How Red Mirage Shaped the 2020 Election Narrative

Hawkfish Readied the Public for Trump’s Attempted Steal

By Hawkfish

Red Mirage research and analysis by Dr. Ellen Konar and Joe Wlos
Data visualizations by Joe Wlos

[Photo: Tia Dufour/The White House/Flickr; Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay]

President Trump’s substantial lead in votes counted on election night — and his willingness to use that lead to falsely claim victory — did not surprise the American public, thanks in part to Hawkfish.

By late August, Hawkfish researchers had quantified a likely Trump election-night lead in key states — based on higher rates of in-person voting by Republicans — which would fade as states counted mail-in ballots with greater support for Biden. We named this pattern a Red Mirage.

In the months that followed, we shared our concerns and the corresponding data with political analysts, media figures, and state election officials, increasing awareness of delays in results, which made it harder for Trump to overturn the will of the American people.

Before and after: watch the electoral map transform from how it appeared on election night, with all mail-in ballots not yet counted, to the final map.

COVID intensified a Democratic advantage in late-counted votes

Our research followed from the work of Edward Foley, who coined the term “blue shift” in 2013. Foley noted that votes tallied after Election Day leaned more heavily Democratic. While a post-Election Day shift toward Democratic candidates was identified as early as 2004 and grew stronger through 2018, as The Atlantic has noted, “the reasons were not totally understood by election observers.”

Hawkfish became concerned this pattern would intensify with the expected ballooning of mail-in voting in the 2020 cycle. As COVID swept across the country, many states made alterations to voting methods. This situation raised concerns about safety for many Americans, but those concerns were different for Biden and Trump supporters. Hawkfish research indicated that Democrats, fearing the pandemic’s effect on their own health and that of their fellow voters, saw mail-in and drop-off ballots as a safer alternative to voting in person. Republicans, reflecting Trump’s constant (false) claims about mail-in voter fraud, saw in-person voting as the most secure way to vote.

Our research during July and August revealed that only one third of Biden supporters intended to vote in person, versus over half of Trump supporters. This gap meant that for states that tallied and released in-person Election Day votes before mail-in votes, it would appear Trump was winning. That lead, of course, would evaporate once mail-in votes (2/3 of which favored Biden, on average) were counted later in the week.

We quantified a likely Trump lead that could fuel election-night confusion

Our calculation of the likely shift in the pattern of results over time reflected the reality that most states had little experience handling large volumes of mail-in ballots — and critical swing states had onerous, largely manual verification processes that in some cases could not begin before Election Day.

Our analysis made it evident that early leads for Trump on election night in many states would fade only after mail-in ballots were delivered, verified, and counted in the days that followed.

The potential consequence? President Trump might take advantage of his lead to declare victory before all votes were counted. We felt it was imperative to pre-empt any such claim and combat disinformation not just on election night, when Americans were likely to see a misleading red-dominated map on their TVs, but also in the lead-up to Election Day. Hence, Red Mirage.

We shared Red Mirage with the public — and it went viral

Hawkfish CEO Josh Mendelsohn introduced the Red Mirage in an interview with Axios on September 1. We released a follow-on report on our analyses and hosted online briefings to alert analysts, state officials, Democratic leadership, and progressive organizations in the days and weeks that followed. We shared our conclusions with media outlets and pundits to dissuade them from mistaking a Red Mirage scenario for a red sweep.

“We knew that in a year in which more Americans would vote by mail than in person on Election Day, we needed to reset expectations on what we would know and when we would know it. Interim reporting based heavily on in-person voting would inevitably be misleading,” said Dr. Ellen Konar, Hawkfish’s Vice President of Voter Research and Development.

The Red Mirage concept spread across traditional and social media, explored in more than 2,000 national reports by outlets like The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, The Guardian, Reuters, Fox News, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and MSNBC. Between September 1 and November 20, Red Mirage was mentioned in more than 205K tweets and by 2.2K verified accounts.

In an explainer video posted to Twitter, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro said the Red Mirage “sounds like a supervillain, and it’s just as insidious.”

Politically outspoken celebrities even referenced the Red Mirage to ease the election-related anxiety of their Twitter followers:

Analyzing our data to anticipate the pace of vote counting

By incorporating the latest polling data and estimates of state ballot counting timelines, we analyzed multiple scenarios to know which states’ mail-in ballot counts were likely to shift outcomes. Not every scenario we considered played out during election week. Some scenarios pessimistically assumed more USPS delays and ballot challenges would create stronger barriers to reporting of full results, while other scenarios optimistically assumed slightly higher polling for Biden in critical swing states. However, by focusing our efforts on the interplay of the range of likely dynamics, we prepared for the occurrence of the most probable election night results, rather than on the prediction of a specific outcome.

A web-based tool we created to visualize these scenarios gave commentators and the general public a means to assess their own scenarios and a better basis to push back against premature claims, as well as a means of understanding changing results without succumbing to beliefs in “ballot dumping.”

How the Red Mirage played out in GA and PA

Although some battleground states — including Florida and Minnesota — were expected to finish their mail-in vote counts on election night, other states were expected to take more time. Georgia and Pennsylvania, for example, struggled to process ballots during the 2018 midterms and 2020 primaries. Both states’ Republican-led legislatures instituted requirements that made it more difficult to count mail-in ballots quickly.

The visuals below chart the pattern of the vote count and results for Georgia and Pennsylvania, consistent with the anticipated Red Mirage.

Red Mirage came through in the clutch

Searches on Google for the term “Red Mirage” first surged in the days after Josh Mendelsohn’s Axios appearance, and skyrocketed the week of the election.

When Trump declared victory and demanded a stop to vote counting in states where he led, analysts and media outlets who understood the Red Mirage were not caught off guard. Instead of letting Trump’s disinformation carry the day, they were able to provide the proper context for the progress on the vote count, calling out Trump’s victory claims as premature. Democrats were prepared, with campaigns insisting “all votes be counted.” The predicted fade in Trump’s position materialized as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states tallied their mail-in ballots, making Biden’s victory conclusive.

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