After an extraordinary election night that put the country’s democracy to the test, the presidential election Wednesday tilted toward Joe Biden, who claimed Wisconsin and Michigan and was leading in Nevada and Arizona, two states that will get him to 270 electoral votes if his advantage holds.
Top aides to both Biden, the Democratic nominee, and President Donald Trump argued that they were on a winning trajectory. But Biden was far better positioned because he had more routes to victory among the seven battleground states that were still counting votes.
After a campaign finale that riveted the country and saw the highest level of turnout in more than a century, Biden sought to balance a tone of conciliation with an attitude of confidence. In an afternoon speech in Wilmington, Delaware, he said that he believed he was on track to secure the presidency and that it would soon be time to “put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us.”
While he did not claim outright victory the way Trump sought to do late on election night, Biden listed the states he had seized from the president and predicted that Pennsylvania would soon be among them.
“I’m not here to declare that we’ve won,” he said, “but I am here to report that when the count is finished, we believe we will be the winners.”
Biden also issued a warning to the Trump campaign, which was once again threatening to go to court to stop the counting of votes.
“Power can’t be taken or asserted,” he said. “It flows from the people. And it’s their will that determines who will be the president of the United States, and their will alone.”
“Every vote must be counted,” Biden said, adding: “No one’s going to take our democracy away from us. Not now, not ever.”
The president had a weaker hand — and seemed to affirm as much throughout the day. First, Trump vented on Twitter that the tabulation of the mail-in ballots in Wisconsin and Michigan was “devastating in their percentage and power of destruction.” Then, his top aides simultaneously declared victory in Pennsylvania, even though the state had more than 1 million votes still to be counted. Later, supporters of the president as well as Republican operatives banged on the glass outside a vote-counting site in Detroit and, to no avail, chanted “Stop the count.”
Trump also took more serious steps toward contesting the election, deploying a legal team to mount a series of challenges against the counting of votes. In the hotly contested battleground of Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign asked the Supreme Court to be allowed to participate in a pending challenge to a three-day extension of the deadline for receiving absentee ballots in the state. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will hear the case.
The Trump campaign also announced it would request a recount in Wisconsin, and in Michigan it sought to halt the counting of votes so that it could arrange for better access for its election board observers.
But as one of the most unusual presidential elections in history stretched into its second, but not final, day of vote-counting, there was no indication that any state or locality would bow to the president’s demand that the process be halted. In an extraordinary interjection into the electoral process, Trump used an election-night speech from the White House to attack the integrity of the vote, and he kept up his barrage Wednesday, amplifying baseless conspiracy theories about the accumulating tally for Biden, the former vice president.
Senior Democratic officials have been holding conversations with corporate executives and former Republican leaders about staging a sort of intervention if Trump refuses to accept the results of the election, according to a Democrat familiar with the planning.
But Republican leaders seemed to have little appetite for a protracted fight over the ballots, particularly as it became clear by the end of the day that Biden was well positioned to prevail.
“Every vote that was legally cast needs to be counted,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “America will once again serve as an example to the world.”
The Democrats made significant gains overnight in part because Republican officials in some states had refused to accommodate the shift toward voting by mail and allow such ballots to be counted before Tuesday. So in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Trump had established an early lead that began to erode once absentee votes were tallied.
By Wednesday night, though, the electoral map more fully reflected the entirety of the votes in those states. In Michigan, for example, Biden was several hundred thousand votes behind Tuesday night before absentee ballots closed the gap to 37,000 by Wednesday morning. The Associated Press declared him the winner of the state in the afternoon.
Biden, who focused his campaign on Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, was on the brink of capturing at least three states that the president carried in 2016, and perhaps as many as five or six if the last waves of ballot-counting strongly favored him.
In some of those states, Biden’s leads were no more formidable than the wispy margins that carried Trump into office four years ago, suggesting that the former vice president had managed to improve incrementally on Hillary Clinton’s performance. It was also clear that Biden was not able to build a coalition capable of delivering an electoral landslide. But he achieved two crucial victories in states that shattered Democrats’ hopes in 2016: Wisconsin, where the AP declared Biden the victor after he amassed a lead of nearly 21,000 votes, and Michigan, where the race was called after he established a 67,000-vote advantage.
