US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden remained in a tight battle for the presidency Wednesday, despite widespread polling that predicted a clear Biden win but appeared to be as flawed as it was four years ago, when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump.
The two candidates were in a desperate fight to win some of the same Midwestern states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—the so-called Democratic blue wall—that cost Clinton the election four years ago, with the counting not yet done. Final vote tallies were not expected until later Wednesday at the earliest, but one outcome was clear: The United States is just as polarized as the pundits feared.
Trump, in a late-night press conference at the White House, prematurely declared victory and vowed to fight any effort to count outstanding ballots, including at the Supreme Court.
"This is a fraud on the American people," he said, referring to efforts to count ballots in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. "As far as I am concerned, we have already won it."
Biden was bidding to be elected the 46th president of the United States, putting him in a position to replace one of the most tumultuous and controversial leaders in American history. In a statement after midnight Tuesday, Biden told supporters that the vote could go well into Wednesday, in part because of the late mail-in votes yet to come in. "We're feeling good about where we are," Biden said. "We're feeling real good about Wisconsin and Michigan. And by the way it's going to take time to count votes, but we're going to win Pennsylvania."
Trump, in a separate statement later Wednesday morning, said he had a "phenomenal" night and had "won states we weren't expected to win," including Pennsylvania. He suggested any attempt to block his victory would be a "fraud" that he would take up to the Supreme Court if necessary. "Frankly we did win this election," he said. "As far as I'm concerned we already have won."
The outcome remained unknown Wednesday morning. If he manages to eke out a win, which may not be known for days, the 77-year-old Biden would be expected to be a far more predictable and stable president than Trump, one who has pledged to restore US alliances and prestige, as well as attack Covid-19 in a more forthright way.
But obstacles remain, including possible legal challenges by the Trump campaign should the vote go Biden's way.
Despite his controversial tenure and consistent unpopularity rates, Trump may have defied projections that he would become only the fourth elected incumbent to lose office by turning himself into a kind of cultural icon. Riding on a soaring economy with across-the-board wage increases in 2019, he appeared to have a reasonable chance of being reelected until earlier this year, despite his impeachment. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, putting the economy into a steep fall and eliciting criticism for his dilatory response.
But even though Trump's racially divisive, tweet-a-minute presidency cost him a lot of support among voters who found him an embarrassment unfit for office, he made a comeback in the final weeks of the campaign by turning himself into a kind of cultural hero for many voters, particularly white voters—asserting that Biden would turn the United States into a socialist nation and fueling a cultural fight over Covid-19 precautions.
The president also appears to have drawn strong support from Cuban Americans and other Latinos in Florida, which was a must-win state for Republicans.
At their last debate, the president said that Biden would shut down the economy again, raise taxes on everyone, and his election would cause "a depression the likes of which you've never seen. Your 401(k)s will go to hell and it will be a very, very sad day for this country." At a rally on Sunday in Michigan—a crucial battleground state—Trump again declared that Biden's plan for coronavirus lockdowns is to "imprison you in your home."
If he wins, all bets are off as to how Trump, who has defied Congress and the courts in his first term, will serve as president with few restraints to his behavior. Many foreign diplomats and pundits fear that his reelection would continue to unravel the American-led international system and vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump said, "do whatever I want."
Because of the massive number of mail-in and absentee ballots this time, in part due to Covid-19 restrictions—as well as the legal challenges to these voting methods brought by Republicans—some networks suggested they would not call the race by Tuesday night, as typically happens. "CNN is deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3," the network said in a press release ahead of the election. As the hours ticked into Wednesday, that's exactly what happened.
Some analysts said it might take several days for all the votes to be counted.
If he ultimately ekes out a win, Biden would become only the sixth vice president in US history to be elected outright (rather than succeed a deceased president), following John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush. For the garrulous, glad-handing Biden, a win would be a capstone to an improbable career in which his several bids to become president appeared to be done with four years ago when Hillary Clinton edged him aside—and ultimately lost to Trump.
But after trailing in Florida early in the night, Biden needed to take the Rust Belt states—the industrial Midwest, including Ohio—that Clinton lost four years ago and that Trump had pledged to restore to prosperity, with scant success. "The key battleground areas … have not fared well under President Trump, even prior to the pandemic," Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi told Reuters last week. The swing-state counties most supportive of Trump in 2016 were "especially vulnerable" to the president's trade war.
World reaction was largely one of hope for a Biden win, mixed with a certain degree of indifference and frank disgust over the dysfunction of America's once-admired democratic system.
According to a September European poll, only 45 percent of those surveyed wanted Biden to win, while 17 percent supported Trump. "But the surprise was that the rest said they would vote for neither candidate," European analyst Caroline de Gruyter wrote in Foreign Policy. That's 38 percent of Europeans. As de Gruyter wrote: "Europeans seem to have lost faith in the effectiveness of US democracy altogether during the past few years. Still, when Europeans are asked to name their country's closest partner, they prefer the United States over any other non-European country by a wide margin."
Or as another analyst, the Canadian writer Jonathan Kay, wrote in Foreign Policy: "As to how Canadians actually feel about the United States, the dominant sense is no longer fear. It's something closer to pity, as there is a belief that Americans might be headed toward some kind of sociopolitical meltdown no matter who wins the election."
This article was updated early Wednesday to reflect Trump's comments.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.