Donald Trump and Joe Biden were bracing for a long night -- and potentially days -- of ballot counting as early returns suggested a closer race than many had expected.
Biden was running ahead in early returns in Arizona, with a victory promising to short-circuit Trump’s already-narrow path to re-election. If Biden wins Arizona, a state Trump carried four years ago, he could lose Pennsylvania and still win the presidency.
Still, Trump carried Florida, a key swing state, as well as Ohio and Iowa. Across the map, the race appeared so close that a protracted period of ballot-counting was likely, and Trump was holding onto a slim path to a second term.
Florida was a near must-win for Trump, and a victory there kept his prospects alive. Traditionally a bellwether, Biden campaigned aggressively in Florida in an effort to stamp Trump out early Tuesday night. But Biden appeared in early returns to have underperformed in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County.
In Arizona, in contrast it was that state’s changing demographics that seemed to work in Biden’s favor, putting him in a competitive position in a state Republicans last lost in 1996.
Biden, speaking to supporters, urged patience and projected confidence in the ultimate result.
“Keep the faith, guys,” he said. “We’re going to win this.”
Trump falsely asserted on Twitter shortly after midnight that his campaign is “up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election.”
At a minimum, Trump had cleared one hurdle, avoiding a lights-out defeat. Democrats were nervously watching returns in Michigan and were already dissecting what went wrong in Florida.
One centrist Democrat said he was “not panicking yet” and still expected a Biden victory, but that “it will be ugly.” And a Democratic strategist who works with major party donors said in a text message, “To be clear this means no mandate” for Biden, regardless of the outcome.
Trump entered the evening with almost no room for error, and there were signs that he will have difficulty expanding his map. Minnesota, a state Trump believed he could flip, was called for Biden relatively quickly after polls closed. Trump closed the campaign lagging behind Biden in traditional battlegrounds and was also at risk in once-reliably Republican states like Georgia, Iowa and Ohio. Trump won Ohio and appeared to be holding steady in the other two states, as well as Texas, the headiest of the Democratic Party’s ambitions.
The only difference on the early battleground map from 2016 was Arizona, where Biden was leading.
Across the nation, the electorate appeared to be breaking along familiar lines. Early exit polls suggested Biden supporters were most concerned about racial inequality, followed by the coronavirus pandemic. Trump supporters overwhelmingly rated the economy as their top concern.
The uncertainty as the ballots were counted stood in contrast to an election that had proceeded for more than a year with unusual stability — unmoved by a global pandemic, the president’s own hospitalization, two presidential debates, millions of dollars in advertising and a summer of historic civil unrest. Biden’s 52 percent to 42 percent lead in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Monday was 1 percentage point off its measure from July 2019.
But on Tuesday, the scramble to turn out voters continued across the country even as polls on the East Coast closed, with Biden’s campaign appealing to volunteers in the West to make calls into Arizona and other states where in-person voting was still open.
Biden entered the night with multiple paths to an Electoral College majority. Campaigning in Scranton, Pa., on Election Day, he visited his childhood home, where he wrote on the living room wall, “From this House to the White House with the Grace of God.”
Trump, meanwhile, appeared exhausted. Calling into “Fox & Friends,” he complained that the experience of being president has been “mean” and marred by “deceptive” and “horrible people.”
The nation was bracing for a tumultuous night, with government workers erecting barricades around the White House and businesses boarding windows in cities across the country in anticipation of post-election chaos. Yet the election — held amid a pandemic and in a period of social unrest — also amounted to a historic triumph in civic participation.
About 100 million votes had been cast before polls opened, according to the United States Elections Project, and turnout on Election Day was expected to be heavy. Many in-person voters will be Republicans, who were leerier than Democrats of voting by mail. The attorneys general of Michigan, Nevada and Minnesota told reporters this afternoon that they were seeing no significant disruptions or voter intimidation at the polls. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said it was “blissfully uneventful.”
Trump was counting on an explosive day-of vote to overcome Democrats’ early advantage, an equation he saw staring back at him as the campaign drew to a close.
“Has anyone voted?” Trump asked a crowd in Grand Rapids, Mich., late Monday. When a relatively small number of people cheered, he said, “Okay, good. Because you’re saving it, right? You’re saving it for Tuesday.”
On Election Day, he said, “We’re going to have a red wave … like nobody’s ever seen before.”
If Trump can hold the Sun Belt, he will also need a victory in the Rust Belt to win the Electoral College. He is closest to Biden in Pennsylvania, polling behind by about 5 percentage points. With both candidates focusing heavily on Pennsylvania in recent days, if there’s a late shift in the race, it’s likely to happen there. But counting in that state is likely to take days.
Trump, while predicting victory, has been running parallel campaigns in recent weeks — the traditional one to win and an unprecedented effort to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses.
Following reports that he planned to declare victory prematurely if results at any point tonight show him ahead, Trump said this morning that he would declare victory “only when there’s victory.” But his remarks were unlikely to ease tension surrounding the ballot count, which has been marred by Trump’s baseless claims that the election will be “rigged.”
Jockeying over the vote count — and the timing of the results — has colored the final week of the campaign. Biden’s advisers spent the closing hours before the election framing his polling advantage in terms designed to blunt Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the ballot count or any effort to call the election early.
The anxiety spilled over into Election Day, though Biden met it lightheartedly. After carrying the vote in 5-0 in tiny Dixville Notch, N.H., he joked that, “Based on Trump’s notion, I’m going to declare victory tonight.”
In fact, most Americans are prepared to wait. Just 17 percent of voters expect the winner to be announced tonight, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.