A spike in the number of Americans voting by mail this year could create a “mirage” on election night, making it seem as though President Donald Trump has won in a “landslide” even if he has actually lost.
That prediction comes from Hawkfish, a data analytics firm owned by billionaire Democrat Mike Bloomberg.
Hawkfish ran the digital arm of Mr Bloomberg’s presidential campaign before he pulled out of the race for the Democratic nomination. It is now focused on defeating Donald Trump.
“Hawkfish’s mission is to help Democratic and values-aligned candidates and causes win,” the firm says.
So be aware, this is not coming from a neutral source.
It is, however, based on real data.
Hawkfish surveyed 17,263 registered voters across the US throughout July and August, asking them who they were planning to vote for and, more significantly, whether they were going to vote in person or by mail.
Using those results, it has predicted that up to 40 per cent of Americans will cast mail-in ballots – double the number who did so in 2016.
THE ‘RED MIRAGE’
Why does that matter? There are a couple of reasons.
First, it takes longer to count mail ballots. If Hawkfish’s estimate is correct, days or even a week could pass before the full election result is clear.
Second, the survey found that Democrats were far more likely to be voting by mail than Republicans. That means the in-person vote is going to be better for Mr Trump and worse for his opponent, Joe Biden, than the mail-in vote.
Hawkfish’s CEO, Josh Mendelsohn, has spoken to Axios on HBO about the survey’s findings, and what they could mean for the election.
“We are sounding the alarm and saying that this is a very real possibility, that the data is going to show on election night an incredible victory for Donald Trump,” Mr Mendelsohn said.
“When every legitimate vote is tallied and we get to that final day, which will be some day after election day, it will in fact show that what happened on election night was exactly that, a mirage.
“It looked like Donald Trump was in the lead, and he fundamentally was not when every ballot gets counted.
“Even if you ultimately get to the end result, which is that Joe Biden would be president of the United States, now you’ve taken what in politics would be taken as a bit of a mandate to govern – you in fact find yourself in this deeply polarised situation where a portion of the American electorate feels that injustice was done.”
There were a lot of different tenses clashing in those quotes, so let’s just go over the basic scenario again in plainer English.
It goes like this: The in-person vote is counted on election night, and shows Mr Trump with a big lead. The President declares victory. Over the following days, the mail vote is gradually counted, and it eventually pushes Mr Biden in front. He then claims victory.
What would Mr Trump do in that situation? Would he concede, or try to claim the mail vote was rigged against him?
We don’t really have to wonder. The President is already arguing that widespread mail voting will lead to massive fraud.
This is how he responded to Mr Mendelsohn’s remarks overnight.
Mr Trump has been mounting his argument against mail voting for months. He has, in effect, been pre-emptively delegitimatising the election result.
Should the mail vote end up costing him the election, Mr Mendelsohn warned, Mr Trump and his supporters may conclude he was robbed. And that would lead to “chaos”.
“If Trump looks to be leading on election night due to this red mirage, he may try to claim all votes counted after are fraudulent,” Hawkfish said.
“He has telegraphed this by attempting to associate ‘voter fraud’ with mail-in voting and sowing disinformation in states that benefit him.
“Trump is doing this because the data predicts he will lose if all votes are fairly counted.”
The polls do indeed show Mr Trump losing to Mr Biden by a large margin, though after what happened in 2016, you can judge whether they can be trusted.
It is entirely possible that the election will end up being a blowout, one way or the other.
HOW THE ELECTORAL MAP COULD CHANGE
Under America’s peculiar system, the goal for each candidate is not to win the popular vote, but to reach 270 electoral votes.
Each state has a certain number of these electoral votes, based on the size of its population. So for example, California – as the biggest state in the country – has 55, while sparsely populated Wyoming has just three.
Win the popular vote in a state, and all its electoral votes are yours.
This is how Mr Trump won the election in 2016, even though he received 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. He managed to scrape to narrow victories in a handful of key states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Ms Clinton wracked up huge margins in places like California – Democratic strongholds that were never up for grabs anyway.
This gives context for the maps below.
The first one shows what the results will look like on election night, according to Hawkfish’s prediction. It appears to be the most one-sided result since 1988, in Mr Trump’s favour.
The second shows how the map will change once all the mail votes are counted. It completely reverses the result, giving Mr Biden a comfortable win.
On election night, a lot of commentators are going to tell you to be patient. They’re going to be reluctant to declare a result prematurely.
Those maps show you why.