column was symbolic, making it the first state that appeared to have flipped from the president’s 2016 batch of winning states. Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, had been on the phone all night with administration officials and campaign staff members, adamant that there were still Republican votes to be counted in his state.

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Jason Miller, Trump’s political adviser, disputed the accuracy of the call on Twitter and frantically called Fox News, asking the network to retract it. He was unsuccessful. Instead of retracting it, the decision desk at Fox News doubled down on its call, putting Mishkin, the head of the network’s election decision desk, on air to defend the call. Several hours later, the Associated Press also called Arizona for Biden.

Material from the New York Times was used in this report.