Professor John Lapinski has a few stories up his sleeve, to say the least, and he pulls them out quickly—not in haste, but with habit. He was in Berlin when the wall fell, he tells me as he rustles through his desk, pulling out a framed black–and–white photograph from a pile of clutter. It’s Lapinski and a friend, some East German soldiers in the background.
“To see the world change so much in such a short window, at such a young age. It was exciting,” he says, propping the photo up. Next to the frame sits a large, radio–like object, occupying a good portion of his desk.
Situated on the 3rd floor of the Perelman Building for Political Science, Lapinski’s office has, quite possibly, one of the best views on campus. He’s a Professor of Political Science, Faculty Director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, and the Director of the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES). And, of course, Lapinski is Director of the Elections Unit for NBC News—a role that isn’t separate from his work at Penn, but intertwined with the very core of it.
Students and faculty from Penn comprise an integral part of Lapinski’s election team at NBC, many of whom are also a part of the Fox Leadership and PORES programs. “One of the things I feel that I am good at and I've gotten better at over the years is figuring out how to build really good teams, because this is way more than a one person job,” Lapinski says. His job, to him, is the source of an abundance of teaching opportunities—for students, for faculty, and for Penn as a whole. “I view it as a win–win,” Lapinski says, “it’s great for NBC, but it’s even better for Penn.”
It turns out the radio on Lapinski’s desk isn’t a radio, but a direct line to the Decision Desk positioned at NBC’s headquarters. It’s an internal audio system called a McCurdy, which allows him access to the control rooms at NBC News. Lapinski has, in fact, called national elections from his office at the corner of 36th and Walnut streets.
However, he initially stepped into this role inexperienced and unaware of its demands. “[The job] isn’t for most academics, we're trained often to do analysis after the fact. But we do stuff in real time. If you hit the CNBC chime, I'm in the ear of 500 people in the company throughout the entire country,” he says.
Fast–forward 20 years later, and every election called by the major news outlets must go through him—including in 2016, when NBC was the last major news outlet to call, waiting until after Hillary Clinton conceded on TV. “We have to be at least 99.5% confident that we're calling that race correctly. And I wasn’t at that level,” Lapinski says. That’s the level of precision his job requires, and if there’s one thing Lapinski expects, it’s “excellence,” a standard that isn’t new to him.
Lapinski was the first person in his family to attend college. He received a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. in Political Science at Columbia, and he’s had jobs—plenty of them. While living in Chicago, Lapinski worked for the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as the lead of their environmental unit, addressing issues such as lead paint in the units poisoning children. “What I learned in Chicago, especially living in Hyde Park, is that America is a deeply racist country,” he says. “Hyde Park is engineered so that people can’t come into the neighborhood.”
Lapinski spent one summer working with a lobbying group, another abroad in Berlin. “It’s these experiential learning opportunities at the earliest stages in your career that shape you,” he says. It was while working at CHA that he began thinking about politics in its early stages. “You have all of these problems, so how do you optimize policy solutions? I became interested in that sort of stuff,” he says.“To think that you could make change, that you could get involved in something and try to study something, understand, and maybe potentially alter it, it’s exciting.”
Exciting is an understatement for his job today. As the political climate of the country has heightened, so have the implications of elections. “If I called the election wrong in 2000, that was one thing, but in 2020 or now with what's going on in this country, I mean, it could practically create some sort of civil war,” Lapinski says. “If we make a mistake, there's huge ramifications for American democracy.”
59% of Americans don’t have confidence in the honesty of elections, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. On Jan 6th—the day of the Capitol attack—139 Republicans in the House were voting to dispute the Electoral College count that would seal Donald Trump’s election loss. There’s no doubt that elections in America are messy, but today, there’s another dimension to them that’s arisen from the fragile political state of our country and most recently, claims of “stolen elections” and election fraud.
“My job used to be putting in check marks,” Lapinski says. But now, his job doesn’t end when elections do. For example, NBC has the ability to replay elections, running them on simulations to show how votes came in by every state and locality. “And we don't record it just for fun,” he adds, “because again, rewatching elections is potentially a very painful experience, but we record it in case there's court cases or Congress wants to understand what happened in particular moments on an election night.”
There’s a reason Lapinski keeps on doing what he does, and it might seem simple, but in today’s social and political climate, it’s hardly an easy feat. “I want to make sure people understand American elections,” Lapinski says. “Some of the public doesn't want to be educated, but it's our job to try to convince them American elections are legitimate like they are.”
As long as he’s at his office, next to his McCurdy, Lapinski will also continue to believe in what he calls the Power of Penn, which, for him, has not necessarily been its $20 billion dollar endowment or abundance of resources, but the people. He understands Penn’s pre–professional culture, and while he has no intention of altering it, he wants to give students the ability to try new things, to have them “think really hard about what [they] want to do before [they] do it.”
I ended our interview by asking Lapinski if he’s looking forward to the 2024 election. Fairly enough, he says that “looking forward to it,” isn’t quite the phrase he would use. But reassuringly, he exudes confidence. He continues to do his job, because he knows his team can do it well. “My Penn job is fantastic,” Lapinski says, “but why do I continue this job? Because we’re good at what we do. We know how to project these races, and we’re not going to make a mistake.”