The 2020 presidential election was anything but ordinary — it was buffeted by coronavirus risks, an unprecedented use of mail-in ballots, and political polarization driven by social media. Behind the scenes of the drawn-out election-results tabulation process for many big media networks was Joe Lenski ’87, co-founder of Edison Research.
When asked to recall his biggest fear heading into Election Day, Lenski couldn’t choose just one. “We were waking up at 3 a.m. all year, thinking of all the bad things that could happen,” he says.
Some Americans still refuse to believe that the election was on the up-and-up. But despite the allegations of irregularities made by President Donald Trump and his attorneys, Lenski said the process of conducting the election and reporting the results turned out to be much better than insiders like himself had feared.
“It was a pretty crazy ride,” Lenski said, but “it definitely went more smoothly than our 3 a.m. nightmares had suggested.”
Lenski was a mechanical engineering major, but he always loved politics and statistics. He learned the ropes with the CBS News elections survey unit starting in 1988. Then, after earning a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, he co-founded Edison Research in Somerville, N.J., in 1994 with Larry Rosin ’84, who remains president.
While much of Edison revenue comes from market research for radio and other media outlets, the company occupies a special place in politics. Since 2004, Edison has conducted the Election Day exit polls that are used by major news outfits to read the mood of the electorate. And since 2017, Edison has been responsible for providing raw vote totals on election night to ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and NBC News, among others. In turn, these networks make the closely watched “calls” of candidates’ wins, all the way up to the presidency. (Edison’s competitors include the Associated Press, which supplies vote totals to Fox News, among others.)
“I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and you could say that this year had more challenges than all those years combined,” he said.
Lenski held 27 full-scale rehearsals with his media clients so they could understand the importance of preparing their viewers for a lengthy, seesawing tabulation period.
Using an airbed in his office, Lenski got a few hours’ sleep between 6 and 8 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, then he was up and remained on duty for long hours through the following Saturday. On that day, at 11:20 a.m., Joe Biden was declared the winner of Pennsylvania, bringing him past the required 270 electoral votes to win.
“Over the past few years the election process has become almost continuous,” Lenski said. “The 2020 cycle didn’t end until the Georgia runoff on Jan. 5, and we are now already preparing for special House elections in the spring and governor elections in New Jersey and Virginia in the fall. Election turnout and interest have never been higher.”