For a good while now, a number of us political obsessives have been playing Paul Revere in warning of an Election Night phenomenon that could lead to a contested presidential election and perhaps a constitutional crisis. The issue is an unprecedented number of mail ballots (thanks to COVID-19 fears and the polling-place chaos we saw in many primaries this spring and summer) accompanied by a big partisan split in willingness to vote by mail, mostly created by the president’s interminable attacks on that method of voting. Since, for the most part, Election Day in-person ballots will be counted before mail ballots, Trump and other Republicans may assume an early lead on Election Night that will inevitably be reduced and in many cases erased as mail ballots drift in. Trump being Trump, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision him claiming victory on Election Night and then attacking subsequent Democratic-leaning mail ballots as fraudulent.
Now, the digital data firm Hawkfish has come up with an empirically solid scenario of how this “red mirage” (as they call it) might unfold. An extensive survey conducted by the firm confirmed the partisan split in voting methodologies, and its significance. They explained, via email:
Over 40% of voters intend to vote by mail, nearly double the number who voted by mail in 2016.
Far more Democrats than Republicans intend to vote by mail. Over 50% of Biden’s supporters intend to vote by mail, compared to less than 20% of Trump’s supporters.
The partisan divide in voting method is greater in most battleground states. Over two thirds of Biden supporters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Arizona intend to vote by mail; less than one quarter of Trump supporters in these states intend to exercise that same option.
Using the baseline of the 9.3 percent national Biden lead (and a 334–204 advantage in the Electoral College) shown by FiveThirtyEight in August, and information on vote counts in the recent past, Hawkfish shows that an ultimate nine-point Biden national popular vote win could look like a four-point Trump lead (and a 339–199 electoral vote lead) on Election Night:
[I]f by election night all polling place ballots and 40% of vote-by-mail ballots (in states where vote-by-mail will surge high above historical levels) are counted, Trump will temporarily lead in even safely
blue states. Given his history of false claims and dismissal of vote-by-mail, Trump may exploit this Red Mirage to claim victory and dispute any subsequent change to the electoral map.
Needless to say, if the presidential race tightens (and Biden’s lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling averages is already down to 7.1 percent), Trump’s Election Night lead could be even larger, even if he’s doomed to defeat. And according to Hawkfish’s estimates, Biden might not take the lead until 75 percent of mail ballots have been counted, which could take several days.
Trump’s ability to throw sand in everyone’s eyes on Election Night depends on some combination of media impatience and public ignorance about how the vote count will proceed. If media outlets refute a Trump victory claim as premature, and if the public understands the election results may take several days to congeal, the red mirage may fade pretty quickly. But a new survey from Axios shows a majority of voters still expect a relatively quick result:
One in three Americans thinks we’ll know who won the presidential election on the night of Nov. 3, and six in 10 expect the winner to be announced within a couple of days, our new poll finds …
While so many opinions around the elections are heavily influenced by party ID, so far this question is not.
A slightly smaller share of Democrats than Republicans say we’ll have same-night results (32% versus 37%). There’s even less of a gap by party among those who say we’ll know within a couple of days. More Republicans than Democrats think it could take longer than a month, but the difference is just 5 percentage points.
So at this point, the faith in an Election Night result is not being shaped by Trump campaign preparations for pulling a fast one. That will likely change, so there is no time like the present to begin educating everyone on the red mirage and its sources.