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Penn professor John Lapinski is the head of NBC News's decision desk. Credit: Amiya Chopra

The Penn professor who heads the NBC News Decision Desk said the Associated Press and Fox News made a "terrible call" by projecting Joe Biden as the winner in Arizona just hours after the polls closed on Election Day.

At a virtual Penn event discussing the 2020 presidential election, John Lapinski also lambasted President Donald Trump for sowing distrust in the media.

The Zoom event, titled “What Happened in the U.S. Elections?” was co-hosted by Penn’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, the Penn Center for the Advanced Study of India, and Penn Global. Lapinski, the Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor of Political Science, director of PORES, and the director of the Elections Unit at NBC News, answered audience questions in a discussion moderated by Tariq Thachil, the director of CASI and associate professor of political science.

Lapinski gave insight on the arduous process of projecting a winner of the election, which he and his team at NBC are responsible for. He said that some news outlets had notable differences in their projections after the election, singling out the AP and Fox News for calling Arizona for Biden late on election night. NBC News, CNN, and The New York Times did not project Biden's win in Arizona until more than a week later on Nov. 12. 

Though Fox News and the AP were correct, Lapinski criticized their early call, adding that it was premature and irresponsible. He said an incorrect call could have led to serious repercussions and public outrage.

“Fox News and the Associated Press made a terrible call when they called Arizona,” he said. “Had they gotten that call wrong, America would have spiraled.”

As the Director of NBC’s Elections Unit since 2013, Lapinski said a key takeaway from his team’s exit polls was that Republicans are underrepresented in polling, which contributes to their distrust in certain media outlets.

“[Republicans] don’t trust us, and they don’t want to take our polls,” Lapinski said. “When we do our NBC polls, we no longer tell people it’s NBC calling. It actually decreases the willingness of Republicans to take our surveys.”

The root cause, Lapinski said, is Trump’s frequent attacks on various American news outlets, which has caused potentially irreparable damage to these outlets’ ability to conduct accurate polling.

“President Trump has really eroded [his supporters’] trust in many institutions, particularly the media and certainly people who are polling,” Lapinski said. He added that this distrust will likely outlast Trump, regardless of whether he continues to be politically active after he leaves office.

Lapinski said a solution to make polls more representative of all groups, including Republicans, could be to gather more information on who is and who is not participating in their polls so that pollsters can pursue underrepresented demographics.

“What we need to really know is who we’re reaching and who we’re not reaching,” Lapinski said. “The more we understand who’s not participating, and put in additional efforts to get some of those people, that’s going to be what’s going to improve polling.”

But Lapinski said that he is skeptical of whether pollsters will be able to erode the distrust that Republicans have in the media moving forward. 

“I think it's going to be really hard to fully unlearn some of the stuff that’s been picked up in 2020,” Lapinski said. “It still remains to be seen about how much stickiness and bitterness are going to be associated with this election that will continue forward, and how much of the skepticism that exists is going to linger into 2022 and 2024.”

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