FAIRFAX, Va. — An election campaign roiled by a deadly pandemic, an economic crisis and social unrest that rivalled the civil rights movement of the 1960s ended Tuesday the way everything seems to in 2020: awash in suspense, confusion and doubt.
The commingling of mail-in ballots, early voting and the in-person election day tally ensured the race for the White House was too close to call as polls on the west coast finally closed and the count plodded on in the Midwest battlegrounds.
Joe Biden emerged first, preaching patience from Delaware.
"It ain't over until every ballot is counted, but we're feeling good, we really are," Biden said.
"It's not my place or Donald Trump's place to declare who's won this election. That's the decision of the American people."
As if on cue, however, Trump fired off a tweet accusing the Democrats of "trying to STEAL the election," a preview of a similar message he delivered in person early Wednesday.
With a Republican red electoral map but millions of votes still outstanding, Trump — with family and Vice-President Mike Pence in tow — took to the East Room with the clock nearing 2:30 a.m. eastern time, essentially declared himself the victor and vowed to take his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we already have won."
Florida slipped from Biden's grasp, as did battleground Ohio — two states critical to the electoral fortunes of both candidates. Only Arizona, a southern border state Trump won by four points in 2016, looked likely to flip to the Democrats.
In Texas, long a reliably Republican stronghold worth 38 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the presidency, Trump had a convincing lead after Biden's early strong showing had dissipated, along with Democratic hopes of a Lone Star upset.
In Florida, as the total votes counted there crossed the 97 per cent threshold, Trump was comfortably ahead, thanks largely to a disappointing result for Biden in Florida's vote-laden Miami-Dade County.
Early results Tuesday put a number of unsurprising wins in Trump's column, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and West Virginia. Biden wins included Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts and his home state of Delaware.
In Georgia, worth 16 electoral votes, Trump was well ahead with more than 90 per cent of votes counted. In North Carolina, Trump's margin was about 1.5 percentage points, with less than 10 cent of votes left to count.
The outlook placed a laser focus on three Midwestern states critically important for Democrats: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, together worth 46 electors. Trump was nursing modest leads in all three, but counting was expected to continue late into the night and beyond.
"It's going to take time to count the votes, but we're going to win Pennsylvania," Biden said.
Much of the map across the eastern U.S. was based on early votes, which set a record pace across the country for weeks before election day thanks to persistent public concerns about COVID-19.
It made for an especially unpredictable night, given the fact that much of the early vote was ascribed to Democrats, while Trump supporters by and large preferred to fill in the blanks in person.
Expectations of a close race and a delayed conclusion sent activists into the streets outside the White House on Tuesday, fearful that the incumbent president might try to declare a premature victory.
"I’m not thinking about concession speech or acceptance speech yet," Trump said earlier in the day, a more sanguine note than he'd been striking on the campaign trail.
"Hopefully, we’ll be only doing one of those two. And you know, winning is easy, losing is never easy — not for me, it’s not."
Protesters were being held at bay by several blocks of "anti-scale" fencing that surrounds the complex, the same barriers that were erected at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
After weeks of record-setting early voting, polling stations in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs were largely quiet during the day, while long lines plagued latecomers in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
Janice Sebring, a Trump supporter in a "Make America Great Again" hat, was handing out Republican sample ballots outside the community centre in Vienna, a community 30 kilometres west of D.C.
Republicans, she said, are less inclined to vote early and prefer to show up on election day to cast their ballots in person. And despite little traffic, she predicted a strong showing for the president.
"I'm an optimist," she said, after a pause.
"I think that my candidate is going to do well. Whether he'll do well in Virginia is another question, but I think he's going to do better than expected."
Sebring said like many across the U.S., she's also bracing for unrest in the wake of the results.
"I'm very concerned that, regardless of how the election turns out, that there will be a lot of violence in the cities from Antifa and (Black Lives Matter). I think they're just primed to do something."
Indeed, businesses that line the D.C. streets around the White House had largely locked their doors and boarded up storefronts for fear of a long night of protests. But there were no indications of any unrest.
Voters were also deciding who will have control of the Senate: Democrats need a net gain of three seats to wrestle it back from the Republicans if Biden wins. They were widely expected to retain control of the House of Representatives.
One of the first down-ballot surprises of the night came in Colorado, where Democrat John Hickenlooper defeated his incumbent Republican rival Sen. Cory Gardner.
But Democrats hoping against hope to unseat some prominent GOP stalwarts faced early — if unsurprising — disappointments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to re-election in Kentucky, while South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close confidante of Trump, triumphed over hard-charging Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.
"Here's the message I got: people like what I'm doing, and I'm going to keep doing it," Graham said in a victory speech that predicted a Trump win.
"To all the pollsters out there, you have no idea what you're doing."
Republicans also declared victory in Alabama, where Trump acolyte Tommy Tuberville successfully ousted Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2020.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press