NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, and Rashida Jones dive into how a presidential race ‘on top of a pandemic’ will make for a different election night than ever before

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‘Meet the Press’ host Chuck Todd and NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs & Senior Washington Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. NBC News
  • Insider spoke with Rashida Jones, NBC News’ top producer for its election night coverage, along with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, and the network’s Chief Foreign Affairs and Senior Washington Correspondent Andrea Mitchell about how they’re planning to tackle the votes coming in on November 3.
  • All three said they have been preparing differently for election night this year, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, looming uncertainty over when the race can be called, and how to deal with President Donald Trump’s behaviour if he tries to question the election’s legitimacy.
  • Also looming large is the specter of 2016.
  • “We got a C-plus, at best, four years ago collectively so I’d like to think we’re over-prepared for this election night,” Todd said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Once the camera lights blink red on Tuesday night, NBC News’ Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell will be tasked with the high wire act of trying to explain what’s happening as the election returns come in.

Behind the scenes, Senior Vice President Rashida Jones will be coordinating coverage with the crew and the network’s correspondents out in the field.

Like most other things in 2020, this is all complicated by the circumstances imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

After 2016, there’s also a score to settle, with election night offering an opportunity for these journalists to show their audiences what they have learned and improved upon since then.

Because so much uncertainty stems from the influx of mail-in and early votes in this election, Todd, Mitchell and Jones spoke with Insider about how they’re preparing differently for NBC’s election night coverage, and what viewers should expect when they tune in. Starting at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Todd and Mitchell will join Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie to anchor rolling coverage from New York through at least 4 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jake Lahut: What are you doing differently to prepare for election night?

Andrea Mitchell: We’re certainly taking a hard look at the polls — a lot of that statistical work we’ve done since 2016 — and we have more people in the field. We have 40 correspondents around the country and in key states. The key campaign headquarters is more than 100 reporters, road warriors, contributors, analysts, anchors, and correspondents. But, you know, you’re talking about a lot of people that we’re fielding.

And then the pandemic has become a dominant narrative, an important issue for both campaigns. They are handling it in such diametrically opposing ways. But it’s also affected, obviously, the way we cover things. I have not been in the field as much as I would normally be. My show usually goes on the road and we get to everything in all the big states. We’ve done that very little because we need a small footprint and we can’t endanger our people. The crews, the technical side, as well as the people we’re interacting with, we all have to be super careful.

Chuck Todd: The big thing we did is to make a lot of what I would say are discreet changes in reforms from 2016. We feel — no matter how you look at it — in hindsight, the polling was correct, but the polling analysis was incorrect. I think that there were some gaps. We got caught a bit flat-footed. We missed a few things. We missed a surge in rural America. So we’ll find out on Tuesday if we’ve done this right, but we’ve done little tweaks.

Tweak number one: We want to make sure there wasn’t a hidden Trump vote to be missed. Our pollsters have examined this. There’s no hidden Trump vote. We did not find any evidence of that. What our state pollster Marist found evidence of is that we didn’t correctly identify the right voter in rural America. A lot of this was the problem of state pollsters all over the place. If you look at ’16, the national polls were more accurate than the state polls. Most state pollsters were using random digit dial, not from a really good voter file, or not the private ones with more sophisticated things like education level, right?

So we have done a few things like that, so that we’re not caught blind. Did I think we were flying blind in ’16? I didn’t. It turns out there were some things we didn’t see. I’d like to think I’ve put on a few more mirrors on the car, that I’ve got fewer blind spots. My biggest concern now is something we don’t have control over. Our polls could be right. But the administration of the election could be haywire. And that’s something you cannot measure for in a poll.

I don’t know if you remember this feeling in high school or college, when you thought you knew a subject well and you didn’t bother to study, and you went “Oh, Jesus. I got a C-plus?” And you know what, we got a C-plus, at best, four years collectively, so I’d like to think we’re over-prepared for this election night.

