A top Democratic data and analytics firm told "Axios on HBO" it's highly likely that President Trump will appear to have won — potentially in a landslide — on election night, even if he ultimately loses when all the votes are counted. 

Why this matters: Way more Democrats will vote by mail than Republicans, due to fears of the coronavirus, and it will take days if not weeks to tally these. This means Trump, thanks to Republicans doing almost all of their voting in person, could hold big electoral college and popular vote leads on election night.

  • Imagine America, with its polarization and misinformation, if the vote tally swings wildly toward Joe Biden and Trump loses days later as the mail ballots are counted.
  • That is what this group, Hawkfish, which is funded by Michael Bloomberg and also does work for the Democratic National Committee and pro-Biden Super PACs, is warning is a very real, if not foreordained, outcome.

What they're saying: Hawkfish CEO Josh Mendelsohn calls the scenario a "red mirage."

  • "We are sounding an 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," he 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," Mendelsohn said. "It looked like Donald Trump was in the lead and he fundamentally was not when every ballot gets counted."
Data: Hawkfish; Graphic: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: Under one of the group's modeling scenarios, Trump could hold a projected lead of 408-130 electoral votes on election night, if only 15% of the vote by mail (VBM) ballots had been counted.

  • Once 75% of mail ballots were counted, perhaps four days later, the lead could flip to Biden's favor.
  • This particular modeling scenario portrays Biden as ultimately winning a massive victory, 334-204.
  • The methodology, described in detail below, was based in part on polling from FiveThirtyEight in August.
  • The ultimate results may well sit somewhere between these low-end and high-end scenarios and will also be impacted by who actually votes, and how voters' views about their options change over the coming weeks.

The other side: “The news media should get out of the business of predicting the future,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in response.

Between the lines: Hawkfish is not just trying to educate the public about the possibility that Trump could prematurely declare victory, or try to delegitimize a Biden victory if it took days or weeks to determine.

  • The group is also trying to sensitize state and county elections officials, news and social media organizations, and the courts to the perils of premature results — and to the possibility of Trump and his team applying challenges and political pressure to reject a high share of mailed-in ballots counted after election day.
  • And the group is warning voters that rejection rates for mail ballots are higher than in-person voting.
  • To avoid having their votes thrown out, Hawkfish is advising voters to be extra careful about voting early enough and following all the instructions to the letter — or, potentially, putting on masks and gloves and going early either to safely vote in person or return the mail ballot in person.

Methodology: Hawkfish surveyed 17,263 registered voters in 50 states and DC, July 1-Aug. 16, 2020, to assess who people planned to vote for and whether they intend to vote by mail or in person at a polling place.

  • Responses were filtered for those described as definitely voting or likely to vote and weighted for state and national registered voter demographics.
  • The scenarios assumed votes at polls would be counted on election day itself (Nov. 3). A scenario taking a week to count mail ballots would translate to approximately 15% per day on average.
  • In another scenario, mail ballot counts took four days at 25% per day. For states that have had high vote-by-mail participation rates, Hawkfish assumed they would take two days.

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Why it matters: It's the first election-related test for the Supreme Court since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and could decide the fate of thousands of ballots in a crucial swing state that President Trump won in 2016. What the court decides could signal how it would deal with similar election-related litigation in other states.