How the Bangor Daily News Became the Country’s First Newspaper to Call the Presidential Election
Thanks to a unique partnership, the small-city paper made a big-time projection.
By Brian Kevin
Like plenty of other Americans, Dan MacLeod was up late on Thursday, November 5, glued to the couch at his home in Unity, watching presidential election returns trickle in on his phone and laptop. Some 48 hours since the last polls had closed, the race was too close to call, with key swing states still counting mail-in and provisional ballots. MacLeod, managing editor of the Bangor Daily News, made chocolate-chip cookies, put on a Star Wars movie, and habitually clicked refresh.
That evening, he’d opened an email from Decision Desk HQ, or DDHQ, an upstart election-data firm that sells its race projections to the media. DDHQ wasn’t yet calling the race, the email said, but given the ballots yet uncounted in Pennsylvania — and the political lean of the districts they came from — the math looked good for Democrat Joe Biden. MacLeod asked BDN politics editor Michael Shepherd to prep a story, which MacLeod edited before having a cookie, watching Luke destroy the Death Star, and then getting a little sleep.
The projection from DDHQ came in at 8:50 the next morning, as MacLeod was en route to the office, where a skeleton crew had been working during election week. By the time he arrived, the BDN home page was already updated: “Joe Biden Wins.” At 9:04, Shepherd tweeted his election story, noting the BDN was likely the first paper in the country to announce the result. At 9:34, MacLeod retweeted Shepherd’s observation, tacking on a single word: “Dirigo!”
It would be another 26½ hours before the Associated Press, CNN, and other major news organizations projected Biden as the winner. The BDN was out in front because of the paper’s unique relationship with DDHQ. As the firm’s president, Drew McCoy, explains, “Maine is a hard state to collect in — it’s a very unique place.” For starters, many of its votes are collected at the township level rather than at the county level, the norm elsewhere. The state’s recent adoption of ranked-choice voting is another wrinkle. So while DDHQ collects its own election returns in 49 states, it relies for Maine data on the BDN’s robust collection apparatus — notably, its reporters on the ground and relationships with clerks. In exchange, DDHQ provides the BDN with race projections. It’s an arrangement the organization has with no other newspaper.
“We haven’t found anybody that’s faster than us anywhere else,” McCoy says.
A few all-digital media orgs, including Vox and Business Insider, pay DDHQ for its projection models, and some of these called the race for Biden Friday morning, but McCoy knows of no other newspaper that ran with the call. Around the newsroom, MacLeod says, the thought was that “within a few minutes, maybe an hour or two, you’d then have the AP and all the others.”
“I expected us to be alone with it for a bit,” Shepherd says. “I certainly didn’t think we’d be alone for 27 hours. I thought, later in the day, people would see the same emerging patterns and make a similar call. But obviously, that didn’t happen.”
“It was a strange experience. . . . We did get a little notoriety from it,” Shepherd says. “Everyone is wondering, why the Bangor Daily News in particular? And I don’t blame them — it’s weird.”
Naturally, the “fake news” chorus bleated, but news editor Lindsay Putnam, whose team oversees the BDN comment section and social channels, says vitriol didn’t overwhelm good-faith inquiries from readers wondering about the mechanics of race projections. “Especially in an age of misinformation,” she says, “we were happy to answer people’s questions.” Shepherd wrote a follow-up post explaining the paper’s relationship to DDHQ and touting that organization’s bona fides. (Among other things, it was the first to call 2016’s race for Trump.)
“I never doubted the call,” MacLeod says, “but there’s an excitement and almost an anxiety whenever you publish anything that’s a big deal first, because then you’re part of history. You feel that weight.”
The next morning, most Saturday papers announced an election yet undecided — not until after 11 a.m. did the New York Times, AP, and broadcast networks call the race for Biden. The front page of Saturday’s BDN, meanwhile, declared in large font, “Biden projected as winner.”
“It’s a cool memento for Mainers,” says Shepherd, whose girlfriend grabbed the last copy at their local Hannaford. McCoy, at DDHQ, says he’s framing a copy. That afternoon, MacLeod tweeted a photo of a reader holding the front page. Then he took a few days off: he went deer hunting, worked around the house, and didn’t look at Twitter once.