Rashida Jones: Our preparation kind of falls into two buckets here. Editorially, this is different from anything we’ve done before — covering an election in the middle of a pandemic. So we really tried to focus on being transparent with our audience, data, information, and over the course of the night, a lot of this information, we’re hearing, learning and finding out about right along with the audience.

The other bucket is the health and safety piece of it. We have have had to put a lot of thought and effort into not only how we continue to cover a race at top momentum as the candidates are criss-crossing the country, but how to do that in a very safe way. How do you take a production that may take, you know, 30 people in a control room and condense it down to six or seven? So those have all been things that we’ve had to think differently about. And they’re connected because the only reason we’re having to take these health and safety measures is because we’re covering the election of our lifetimes in the middle of the pandemic.

Lahut: And how do you view your role in the way the American public is going to perceive who wins the election? With all of the anxiety and uncertainty in the air, is that something you conceive of differently this time around?

Jones: Sure. I mean, our biggest role here is to be a conduit of information and to help put it into perspective. The results are ultimately up to the American people. It’s our job to make sure we’re taking that information responsibly, processing it, explaining what it means and what it doesn’t mean, but also what we’re not seeing and what we don’t know.

Todd: I think it’s clarity and transparency, and being methodical about explaining what you’re doing. So for instance, in previous years I might have told you we haven’t called a race — why haven’t we called Florida yet? And this year I’ll tell you, well, we haven’t called Florida because we think there’s anywhere from 60 to 80,000 votes still uncounted in these four counties.

Well, this year we’re going to tell you from the start — and I’ll even showcase it on my little election board when I need to — how much vote we expect and what percentage of that vote has been counted, and we’ll be tracking that in real time all night. Because ultimately, that’s the way to explain to people: Hey, you see this big lead for Trump in Pennsylvania with 30% reporting? But 70,000 uncounted ballots are all in the mail, and we think those are gonna lean heavily Democratic, and there’s no way we’re calling this race until those votes are counted.

For instance: Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona — those five states, I expect us to have 90 to 95% of the vote counted before, say 3 a.m. But we may not have Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, and they could be nightmares.

And I’ll just introduce a concern that I have that I think is going to be an interesting challenge for us in the press, which is this: I did the maths earlier today — believe it or not, there is a scenario where Biden can get to 270 without us ever calling Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Lahut: Wow.

Todd: If we didn’t call all five of those states, but we were able to basically call the others, there’s not an unreasonable scenario that gets him just over 270 if he carries Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and a couple of ones like Minnesota, Nevada — the ones that are in the marginal battle. But the point is that there is that path.

And I think those are going to be the interesting dilemmas for the press and for the president if we’re in this no man’s land of, well, boy, Florida’s blue, George’s blue, but it’s not at 270 yet. Where do things stand? That’s a scenario that I’m hoping we don’t have to deal with as a country. Nobody wants that. But it’s one that I think we have to be prepared for.

Lahut: And is there anything you guys are looking forward to doing either professionally or personally once the election is over? Is there something you haven’t covered or done that you have your sights set on?

Mitchell: Well, I certainly want to see what the focus is on foreign policy because we haven’t had much foreign policy in the campaign. Thanks to Kristen Welker in the last debate, we had a good conversation about climate. I’m fascinated by that. I started out my career at NBC as the energy correspondent during the oil crisis in the ’70s before I went to the White House, so I really want to dig into that. So professionally, those are things I want to do.

Talking about personally, I would love to see my family [laughs]. That’s more COVID-related than anything.

Todd: I’d love to figure out how to recreate normalcy, but I think I’m speaking for 330 million people when I say that. It’s like an election on top of a pandemic on top of all this, you know? I think the whole country needs a break. I don’t know how we collectively get it, though. I’ll tell you this: I look forward to Thanksgiving. It’s my favourite holiday, and maybe that will feel like a time for rest.