WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON - The excruciatingly close U.S. presidential election hung in the balance on Wednesday, with a handful of closely contested states set to decide the outcome in the coming hours or days, even as President Donald Trump falsely claimed victory and made unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.
Democratic challenger Joe Biden opened up narrow leads in Wisconsin and Michigan on Wednesday morning, according to Edison Research, as the two Midwestern battleground states that the Republican president won in 2016 continued to count mail-in ballots that surged amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The former vice president's campaign said on Wednesday that Biden was on track to win the election, with expected victories in Michigan and Wisconsin as well as Pennsylvania.
Campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon said she expected Biden will have more than 270 electoral votes later on Wednesday. She told reporters she believed Biden has already won Wisconsin and was expected to win Nevada, another state where the Democrat held a small advantage with votes still left to be tallied.
Opinion polls had given Biden a strong lead nationwide for months, but had shown tighter races in battleground states, and the vote did not produce the overwhelming verdict against Trump that Democrats had wanted.
In the nationwide popular vote, Biden on Wednesday was comfortably ahead of Trump, with 2.6 million more votes. Trump won the 2016 election over Democrat Hillary Clinton after winning crucial battleground states even though she drew about 3 million more votes nationwide.
Biden, 77, said in the early hours of Wednesday that he was confident of winning once the votes are counted, and urged patience.
"We feel good about where we are," Biden said in his home state of Delaware. "We believe we're on track to win this election."
Trump, 74, appeared at the White House soon after to declare victory.
"We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election," Trump said, before launching an extraordinary attack on the electoral process by a sitting president. "This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop."
Trump provided no evidence to back up his claim of fraud and did not explain how he would fight the results at the Supreme Court, which does not hear direct challenges.
Voting concluded as scheduled on Tuesday night, but many states routinely take days to finish counting ballots. Huge numbers of people voted by mail because of the pandemic, making it likely the count will take longer than usual.
The close election underscored the political polarization in the United States. The next president will take on a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 Americans and left millions more jobless at a time not only of gaping political divisions but of racial tensions and differences between urban and rural Americans.
The trio of "blue wall" states that unexpectedly sent Trump to the White House in 2016 - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - remained too close to call. Officials in Nevada said they would not update the count until Thursday.
Two Southern states, Georgia and North Carolina, were also still in play; Trump held leads in both. A win for Biden in either one would narrow Trump's chances considerably.
Biden's victory in Arizona, which had previously voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once in 72 years, so far remained the only state to flip from the 2016 results.
Trump's most likely path requires him to win Pennsylvania as well as at least one Midwestern battleground and both Southern states.
Officials in Michigan and Georgia said on Wednesday they expected the states to complete their counts by day's end. At the moment, Biden leads 224 to 213 over Trump in the Electoral College vote count, according to Edison Research, aiming to reach the needed 270 electoral votes, which are based in part on a state's population.
World leaders were in limbo as they waited for clearer results, with most avoiding weighing in amid the uncertainty.
In global markets, investors moved to price a greater chance of U.S. policy gridlock.
Biden's hopes of a decisive early victory were dashed on Tuesday evening when Trump won the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Texas. But the former vice president said he was confident he could win by taking the three key Rust Belt states.
During the final days of the campaign, Trump had suggested he would claim victory if ahead on election night and seek to halt the count of additional ballots.
"The president's statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect," Biden's campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said in a statement.
Biden campaign manager later told reporters the former vice president was on track to win election, while Trump's campaign manager separately predicted that the outstanding votes would eventually produce a victory for the president.
No incumbent U.S. president has lost a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Before his White House appearance, Trump slammed his opponent, saying in a tweet, "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!" Twitter swiftly tagged the tweet as possibly misleading.]
"It's not my place or Donald Trump's place to declare the winner of this election. It's the voters' place," Biden said on Twitter in response to the president.
It was not clear what Trump meant by saying he would ask the Supreme Court to halt "voting." The high court does not hear direct challenges but instead reviews cases that have worked their way up from lower courts.
However, legal experts have said the election outcome could get bogged down in state-by-state litigation over a host of issues, including whether states can include late-arriving ballots that were mailed by Election Day.
Teams of lawyers
Even before Tuesday, the 2020 campaign saw a historic number of lawsuits across dozens of states, as the pandemic forced election officials to prepare for an election like no other. Both campaigns have marshaled teams of lawyers in preparation for any disputes.
The Supreme Court previously allowed Pennsylvania to move forward with a plan to count ballots mailed by Election Day that arrive up to three days later, but some conservative justices suggested they would be willing to reconsider the matter. State officials planned to segregate those ballots as a precaution.
Ahead of the election, Trump had said he wanted his latest U.S. Supreme Court appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed by the Senate in case the court had to hear any electoral dispute. Democrats had criticized the president for appearing to suggest he expected Barrett to rule in his favor.
Trump has repeatedly said without evidence that widespread mail-in voting will lead to fraud, although U.S. election experts say fraud is very rare.
You've got mail, Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said the state still had to count more than a million mail-in ballots and called Trump's remarks a partisan attack. According to Edison Research, more than 2.4 million early ballots were cast in the state, with 1.6 million by registered Democrats and about 555,000 by Republicans.
The election will also decide which party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, and the Democratic drive to win control of the Senate appeared to be falling short. Democrats had flipped two Republican-held seats while losing one of their own, and six other races remained undecided - Alaska, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina and two in Georgia.
Trump's strong performance in Florida, a must-win state for his re-election, was powered by his improved numbers with Latinos.
For months there had been complaints from Democratic Latino activists that Biden was ignoring Hispanic voters and lavishing attention instead on Black voters in big Midwestern cities.
Edison's national exit poll showed that while Biden led Trump among nonwhite voters, Trump received a slightly higher proportion of the nonwhite votes than he did in 2016. The poll showed that about 11% of African Americans, 31% of Hispanics and 30% of Asian Americans voted for Trump, up 3 percentage points from 2016 in all three groups.