Should Biden hold on to two other unresolved states where he was leading Wednesday evening — Arizona and Nevada — it would be enough to give him exactly 270 Electoral College votes. That tally also includes one vote he won from Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, because that state does not have the winner-take-all system employed nearly everywhere else.
There was also the potential for Biden to flip one or more of the states where Trump was ahead, most prominently Pennsylvania; the president was leading by less than 200,000 votes with hundreds of thousands of ballots left to count. The uncounted ballots were cast predominantly by mail and were expected to heavily favor Biden.
In Georgia, too, Trump’s thin lead did not appear wholly secure against votes that were being tabulated slowly in Democratic-leaning areas. But the president still had one or two clear paths to an Electoral College majority, albeit far fewer than his Democratic opponent. If Trump held on to the three states where he was ahead — Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina — he would need to overtake Biden in only one of the states where the former vice president was favored.
Advisers to Trump argued throughout election night and into Wednesday morning that the AP and Fox News had prematurely placed Arizona in Biden’s column. The Democrat had a lead of about 79,000 votes there, and there were several hundred thousand votes yet to be counted. Many of them appeared to be coming from Maricopa County, which had so far tilted toward the former vice president.
In Nevada, Biden was clinging to a lead of just 7,600 votes, but additional mail-in ballots were expected to somewhat improve his position.
If Biden held only a modest upper hand over Trump, the Democratic Party as a whole posted unexpectedly weak results in contests besides the presidential race. Though Democratic and Republican pollsters had predicted a gain of several seats in the House for Democrats — and perhaps as many as a dozen or more — the chamber seemed headed for the opposite outcome, with Republicans retaking a few conservative-leaning districts they lost in the 2018 midterm elections.
There was significant ticket-splitting, especially in the sort of high-income precincts where Republican strategists had feared an electoral shellacking from voters exhausted by Trump’s erratic conduct.
“They weren’t a fan of the president’s personality,” said Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist who spent months conducting weekly focus groups with suburbanites. “But taxes and the economy led the list of their concerns, and they were terrified of their taxes being increased.”
Perhaps most disappointing to Democrats was the narrowing path they had in their effort to capture a majority in the Senate, even though they had a favorable map this year. The party took over two Republican-held seats, in Arizona and Colorado, while losing a seat in Alabama.
But Republicans showed strong resilience in a number of races where Democrats had been hoping to make the gains required to take over the chamber, including in Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate who declined to endorse Trump for reelection, turned back her Democratic challenger with unexpected ease.
There was still some possibility that Democrats could overtake Republicans in the Senate, because of uncalled races in North Carolina and Alaska — both seats are now held by Republicans — as well as the potential for two runoff elections for Senate seats in Georgia. Because of the Southern state’s distinctive electoral procedures, there is a possibility that the Senate may be split almost evenly, with 50 seats held by Republicans and 48 held by Democrats, until Georgia holds a second round of voting in January.
The specter of a two-month clash for two seats in the same state to decide the Senate majority also raised the question about the state of the Republican Party should Trump lose the presidency. Republican strategists Wednesday were already discussing how he might handle defeat, and whether he would be an asset or a liability in the Georgia races.
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, said Wednesday afternoon that he was confident Biden would claim victory in his state, irrespective of any Trump lawsuits. While Republicans were challenging the legitimacy of ballots that arrive by mail after polls close on Election Day, Fetterman said he did not believe Biden would need those votes to carry the state.
Fetterman, a possible candidate for governor or a Senate seat in 2022, said his party should reckon with Trump’s intense appeal to rural voters, and his ability “to drive margins in these small areas that are unprecedented.” But Fetterman took a dimmer view of Trump’s litigation threats and rhetorical attacks on the vote.
“It’s no different than some random guy screaming on the corner,” he said. “Just keep on walking.”