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Special Project

Special Project
From the 13th Annual Shorty Awards

How Hawkfish Helped Americans See Through Trump's "Red Mirage"

Winner in Polls & Surveys

Finalist in Data Visualization

Audience Honor in Polls & Surveys


In August, Hawkfish polling indicated that two-thirds of Biden supporters intended to vote by mail. Because limited state infrastructure and regulatory constraints would delay the processing of these votes, election night tallys of in-person ballots would lean heavily toward Trump and the GOP. Hawkfish anticipated this illusory Republican lead, a “Red Mirage” on election night. In the absence of a full understanding of this unique, pandemic-driven skew of initial vote tallies, a temporary lead could be misused to feed the Trump narrative that he won on election day. The country needed to know more. 

Synthesizing our own data and external polling via a custom-built web application -- which calculated state-by-state and overall electoral outcomes -- enabled Hawkfish to generate up-to-date and compelling visualizations of the impending Red Mirage throughout September and October. Our communication of the Red Mirage narrative helped ensure the public understood that election night results would not be conclusive, especially in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, which provided advance notice they would struggle to process mail-in ballots well past election night. 

Strategy and Execution

Hawkfish’s innovative and impactful blend of primary research, data analytics and visualizations, viral marketing, and selective briefings helped prepare the country for and mitigate the impact of the Red Mirage. Our custom-built web application was used to generate up-to-date election night scenarios, which spurred and benefited from investigations of state ballot processing capabilities and contributed to the shift in the public’s expectations for election night.

With more than 2,000 mentions in mainstream publications and news outlets -- including The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC -- the Red Mirage generated intense coverage of states’ preparations to process the record number of mail-in ballots and the safety and security of absentee voting.  “Red Mirage” was the subject of 205,000 tweets from 2,200 verified users from September 1 through November 20th. Google searches for the term spiked on election night.

We cautiously and carefully campaigned to increase early voting, to better enable states to prepare for and process the surge in mail-in and drop-off ballots. We forewarned the public that mail-in ballots would lean blue, not because of fraud, but by virtue of who was choosing to vote by mail during the pandemic. We created public expectations that the true outcome of the election would only be determined after mail-in ballots were verified and entered into the final state tallies, not after Trump’s premature victory declaration.


Research showed the Red Mirage narrative’s strength. Red Mirage messaging performed significantly better than descriptions of the likely timetable for election results in assuring voters to trust the outcome of final election results.  By mid-October, less than one third of Biden supporters and less than half of Trump supporters expected to know the winner of the presidential election on November 3. Instead, a plurality of voters correctly anticipated they would know the results within seven days.

Ultimately, Hawkfish successfully forewarned and forearmed the country against disinformation and illegitimate attempts to overturn the election’s result.


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