Post-election lead shifts are the norm in Arizona — but who will they favor this year?

By: - November 2, 2020 9:59 am

An Arizona voter carries her ballot to a polling place to vote in the 2018 primary election in Phoenix. Photo by Ralph Freso | Getty Images

Arizonans learned in 2018 not to trust any leads at the end of Election Day as they watched Democrats overtake their Republican opponents in the days that followed as ballot counting finished. The same thing may happen this year if the contests for president, U.S. Senate and other key races are close at the end of Nov. 3, though it remains to be seen which party will benefit this time around.

Historically, Democratic candidates in statewide races gain ground after Election Day. In most recent elections, that shift has had no effect on the outcome of the races, with Republicans’ health leads shrinking, but not nearly enough for Democrats to seize the lead. But In 2018, GOP candidates’ narrow leads in the races for U.S. Senate, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and Corporation Commission evaporated post-Election Day, and Democrats ultimately gained enough votes to win.

And while the 2018 shift toward Democrats was larger than normal, it was far from unusual. From 2010 through 2018, Democratic candidates gained on their Republican opponents in 21 of 22 statewide contests — not counting races for the Corporation Commission — and trimmed their margins of victory. 

Post-Election Day gains for Dem candidates are the norm, not the 2018 exception

The reason for the shift is that many of the ballots that don’t get counted until after Election Day are early ballots that voters drop off in person. Traditionally, those ballots favor Democrats because younger voters and others who are more likely to vote Democratic often wait longer to vote, as do independent and undecided voters. In contrast, older and more conservative people often tend to vote earlier.

However, 2020 may be different, and it could be Republicans who catch up to their Democratic rivals as votes are tallied in the days after the election.

President Donald Trump has railed against voting by mail, baselessly alleging that it’s susceptible to fraud. And perhaps as a result, many more Republicans than usual are holding onto their early ballots. If there’s a surge of GOP voters turning in their early ballots on Election Day, those ballots could shift close races toward Trump, U.S. Sen. Martha McSally and other Republican candidates.

Officials in all-mail balloting states say GOP claims of fraud are false

“The president has had an effect on this election and has motivated at least some portion of Republicans to hold onto their ballots, compared to what they’ve done in the past,” said Paul Bentz, a political consultant with the Republican firm HighGround.

Voters have cast early ballots in unprecedented numbers across the country. That trend includes Arizona, where voters had already cast more early ballots a week before the election than they did in all of 2018 or 2016, or in any other election in state history.

Nearly 2.5 million Arizonans have cast an early ballot, a number that didn’t hit 1.6 million in the last two elections, said George Khalaf, a GOP political consultant. The numbers put Arizona on pace to dramatically beat total turnout from the last two elections. In 2018, about 2.4 million Arizonans voted, while almost 2.7 million cast ballots in the last presidential election in 2016.

Those early ballot returns are favoring Democrats, who are fired up to eject Trump from office after four tumultuous years in the White House. For the first time in Arizona history, Democrats have returned their early ballots in greater numbers than Republicans. 

According to Saguaro Strategies, a Democratic campaign consulting firm, more than 919,000 Democrats have returned their early ballots compared to about 911,000 Republicans. That means 66.8% of all registered Democrats have already voted. Among registered Republicans, who typically stake out early electoral leads with strong early voting returns, 60.4% have voted early. Democrats make up 37.4% of the ballots returned so far, and Republicans make up 37%.

By way of contrast, on the Friday before the 2018 election — a “blue wave” in which a spate of Democrats won statewide races for the first time in years — nearly 42% of the 1.5 million early ballots that election officials received were from Republicans and about 34% were from Democrats.

As good as those numbers look for Democrats, there may be some bad news too. If Republicans are waiting in larger-than-usual numbers to return their early ballots on Election Day, that surge could help erase Democratic gains. 

Voting by mail in Arizona: How it works, and how it doesn’t

George Khalaf, a Republican campaign consultant who runs the firm Data Orbital, predicted that Arizona will see the opposite of what happened in the 2018 election. Democrats will jump out to early leads on election night — the first ballots counted are the early ballots received before Election Day — and Republican candidates will gain ground in subsequent counts. 

