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New study says Trump could be in the lead on Election Night but lose by week’s end

A Florida mail-in ballotJoe Raedle/Getty

Republican President Donald Trump leads strongly among those who say they are unlikely to vote by mail, while Democrat Joe Biden has a solid lead among voters overall, suggesting that results will shift toward Biden as mail-in votes are tallied after Election Day, a new national survey finds.

Trump leads, 68 percent to 23 percent, among those who say they are very unlikely to vote by mail. Biden, however, leads among all voters, 50 to 40 percent, according to a report on the survey released Friday by researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, and Northwestern University.

“There will therefore likely be enormous shifts toward Biden after election day,” David Lazer, a Northeastern University political science and computer science professor who worked on the report, said in an e-mail.


“The pattern of a shift toward Biden driven by mail-in voting is quite robust across the country. We anticipate a shift toward Biden in every state,” the report said.

The report added to the mounting evidence that the presidential election could be a disaster. Trump has been trying to raise doubts about the legitimacy of mail-in balloting — and he has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

The report said that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, “a huge number of people plan on voting by mail," with nearly 59 percent of voters somewhat likely or very likely to do so, a finding the researchers had also noted earlier this summer.

“At the end of election night, Trump may have an apparent lead in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, yet solidly lose by week’s end," the report said.

“The unprecedented logistical challenge of counting for all states, with by our estimate as many as 82 million votes arriving by mail ... combined with the fact that some states do not start counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, and the certainty of millions of late arriving ballots, means that there will likely be a sizable and systematic shift in the vote count toward Biden after election day," the report said.


The report focused on nine states that are considered competitive and won’t begin counting votes arriving by mail until the day of the election, or will accept late-arriving ballots. The nine states are: Texas, North Carolina, Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nevada.

In some of the states, the shift toward Biden may be “relatively small,” and Election Night results may stand, the report said. “However, other states — including the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — have much greater potential for what appear to be Trump leads on election night giving way to Biden leads as mail-in ballots are counted over the subsequent days.”

The possibility of a shift to Biden “puts a particular onus on the media and on political elites: For the media, to set expectations that vote totals may shift substantially after election day, very likely toward Biden; and for political elites, to make sure the voting systems are well resourced and to not exploit the time lag in reporting results to undermine the legitimacy of the election,” the report said.

Researchers from California said in The Washington Post Thursday that their own surveys found in August that half of all Democrats said they want to vote by mail this election, while only a quarter of Republicans want to.


The new results from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern came from a nationally representative online survey of more than 37,000 people across 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted between Sept. 4 and Sept. 27.

The report was the sixteenth in a series from a group formed by the universities called The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States.

Martin Finucane can be reached at