WASHINGTON – The months long presidential race that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden framed as the most consequential in history was winding down Tuesday as polls closed in many battleground states and vote counting began to determine who will claim the White House.
Millions turned out for an election that will decide how the nation responds to a pandemic that has killed a quarter of a million Americans, bolsters an economy that has taken a beating from the virus and heals deep divisions over racial injustice.
Trump and Biden each claimed early and predictable state calls, with Trump projected to win Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and North and South Dakota. Biden locked down a slew of blue states in the Northeast, including his home state of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. He kept Colorado and New Mexico in Democrats’ column. Trump retained Kansas.
Polls had closed in the battleground states that will ultimately determine the election, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin an Arizona. But the country was still hours away – at best – from knowing the results in most of those states.
Trump and Biden were running neck-and-neck in North Carolina and Ohio, closely-watched states where three-quarters or more of the vote had been counted by 10 p.m. Trump was leading in Florida after more than 90% of ballots had been tallied.
As Americans settled down to watch the earlier returns, campaign aides and political prognosticators began pouring over Election Day survey data to try to glean some clues about the electorate’s mood. The pandemic was foremost on voters’ minds, according to a survey of voters the electorate, conducted by the Associated Press.
Forty-two percent said it’s the most important issue facing the country, by far the highest response to the question. Twenty-seven percent picked the economy, which is related.
Nearly all – 95% – said the federal government’s response to the pandemic was a factor in deciding how to vote. The same share said the economic downturn was also factor. That’s a slightly higher share than said the same of protests over police violence (92%) or Supreme Court nominations (90%).
And more voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic than approved: 58% to 42%.
By the end of an emotionally draining and bitter contest, the two candidates had spent more money than any campaign in history and were expected to generate record turnout, with more than 100 million Americans casting ballots before any polling location opened on Election Day. Long lines formed at schools and government buildings, underscoring the significance of the choice for many voters.
“Winning is easy. Losing is never easy – not for me, it’s not,” Trump said during at his campaign headquarters Tuesday, adding he had not readied a victory or a concession speech. “Everybody should come together and I think success brings us together.”
Fundamental questions about the direction of the country and its democracy were at stake. Throughout the campaign, Trump cast the election as America’s last chance to avoid careening left. Biden ran a race that focused heavily on his character and the promise of avoiding another four years of chaos, division and Trump-style drama.
Biden started the day at church with his wife, Jill, and two granddaughters. He flew to his birthplace of Scranton, Pa., where he signed the living room wall in his childhood home.
“From this house to the White House with the grace of God,” he wrote.
Biden walked into Election Day with a wider path to the presidency. Polls indicated he held a steady lead nationally and in two of the battlegrounds – Michigan and Wisconsin – that thrust Trump to victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Polls have shown a narrower lead for him in Pennsylvania. If Biden captures all three states, the election would represent a rebuilding of the “blue wall” that has benefited Democrats as far back as Bill Clinton.
Trump and Biden offered stark contrasts on policy as well as style, with the president vowing to continue his efforts to curb legal and illegal immigration, cut taxes, push federal courts to the right and pursue an “America first” foreign policy that has threatened to upend the global order that emerged after World War II.
Biden hopes to shore up the 2010 Affordable Care Act he helped shepherd through Congress with his former boss, President Barack Obama, reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and reset relationships between the U.S. and its allies.
“This election is one that historians and political scientists are going to be talking about for a long time,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “because of the massive outpouring of Americans who are determined to vote and determined that their vote will count.”
Eric Cantor, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, described the decision in weighty terms.
“What’s at stake in this election is the American position in the world in terms of its economic competitiveness, as well as its military dominance,” he said.
COVID redraws the map
No issue featured as prominently, or threw the differences between the two candidates into such stark relief, as COVID. Trump’s administration encouraged rapid progress on a vaccine, but the president handed much of the response to the virus to state leaders as he sidelined his own top scientists and dismissed their recommendations.
A watershed event that could have brought people together instead split them further apart as other nations got a better handle arresting the spread of infections and death.
That contrast was on display throughout a surreal campaign in which Trump himself was hospitalized with the virus, recovered and used the episode to argue the virus wasn’t all that bad – even as he was forced to repeatedly acknowledge that the treatment he received was out of reach for most Americans.
Campaign methods differed as much as the candidates during the pandemic. After briefly suspending his massive rallies, Trump resumed the boisterous events – packing mostly maskless supporters shoulder to shoulder on airport tarmacs across the country.
“This is a poll,” Trump of the supporters who came out for his final, post-midnight, rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. “This is not the crowd of somebody who’s going to lose this state.”
He repeatedly mocked Biden for “hiding” in his basement and wearing a mask, arguing that a president had to project an image of confidence rather than setting an example for others to follow.
Biden did campaign mainly from home for months, holding virtual fundraisers and inviting Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to be his running mate on a video call. As the weeks went by, he began holding more small events, with participants donning masks and maintaining social distance, sometimes from their cars at drive-in rallies.
Biden chose western Pennsylvania for his first and last major campaign event, telling supporters in Pittsburgh Monday night that they “represent the backbone of this nation.”
The death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked nationwide protests for racial justice. The incident rekindled attention on the shooting death of Breonna Taylor during a police raid on March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky. And outrage erupted Kenosha, Wisconsin, after a police officer shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake on Aug. 23.
Trump campaigned as the law-and-order president, supporting police as protests occasionally turned violent with arson, burglaries and shootings. He accused state and local officials such as the mayor of Portland and governor of Oregon of timidity in quieting the protests. Federal authorities cleared a path June 1 with batons and tear gas for Trump to walk from the White House to a nearby church to hold a Bible aloft.
Biden walked a line between supporting peaceful protests while denouncing violence. He urged greater training for police to calm tense confrontations, while dismissing proposals from more progressive supporters to defund police. And Biden, who had lost his wife, a daughter and a son to an accident and illness, met relatives of the victims.
“He talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, how whether he walked again or not, he wasn’t going to give up,” Biden said of Jacob Blake.
A nation holds its breath
Both men ratcheted up their rhetoric during the campaign, describing their opponent as dangerous and wildly out of step with mainstream American values. As both parties launched a series of last-minute legal battles over voting laws, Trump repeatedly sought to undermine confidence in election systems, arguing any votes counted after the polls closed on election night should be considered suspect.
The argument and claims of widespread fraud were demonstrably false: Millions voted on paper ballots effortlessly because of the pandemic. There was little indication of major problems at the polls on Tuesday.
The tensions that have plagued the country since before Trump took office remained at an elevated state heading into the election, with law enforcement agencies preparing for violence regardless of who wins. Authorities erected a new fence around the White House late Monday night, with memories of the Black Lives Matter protests from the summer still fresh.
The FBI is reviewing a Texas highway incident last week in which a caravan of vehicles waving Trump flags swarmed a Biden campaign bus. Similar incidents have occurred in other states since then.