“It’s going to be a complete 180-degree shift from previous years,” Khalaf said. “There are just a lot more likely voting Republicans left than there are likely voting Democrats, in a pretty pronounced way — not just those ballots that are still remaining, but also of people who never requested a ballot who are likely to vote.”

Khalaf pointed to returned ballots by the highest-efficacy voters who are most likely to cast ballots, those who have voted in each of the past four general elections. A whopping 85% of highest-efficacy Democratic voters who have requested early ballots have already returned them, compared to 70% for Republicans, Khalaf said.

“Republicans and Democrats are somewhat keeping pace with each other. It’s just with the very likely voters Democrats are dramatically outperforming, which is why I’m making the analysis that Democrats are banking early voters mostly,” Khalaf said.

Democrats are leading in returns among lower efficacy voters, as well. Khalaf said nearly 54% of newly registered Democrats have already returned their early ballots, compared to nearly 46% for newly registered Republicans. 


Bentz also expects to see Republicans flip the trend from previous years. Democrats will have their best returns in the early vote counts on Election Day, he said, while the latter counts will favor the GOP. The question will Democrats lead on Election Day; if so, by how much; and will it be enough to survive a post-election shift toward Republicans?

Two years ago, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema gained 3.26 percentage points, or 71,808 votes, after Election Day, which was enough to erase Republican Martha McSally’s lead of just under 1 percentage point. Katie Hobbs was elected secretary of state after turning a 2.5-point deficit into a 0.9-point win. Kathy Hoffman won the race for superintendent of public instruction by 3.12 percentage points after trailing by less than half a point on Election Day.

Even in the Republican wave year of 2010, Democrats narrowed the Republicans’ margins of victory after Election Day by an average of 1.3 percentage points. The average Democratic shift was 3.28 points in 2012, 0.65 points in 2014, 0.61 points in 2016 and 3.23 points in 2018.

“If Democrats have a narrow lead, have a small lead after the first ballots are dropped, they should be nervous,” Bentz said.

Andy Barr, a Democratic campaign consultant from Saguaro Strategies, said the glut of Republican early ballots that are expected to come in on Election Day could turn the historic trend on its head.

But Barr questioned how big that shift would be for Republicans. He still left open the possibility that Democrats could make gains after Election Day, just smaller ones than in years past. And if Republican candidates are the ones who gain, Barr doubted that it would be as dramatic as what the Democrats accomplished two years ago.

If Joe Biden and Mark Kelly are winning by a percentage point or two at the end of Election Day, Barr said Trump and McSally shouldn’t count on overcoming those leads. Barr said Republicans aren’t going to see the three-to-four-point swing that propelled Sinema and other Democrats to victory two years ago.

“There’s no getting around the fact that there are more Republican voters in this state than there are Democrats. No amount of momentum or favorable polling or anything else can fix that,” Barr said. “That said, the energy, at least in terms of demonstrated early ballot returns, is clearly on our side.”


While Barr knows there are a lot of Republicans holding onto their early ballots than in previous years, other trends from prior elections are still holding true. Older voters, especially those over 65, are turning in their ballots, while younger voters who skew Democratic are still waiting to vote. Democrats are far from maxed out, Barr said. 

And Democrats still have energy on their side in 2020.

“For us, the unknown is young voters who always vote late. For them, the unknown is Republican voters who always vote Republican. In terms of growth potential, I’d rather be us than them right now,” Barr said.

Bentz suggested that turnout in the primary election could be a sign of Democratic enthusiasm. In 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, more than 60% of the voters who cast ballots in the primary election were Republicans. Two years ago, that number was a little under 56%. 

This year, Republicans made up 51.8% of primary voters, compared to 47.9% for Democrats, according to data Bentz compiled. And Democrats led for much of the primary, with GOP voters taking the majority only near the end, Bentz said.

One big unanswered question is how many Democratic voters will show up on Election Day to cast ballots in person or drop off their early ballots. Democrats appear to be front-loading their ballots during early voting, possibly leaving fewer voters for Election Day. But if there’s a massive surge of newly registered or low-efficacy Democratic voters casting ballots, it could cut into the potential GOP gains from Republicans turning in their ballots later than usual.

And because the highest-efficacy Democratic voters have already cast their ballots, Bentz said that could also free up Democratic organizations to focus their get-out-the-vote efforts elsewhere.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”