WASHINGTON – For nearly a year, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has maintained steady polling leads over President Donald Trump in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But that’s not what Americans will see when they wake up on the Wednesday morning after Election Day.
Instead, they will see data that indicates Trump has an early lead over Biden in both states.
As of about 7 a.m. Wednesday, the president is ahead in Michigan by 1.3 points with 83% of the votes tallied. In Pennsylvania, where Biden was raised, Trump’s lead is even bigger: more than 11 points after 75% of the vote has been counted.
But after a night during which Trump overcame early vote deficits to win solid victories in battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, it would be reasonable to look at Pennsylvania and Michigan and see two more imminent Trump victories. And lots of people did.
As Tuesday night dragged into Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats were stunned to see Trump racking up such leads in two states that most political strategists believed Biden would win handily.
So what was actually going on? The answer has been dubbed the “red mirage.”
Starting early this year, the coronavirus pandemic prompted millions of voters across the country to request mail-in ballots in order to avoid exposure to the virus at the polls. And while the party breakdown for mail-in ballots started off fairly even, it split off after Trump launched a monthslong crusade to discredit mail-in voting.
By late summer, many of the president’s supporters had become convinced that Trump was right, and mail-in ballots were rife with “fraud.” As Republicans pulled away from mail-in voting, Democrats embraced it. Left-leaning states were also quicker in some cases to offer mail-in voting to anyone worried about the coronavirus.
The result of the partisan divide over mail-in ballots was that the vast majority of mail-in and absentee ballots cast this year came from Democrats, and most of those were votes for Biden.
As Election Day neared, some states, like Florida and North Carolina, tallied up the mail-in ballots they received ahead of time, and then released that total soon after the polls closed on Election Day, and before they finished counting up the in-person votes.
The effect of tallying up the absentee ballots first is that they tended to show early leads for Biden which disappeared once all the in-person votes (which tended to favor Trump) were counted. This was dubbed the blue mirage.
But Michigan and Pennsylvania do it the opposite way. There, in-person votes are counted first, and only once all the Election Day votes have been tallied do they begin to count the mail-in votes.
And in a year when in-person votes heavily favor the Republican, and mail-in votes favor the Democrat, the effect of Michigan’s and Pennsylvania’s system was to make it look like Trump and his fellow Republicans were in the lead for extended periods of time.
The red mirage is the temporary advantage that Republicans appear to have during the brief window between when a state has counted all of its in-person votes, but not yet tallied absentee and mail-in ballots.
As more and more mail-in votes are tallied, Trump’s lead should become smaller and smaller.
In the case of Michigan, Biden already started closing in on Trump on Wednesday morning, after a big vote count dump from Wayne County, which includes Detroit.
In Pennsylvania, Trump led by 600,000 votes on Wednesday morning, a seemingly enormous margin.
But there were still 1.8 million absentee and mail-in votes to be counted. So if Biden were to win these votes by the same hypothetical 3-1 margin, he might pick up as many as 1.4 million additional votes.
Trump’s original advantage of 600,000, even with an additional 400,000 vote boost, could still amount to only 1 million total votes, falling short of Biden’s 1.4 million.
But there’s an important caveat to all this. Until the outstanding ballots are counted, it’s impossible to know exactly how many will go to Biden and how many will go to Trump. Election officials in both states warned late Tuesday that full counts could take several days.
Until then, the presidential election hangs in the balance.
Correction: Election officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania warned late Tuesday that full counts could take several days. An earlier version misstated the day.