Meet Decision Desk, the First to Call the Election for Joe Biden

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The US presidential election is taking a long time to wrap up. The process for counting mail-in ballots—made necessary by the pandemic—has tested Americans’ patience since Tuesday night, when we would typically expect to know the winner.

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While nitronet relies upon established newswires like the Associated Press and Reuters before we report the election results, several media organizations, including Vox and Business Insider, called the race for Joe Biden earlier this morning (albeit with “projected” as a qualifier tucked into those initial posts). 

The news outlets’ respective moves to make the early calls for Biden wasn’t strictly arbitrary. Enter Decision Desk HQ, a lesser-known player that big-name media companies like The Economist, BuzzFeed, Vox and Business Insider rely upon for election data. 

The nonpartisan election site is a startup, founded in 2012 by Brandon Finnigan. At that time, Finnigan was a professional truck dispatcher who moonlighted as a writer for the conservative blog Ace of Spades. Decision Desk is now his full-time job. The brand may not be as flashy or well-known as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the analysis and forecasting site licensed as a New York Times blog before being sold to Disney’s media properties. But that contrast works for the brand, as it allows Decision Desk to boast that its grassroots data gathering serves as a distinct alternative to the AP. 

Decision Desk HQ was incorporated in 2016. According to LinkedIn, the company has about 10 employees, though representatives declined to reveal the official number full-time staffers. In any case, Decision Desk’s work is further rounded out by hundreds of contractors during busy election periods.

The company is still independent and generates revenue by providing its data to media companies. Decision Desk more than doubled revenue between the 2017 to 2018 cycle to the 2019 to 2020 cycle, the company’s president, Drew McCoy, told nitronet. It partners with a separate firm called Øptimus Consulting for its election forecast, which had about 95% accuracy in congressional predictions in the 2018 midterm elections.

Finnigan’s operation scrapes election results off of public websites and uses old-fashioned reporting techniques to get data on major races. Decision Desk has netted a swath of contracts with The Economist, The Atlantic, Axios and even Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, according to its website. Speed and accuracy are definite factors in its popularity: for one, Decision Desk was first to call Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat in 2014. The firm said it was the first to call the 2016 election, too.

The New York Times lists DDHQ alongside notable news outlets like the AP and Reuters.

Vox has worked with Decision Desk since 2017 and lauds the firm for its swift and “gold-standard” reporting methods. It has only had to go back on one race in recent years—a 2018 California congressional race. (For what it’s worth, the AP made the same mistake). 

When Pennsylvania tipped toward Biden early Friday morning, as mail-in votes were trickling in from blue counties across the commonwealth, Decision Desk made the crucial call. When it did, prominent digital-native news sites Vox and Business Insider took the Decision Desk call and reported that Biden won.

“The numbers that the Trump campaign would have to make up simply do not appear to be there,” McCoy explained to Business Insider for a behind-the-scenes look at why his organization made the call. “I can’t tell you why others haven’t called it yet, but you can see what they’re saying is, ‘We’re looking at the numbers.’ And listen, these guys and women are professionals as well.”

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