Anxious U.S. voters choose between Biden, Trump after vitriolic campaign

PHILADELPHIA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After an acrimonious presidential campaign that exposed the depth of the political divisions in the United States, Americans streamed to the polls on Tuesday to choose either incumbent Donald Trump or challenger Joe Biden to lead a pandemic-battered nation for the next four years.

There were no signs of disruptions at polling places that some had feared after a vitriolic campaign marked by provocative rhetoric. Voters cast ballots around the country, with long lines in some locales and short lines in others. But federal and state authorities were investigating a spate of mysterious robocalls urging people to stay home on Election Day.

Ahead of Election Day, just over 100 million voters cast early ballots either by mail or in person, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, driven by concerns over crowded polling places during the coronavirus pandemic as well as extraordinary enthusiasm.

The total has broken records and prompted some experts to predict the highest voting rates since 1908 and that the vote total could reach 160 million, topping the 138 million cast in 2016.

Biden, the Democratic former vice president who has spent a half century in public life, has held a consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president and appeared to have multiple paths to victory in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines the winner. At least 270 electoral votes, determined in part by a state’s population, are needed to win.

Trump is close enough in several election battleground states that he could repeat the type of upset he pulled off in 2016, when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton despite losing the national popular vote by about 3 million ballots.

“I think we’re going to have a great night,” Trump said during an appearance in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, where he thanked campaign workers. “But it’s politics and it’s elections, and you never know.”

“Winning is easy. Losing is never easy – not for me it’s not,” Trump added.

Trump, looking somewhat tired and admitting his voice was “a bit choppy” after making speeches at numerous raucous rallies in the final days of the campaign, said he was not yet thinking about making a concession speech or acceptance speech.

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If the election result is close, it could be days before the outcome is known, especially given the surge in voting by mail due to the pandemic. Trump said the outcome could be known on Tuesday night. Trump also said he would not declare victory prematurely, saying that “there’s no reason to play games.”

Biden made appearances in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. He first stopped at his childhood home in Scranton, where he signed one of the living room walls, writing: “From this house to the White House with the grace of God. Joe Biden 11-3-2020.”

He later visited Philadelphia and used a bullhorn to address supporters who chanted “Joe, Joe, Joe,” as he touted high turnout among young voters and women and urged anyone who had not already done so to cast a ballot.

“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Biden said in front of a block of brick rowhouses, quoting the late baseball legend Yogi Berra.

Biden also visited a Southern-style restaurant and met local politicians. A group of largely Black supporters yelled “President Biden” and people got out of their cars in the middle of the street to snap pictures.

Supporters of both candidates appeared to agree the election was a referendum on Trump and his tumultuous first term. No U.S. president has lost a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

In Atlanta, Cody Sellers, 32, a registered Republican and project manager at a home improvement store, voted for Biden.

“Trump is the issue,” Sellers said, shivering in the cold.

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“I really think Trump is bad for our country,” he added. “He’s divisive. We’re on a path to trouble. I’m not thrilled about Biden, but he can do the job and he cares about our country.”

Polling shows Georgia, long a Republican stronghold in presidential elections, might be up for grabs this year but Victor Akinola, 44, said he would stick with Trump.

“The hopes that liberals have for a so-called blue wave is unfounded. Georgians won’t vote en masse against their own local interests,’ said Akinola, who works in information technology.

Among the most closely contested states that are expected to determine the outcome are Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, with Democrats hoping that Biden may even threaten Trump in states that once seemed certain to go Republican such as Ohio, Iowa and Texas.

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The pandemic, which has killed more than 231,000 Americans and left millions more jobless, ensured that Election Day felt far from normal, with poll workers and voters in masks and people keeping their distance from one another.

In anticipation of possible protests, some buildings and stores were boarded up in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and New York. Federal authorities erected a new fence around the White House perimeter.

A judge ordered the U.S. Postal Service to sweep some mail processing facilities on Tuesday afternoon for delayed ballots and immediately dispatch them for delivery in pivotal states such Pennsylvania and Florida among other places.

Meanwhile, the FBI was investigating a spate of mysterious robocalls urging people to stay home on Election Day. New York state’s attorney general also was looking into such robocalls.

Wall Street’s main stocks indexes jumped as investors bet that the election could end with a clear victory for Biden and a swift deal on more pandemic-related fiscal stimulus.

ANXIETY AND DIVISION

Trump, 74, is seeking another term in office after a chaotic four years marked by the coronavirus crisis, an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, U.S. racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.

Biden, 77, is looking to win the presidency on his third attempt after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, with Democrats narrowly favored to recapture a Senate majority and retain their control of the House of Representatives.

Biden, who has put Trump’s handling of the pandemic at the center of his campaign, promised a renewed effort to combat the public health crisis, fix the economy and bridge America’s political divide. The country this year was also shaken by months of protests against racism and police brutality.

Trump on Tuesday again downplayed the pandemic, saying the country is “rounding the corner” even as numerous states set records of new infections in the final days of the campaign.

The most closely watched results will start to trickle in after 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT).

Some crucial states, such as Florida, begin counting absentee ballots ahead of Election Day and could deliver results relatively quickly on Tuesday night. Others including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are barred from processing the vast majority of mail-in ballots until Election Day, raising the possibility of a vote count that could stretch for several days.

Trump has asserted, without evidence, that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud. He has also argued that only election night vote tallies should count, even though states have historically taken more time to finalize tallies. He has suggested he might try to use the courts to halt counting.

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