Stop the steal: Kari Lake surged into the lead in Arizona thanks to late-night ballot dumps

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

To be clear, the headline is tongue-in-cheek. But it’s a joke with a point.

I went to bed early, before the returns from Arizona began streaming in, then woke up this morning and began scrolling my Twitter feed in chronological order. My eyes popped when I saw this:

Robson by eight?! With three-quarters of the state reporting? Sweet fancy Moses. The polls had Kari Lake winning by double digits! Even the very best recent poll for Robson had her ahead by just one point.

Sane Republicans in Arizona had shocked the world, sending the establishment pick to an upset victory over the election truther. Maybe all hope for the party wasn’t lost after all!

But then I remembered the “red mirage.”

“Red mirage” is the term used to describe states in which election-day votes are counted first and then mail-in ballots are tabulated. The “blue mirage,” on the other hand, happens in states where mail-in votes are counted first and then election-day votes are tallied up. Florida is a “blue mirage” state. You may remember that when polls closed there on election night 2020, Biden led Trump by something like four points. But that was a “mirage,” caused by the fact that Democrats disproportionately vote by mail whereas Republicans disproportionately vote on Election Day. Mail votes were counted first, creating an illusory “lead” for Biden. Then the heavily Republican same-day vote was counted and, whaddaya know, Trump ended up winning comfortably by three points.

Pennsylvania was a “red mirage” state. The same-day vote was counted first, creating an illusory lead for Trump. Then the mail-in ballots were opened and counted over several days, with Biden catching up to him and eventually overtaking him.

There’s nothing complicated about any of that. Different states count different types of ballots in different orders and the two parties’ preference for each kind of ballot ends up determining which candidate leaps out ahead in the early hours of the race.

But of course, for Trump and his apologists, Biden catching up to Trump in Pennsylvania was proof of vast cheating whereas Trump catching up to Biden in Florida was just standard ballot tabulation procedure.

Last night’s Arizona primary had a “blue mirage” effect. Because Lake’s hardcore supporters are MAGA populists, it was inevitable that they’d take Trump’s paranoia about mail ballots to heart and insist on voting same-day. Robson’s more establishment supporters were more comfortable with mail ballots by comparison. Arizona counts mail ballots first, so lo and behold — Robson jumped out to a shocking lead.

But then the Election Day vote began to come in and the mirage faded. As I write this the following morning, Lake now leads by nearly two points. The race hasn’t been called yet because there are still some outstanding mail ballots that might break heavily for Robson, but victory for the establishment choice is a longshot at this point.

And so we arrive at the rhetorical question on everyone’s mind, to which we all know the answer:

There’s not a shadow of a doubt that Lake and Trump would be screeching about a “rigged election” if Arizona had counted same-day votes first and then mail ballots. If Robson somehow does come back on the strength of late-arriving mail votes, the two *will* screech about it. The entire “stop the steal” fraud was based on a deliberate misreading of how the “mirage” effect in elections works. Given how heavily invested Trump and Lake each are in that deception, they have no choice but to allege cheating if she loses. Especially given the polling that showed she was on her way to winning comfortably. (Polling can be relied on when it shows the populist winning but is always fake news when it shows them losing.)

In fact, Lake already began hinting about fraud last night before the same-day vote had come in and it looked like Robson really might pull this off:

In the end, Lake’s margins among same-day voters were mind-blowing, in some counties on the order of 40 points. “Think of how crazy that is for a second,” writes Tim Miller. “The Republican base is so detached from reality that a majority segment no longer trusts the mail. As a result the disparity between the early vote and the election day count in some places was as much as 40 points! This is madness!” Not the whole Republican base — Robson got close, after all — but certainly the MAGA faithful.

Lake supporters shouldn’t celebrate too hard, though. The fact that she’s going to eke out a two- or three-point win over the “Anyone But Lake” option on the ballot after leading in polling by 10+ points suggests there’s a meaningful share of Republican voters who are open to voting Democratic this fall. And insofar as the McCain family still retains influence over Arizona politics, Lake won’t benefit from having made enemies of them:

Robson would have been a fairly solid favorite to win the governor’s seat in a national environment this red. Lake will be a toss-up. We’ll see if Doug Ducey and other establishment Republicans in Arizona decide to stump for a crank who’s unfit to serve or if they do what Democrats continue to fail to do by putting country over party.

Update: Oops. I meant to say above that Arizona experienced a blue mirage, not a red one. Fixed now.