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Spin Control: Yes, we project winners and losers in races. It’s not personal, it’s math

People celebrate in Times Square after former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was announced as the winner over President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States on Saturday in New York.  (Seth Wenig)

More people who strongly supported one candidate or deeply loathed another seemed to get angry this year when we told them the race isn’t going to turn out the way they hoped.

We should respect the will of the voters and wait until all ballots are counted, they said in all-caps emails or profanity-laced voicemails.

They seem to have forgotten, or maybe just never noticed, that except in very rare circumstances, races traditionally are “called” at some point before the last vote is run through a machine. It was that way when everyone voted at the polls and hasn’t changed just because Washington votes by mail.

The networks call presidential races with a panel of experts who study results and run computer models based on historic trends. The Spokesman-Review calls local and state elections with fewer people and less sophisticated models, but we’ve never had a “Dewey Beats Truman” headline.

It has always been controversial with candidates who were behind and weren’t ready to be labeled a loser, or those who were slightly ahead and unhappy they weren’t yet called the winner.

To both I would say: “It’s not personal. It’s math.”

OK, I hear the snickers out there. Journalists are generally regarded as being decent at spelling, grammar and syntax, but generally bad at math.

As a rule, that’s true. But every reporter learns some basic political math on their first election night. First you wait for the numbers to come in from as much of the universe of voters as possible. We don’t call a congressional race based on partial Spokane city results. We don’t call a statewide race based on a few counties.

We wait as long as possible because margins can be volatile. On election night, gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp was ahead in the first posted returns with some 70% of the vote. Nobody declared him the winner, because those returns were from Ferry County, which is his home county and only has about 0.1% of state voters. In a statewide race, we wait for as many counties as possible, but at the very least, the biggest five – King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clark and Spokane – to see who is ahead. And by how much.

When those came in a few minutes later, Jay Inslee was comfortably ahead and the trends in the most populous counties were clearly in his favor. We called it. The Associated Press called it earlier, but we waited for a few more counties to come in.

In local races, we know there are precincts that usually have high turnout, plus some that are reliably Democratic or Republican. When in doubt, we check those, which is possible to do in the precinct breakdowns that come with the online vote totals if you know where to look.

The math is pretty basic, and works like this: However big the lead for Candidate A on election night, Candidate B must get a bigger share of the votes when the remaining ballots are counted. That gets more difficult as time goes on.

If 100,000 votes are counted on election night and Candidate A got 55,000, Candidate B will need to flip the margins and get at least 55,001 of the next 100,000 votes to catch up and go ahead. Can the margins flip by 10 points? Yes, but rarely.

If there are only 75,000 ballots left, Candidate B still needs 55,001, which would be about 73% of those remaining. That reversal might be theoretically possible, but mathematically improbable.

The math gets much easier for Candidate B when the two are separated by two or three percentage points. History might work against a candidate who is a Democrat ahead on election night in a district that normally supports Republicans, or vice versa. We know that ballots tallied later usually break in favor of the candidate from the party that district usually supports.

In cases like that, we wait for the next day, or even the next week.

In Washington, ballots are counted for up to three weeks. But with each day’s count, Candidate B’s chances get smaller if his margin doesn’t meet or exceed the margin needed to overtake Candidate A.

At a certain point, Candidate A’s lead will be bigger than the number of ballots left to be counted. Projections are often made sooner than that, based on trends. If Candidate B’s margins are going down, not up, with fewer ballots left to be counted, there’s a technical term: He’s toast.

The trailing candidate and his supporters can refuse to concede. It’s their right.

They might raise allegations of voter fraud and manipulation. The bigger the gap in votes, the more outlandish their claims are likely to be. Under the First Amendment, political speech is among the freest, which doesn’t always make it the truest or the most beneficial to a democratic republic.

In waiting, we sometimes get nasty comments from the leading candidate because the trailing candidate is refusing to concede. Not our department.

We don’t project winners to satisfy candidates or their supporters. We don’t project losers to disrespect or annoy them.

We do it for the readers, particularly for those who voted, followed the campaigns or might be interested in the future makeup of their city, county, Legislature or state. They want to know who won or lost so they can get on with other things in their lives.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Nov. 14, 2020 to reflect that Clark County is one of the state’s five largest in population. An earlier version omitted Clark County from the top five. 

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