I sat with clients on election night watching the returns came in and was initially surprised. I had thought Trump would lose in a close one, but he was winning these initial returns where he needed to be winning them. As in 2016, Trump was overperforming the polls, and the famous words from Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber came to Trump supporters everywhere, "So you're telling me there's a chance?"
The Midwest looked good, Trump was winning in Pennsylvania, and Georgia looked nice and red on election night. You can forgive a lot of people who went to bed early for being baffled when they woke up the next morning. As for me, I remember telling my business partner, Trump is in trouble, it's not going to favor him from here. Why did I think that?
“Sixty percent of voters — nearly 70 million people — are projected to vote by mail nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic.....states that don't normally have a lot of absentee ballots — a category that includes the battleground states of Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin....had less than 10 percent of turnout by mail in 2016, and they will see huge increases in mail votes this fall.."
- NBC News, October 28th, 2020
So everyone understands, when states release results, they do it by process and by geography. Typically the first results we actually see are from people who voted on election day, or by early vote, electronically. Some states count absentees early, some wait, and others process them as they come in. Each state is different, but the idea is the same. On election night, the first returns we saw were from those voting in person, on election day, in addition to early vote in person vote totals. Most states had a backlog of absentee ballots to get through, which unlike in person electronic votes, have to be processed by hand.
Historical Voting Patterns
Traditionally Republicans have been election day voters while Democrats have been early voters. Absentee voting used to favor the GOP, but now as restrictions have eased, slightly favors Democrats or is about even in some states. The main point here is that if I polled voters who cast ballots ahead of election day, that is almost certainly going to favor a Democratic candidate, where as if I only polled election day voters, it's almost certainly going to favor Republicans. That is the historical pattern and it holds true today.
There are several reasons for this, but one of the main reasons has to do with age and geography. Millennial voting favors Democrats, as politics dive more into "wedge issues" like global warming, gender issues, and social justice. Senior voting tends to favor Republicans, as they tend to value traditional thought and more mainline issues. Older voters also favor tradition itself, and like to do things the way they have for years, like voting on election day. Older voters are settled and vote near their home while millennial voters are more technologically proficient and transient, and likely to vote well before election day itself.
The 2020 Election was Unique
While there is a historical gap between Republicans and Democrats in the way they vote, it's generally a single digit gap and often more of a trend than an advantage. That was until 2020, and that was before Covid hit.
You have to remember, Joe Biden was encouraging voters to stay home, wear masks, and to limit socializing outside of their home. Donald Trump was encouraging voters to get back to normal, but he was also encouraging voters to cast their ballot in person, saying the mail balloting was too ripe for fraud. Voters listened to their preferred candidate, and thus in 2020, votes before election day were heavily Democratic, while votes on election day were heavily Republican.
- “Two-thirds of Trump voters say they voted in person, compared with 42% of Biden voters. Nearly four-in-ten Trump voters (37%) say they voted in person on Election Day, while just 17% of Biden voters say they cast their ballot at a polling place on Nov. 3. Trump voters are also slightly more likely than Biden voters to say they voted in person before Election Day. Three-in-ten Trump voters report voting this way, compared with 24% of Biden voters."
- Pew Research, November 20, 2020
Pew Research noted that almost 20% more Trump voters voted in person than Biden voters, with nearly 40% of Trump supporters stating they voted on election day, in person. Meanwhile, less than 20% of Biden voters (17%) stated they voted on election day. It's easy to see that Trump had a nearly 20 point lead with election day voters, regardless of party. It's also easy to see that Biden led with those voting absentee, or, those who did NOT vote in person. This was the big divide in 2020 verses other years, the "Covid Voter." Voters who were scared of Covid voted from home while those who were not, voted in person. More so an a party or a candidate, voters were voting by which side of Covid they were on.
- Biden voters were more likely than Trump voters to report having returned their absentee ballots in early: 82% of Biden voters who voted by absentee or mail ballot returned their ballots at least a week before Election Day, compared with 66% of Trump voters who voted this way. Nearly four-in-ten absentee or mail voters (39%) say they had never voted by this method prior to this November’s election.
Pew Research, November 20, 2020
So 39% of voters who voted by mail said they had NEVER done so before, and that block clearly favored Joe Biden and Democrats. The fact is pretty simple. Election Day Voting favored Trump, and non election day voting favored Biden.
How Votes are Counted Matters
So why did I tell my business partner on election night that I thought Trump was in trouble when, at the time, he was winning in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and other crucial swing states? Simple. It was because the results America was seeing were largely in person voting numbers from election day, and from early voting. There were a few states who had not even begun to count absentee ballots, and most who were simply backlogged. The numbers we were looking at on election night were bound to favor Trump, and the ballots yet to be counted, were likely to favor Biden.
Now, this of course, drives me nuts because they way they count ballots skews what people think. While it's fun to watch results roll in, it can provide a false narrative to those watching and waiting. In this case, Trump voters cannot be discounted simply for questioning the results and asking what happened. The reality is that they were looking at the score at halftime, not the final score. It was the process that skewed results and made people question and election, not the actual vote total itself.
Just think about it this way. Would the level of frustration and doubt about this election be the same if absentee results had been shown first, and election day last? If you believe the Pew Research poll like I do (I should mention my own polling said the same thing and told me this was the likely outcome weeks before election day) America would have seen Trump down big and watched a comeback fall short. Instead, America was led to believe Trump was up big until the referee was paid by a bookie to start calling fouls until Biden took the lead.
To use a final sports metaphor, the reality was Trump won the second half. It's just the fans were shown the second half scoring before they knew the first half score. It just that the first half blowout was simply too much to overcome in the end.