Polls in US battleground states began to close Tuesday, inching the contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden to its nail-biting conclusion, following a race fought in unprecedented conditions of a global pandemic and the most deeply divided electorate in decades.
At 7:00 pm (0000 GMT), voting ended in Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont and also Georgia, a formerly rock-solid Republican state that Biden’s Democrats hope to flip.
CNN and NBC already projected a win for Trump in Indiana; he is also leading in Kentucky and West Virginia. Joe Biden is leading in Vermont and West Virginia.
Parts of Florida — an even bigger electoral prize that routinely sees knife-edge elections — were also closing at 7:00 pm. Polls in the rest of the state and also in Pennsylvania, another ground zero in US presidential contests, were closing at 8:00 pm (0100 GMT).
What was not expected immediately was a definitive verdict on whether Trump gets another four years or Biden pushes him out of the White House.
Barring upsets in key states, that may not happen until all the swing states have counted their ballots — something that in the case of Pennsylvania could easily drag on at least into Wednesday.
Counting this year has been slowed by the unprecedented use of mail-in ballots in response to fears of the coronavirus. More than 100 million Americans had already cast votes before Election Day.
Trump, 74, expressed confidence as the evening approached, tweeting in all his characteristic all-caps “WE ARE LOOKING REALLY GOOD ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. THANK YOU!”
He was watching the results come in at the White House, surrounded by staff. It was not clear whether he’d speak to the public at some point but he said earlier Tuesday that he wasn’t yet “thinking about a concession speech or acceptance speech.”
“Winning is easy,” he said. “Losing is never easy — not for me.”
Biden, hunkered down with family at home in Delaware, likewise said that voter patterns during the day seemed to favor his side.
“What I’m hearing is that there’s overwhelming turnout. And overwhelming turnout particularly of young people, of women, and an overwhelming turnout of African American voters, particularly in Georgia and Florida, over the age of 65,” he told reporters.
“The things that are happening bode well for the base that has been supporting me.”
Trump has repeatedly refused to confirm he will accept the results of the election — a first for a US president. He argues, without offering proof, that the vast number of mail-in ballots could be used to rig the polls against him.
In the final run-up to Election Day, Trump focused especially on Pennsylvania, which allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive afterward.
“The whole world is waiting,” Trump said early Tuesday.
“You can’t have these things delayed for many days,” he said, adding ominously that “a lot of bad things” can happen.
“We should be entitled to know who won on November 3,” he said.
However, he somewhat dampened fears that he will try to declare victory prematurely, telling Fox News that he will only declare “when there is victory.”
“There is no reason to play games,” he said.
Americans could not be more divided over Trump.
For some he represents a breath of fresh air who brought his business instincts to shake up the Washington establishment. For the other half of the country, he is a corrupt leader who wrecked the US reputation abroad and stoked dangerous racist and nationalist sentiments at home.
In Miami, Juan Carlos Bertran, a 60-year-old Cuban-American mechanic, said Trump “seems better to me for the country’s economy.”
“Now I have two jobs,” he said. “Before I only had one.”
But voting in New York, Megan Byrnes-Borderan, 35, said Trump’s threats to challenge the election results in the courts were “scary.”
“I believe that Trump will go through all odds to try to win the election,” she said.
Another New York voter, Justin Rodriguez, 32, said he was voting for Biden. “I really don’t like the tension,” he said. “I think Trump has brought a lot more tension than we usually have.”
Fearing unrest, store owners boarded up windows in Washington and other major cities.
Question of Covid
Biden has targeted widespread public disapproval for Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 230,000 Americans.
Trump — who recovered quickly from his own bout with the virus in October — is gambling that Americans want to put the crisis behind them and reopen the economy fully. Biden, in contrast, is preaching caution and accuses the president of having abandoned his basic responsibilities.
“We’re done with the chaos! We’re done with the tweets, the anger, the hate, the failure, the irresponsibility,” Biden said at an election eve rally in Cleveland, Ohio.
Fears of Covid-19 drove the huge flow of early voters, encouraged by Biden. Trump has countered by holding dozens of mass election rallies with no social distancing, underlining his message that it’s time to move on.
Roughly one-third of the Senate is up for grabs and Republicans risk losing their 53-47 majority.