By Trevor Hunnicutt and Doina Chiacu
WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans cast votes on Tuesday in the bitterly contested presidential race between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden after a tumultuous four years under the businessman-turned-politician that have left the United States as deeply divided as at any time in recent history.
Voters lined up at polling places around the country casting ballots amid a coronavirus pandemic that has turned everyday life upside down. Biden, the Democratic former vice president who has spent a half century in public life, has held a strong and consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president.
But Trump is close enough in several election battleground states that he could piece together the 270 state-by-state Electoral College votes needed to win the election.
Trump is hoping to 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. Trump is aiming to avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.
It is possible that it could be days before the result is known, especially if legal challenges focused on ballots sent by mail are accepted in the event of a tight race.
There was a sense of anxiety among voters and concern about possible unrest after a campaign with heated rhetoric. There were buildings boarded up in anticipation of possible protests, including in Washington and New York City. A new fence was erected around the White House.
Polls opened in some Eastern states at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT). The most closely watched results will start to trickle in after 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT) when polls close in states such as Georgia.
Biden made another appearance on Tuesday morning in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. Speaking to supporters using a bullhorn in Scranton, the city where he was born, Biden returned to some of his familiar campaign themes, promising to unite Americans and “restore basic decency and honor to the White House.”
Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday morning, Trump said the crowds he saw on Monday during his frenetic last day of campaigning gave him confidence that he would prevail.
“We have crowds that nobody’s ever had before,” said Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats for holding packed rallies in defiance of social-distancing recommendations during the pandemic. “I think that translates into a lot of votes.”
The voting caps a campaign dominated by a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 Americans and put of people millions out of work. The country this year also was shaken by protests against racism and police brutality.
Biden, who has framed the contest as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, promised a renewed effort to combat the public health crisis, fix the economy and bridge America’s political divide.
Trump has downplayed the pandemic, saying the country is “rounding the corner” even as numerous states set single-day records of new infections in the final days of the campaign.
More than 99 million Americans voted early either in person or by mail, motivated not only by concerns about waiting in lines on Election Day amid the pandemic but also by extraordinary levels of enthusiasm after a polarizing campaign.
The record-shattering total is nearing three-quarters of the total 2016 vote, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. Experts predict the vote could reach 160 million, exceeding the 138 million ballots cast in 2016.
While there were long lines in some places, in many states lines were shorter, perhaps a reflection of the massive early vote.
In McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, about a dozen voters lined up, bundled in jackets and hats on an unseasonably chilly morning.
“He’s a bit of a jerk, and I appreciate that,” Martin Seylar, a 45-year-old welder who had just finished his shift, said of Trump, his preferred candidate. “He doesn’t get everything that he says done, but the way I see it is he’s trying, versus where everybody else blows smoke at us.”
In Detroit, Republican voter Nick Edwards, 26, cast a ballot for Biden but voted for Republican candidates for Congress.
“Honestly, decency in the White House,” Edwards said when asked about his main concern. “When someone leads the party, they need to hold those values, as well. I don’t think Trump encompasses that.”
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 ballots until Election Day, raising the possibility of a prolonged vote count that could stretch for several days.
U.S. stocks opened higher on Tuesday, as investors wagered that Biden would prevail and usher in fresh stimulus spending.
CONTROL OF CONGRESS AT STAKE
Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, with Democrats pushing to recapture a Senate majority and expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives.
Trump, 74, is seeking another four years in office after a chaotic first term 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.
Trump, looking tired and sounding hoarse after days of frenetic campaigning, struck a decidedly less belligerent tone on Tuesday than he did on the trail over the weekend. He was expected spend most of Tuesday at the White House, where an election night party is planned for 400 guests, all of whom will be tested for COVID-19.
Biden, 77, is looking to win the presidency after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. He mounted unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008.
Biden started his day at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, his Roman Catholic church near Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent some time at his son Beau’s grave with Beau’s daughter, Natalie. Beau Biden died of cancer at age 46 in 2015.
The two candidates have spent the final days barnstorming half a dozen battleground states, with Pennsylvania emerging as perhaps the most hotly contested. Biden will have made at least nine campaign stops in Pennsylvania between Sunday and Tuesday.
Biden’s polling lead has forced Trump to play defense; almost every competitive state was carried by him in 2016.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington; Michael Martina in Detroit; Nathan Layne in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania; and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Joseph Ax and John Whitesides; Editing by Paul Thomasch)