The excruciatingly close US 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.
US election polls tracker 2020: Latest odds and predictions on who will win  the Trump vs Biden presidential race

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.

Together with Nevada, another state where Biden held a small advantage with votes still left to be tallied, those states would deliver Biden the 270 votes needed in the state-by-state Electoral College to win the White House. But Trump still had a path to victory with those states officially undecided.

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 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 US 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.

Joe Biden’s White House campaign slammed President Donald Trump’s threat to try to stop the election vote count as “outrageous” early Wednesday, saying its legal team was ready to prevent such an “unprecedented” act.

“The president’s statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said in a statement as the election remained undecided.

“Never before in our history has a president of the United States sought to strip Americans of their voice in a national election.”

The comments came shortly after Trump delivered an extraordinary speech from the White House, in which he claimed that “we did win this election” despite neither candidate reaching the electoral vote threshold for victory.

“We want all voting to stop,” Trump said, appearing to mean halting the counting of mail-in ballots, which can be legally accepted by state election boards after Tuesday’s election — provided they were postmarked in time.

President Trump’s aides pored over election maps in the White House West Wing and cheered their candidate in the East Room as Election Day results in critical states such as Florida and Ohio came in favoring the Republican leader.

But their cautious confidence took on irritation when Arizona, a state that backed Trump in 2016, was called by Fox News for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, said sources familiar with the situation who asked not to be named.

The president, who earlier in the day visited staff at his campaign headquarters in nearby Virginia, watched election returns with his family in the upstairs living room of the White House residence.

“He’s calm, chilling,” said a source familiar with the scene. “He’s in the hunt.”

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 polarisation 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 US policy gridlock.

Earlier in the evening, Trump won the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Texas, dashing Biden’s hopes for a decisive early victory, but Biden said he was confident he was on track to winning by taking three key Rust Belt states.

“We feel good about where we are,” Biden said in his home state of Delaware, shouting over a din of supporters in cars honking their horns in approval. “We believe we’re on track to win this election.”

Biden leads 224 to 213 over Trump in the Electoral College vote count, according to Edison Research.

Trump leads in Georgia and North Carolina, states he carried in 2016, but votes are still being counted in both.

“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.

Global stocks gyrated in early trade as results streamed in, with a final call now seen unlikely for days and the outcome raising the potential for gridlock that complicates the chance of a quick U.S. government spending boost to counter the effects of the pandemic.

“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!” Trump tweeted before his White House appearance. 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.

Trump has repeatedly and without evidence suggested an increase in mail-in voting will lead to an increase in fraud, although election experts say that fraud is rare and mail-in ballots are a long-standing feature of American elections.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said the state still had to count more than a million mail-in ballots. He called Trump’s remarks a partisan attack. According to Edison Research, more than 2.4 million early ballots were cast in the state, of which nearly 1.6 million were by Democrats and about 555,000 by Republicans.

Supporters of both candidates called the election a referendum on Trump and his tumultuous first term.

The winner will lead a nation that has been strained by a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 people and left millions more jobless, as well as racial tensions and political polarization that has only worsened during a vitriolic campaign.

Voters were also to decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, and the Democratic drive to win control of the Senate appeared to fall short. Democrats picked up only one Republican-held seat while six other races remained undecided – Alaska, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina and two in Georgia.

There were no early surprises as the two contenders split the US states already projected. Trump captured conservative states like Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee while Democratic-leaning Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont went to Biden, according to projections by television networks and Edison Research.

Trump’s strong performance in Florida was powered by his improved numbers with Latinos. His share of the vote in counties with large Latino populations was larger than it was in the 2016 election.

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. Opinion polls in key states showed Biden underperforming with Latinos in the weeks leading up to the election.

Many younger Hispanics were ardent supporters of US Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders during the party’s primary campaign, but in opinion polls expressed little enthusiasm for Biden, viewing him as too moderate and out of touch.

In the Miami area, Latinos are predominantly Cuban Americans, where generations of families have fled communist rule in Cuba. Trump’s messaging about Biden being a socialist seemed to work with them and with Venezuelans there despite Biden’s denials.

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.

Edison’s national exit poll also found that support for Trump declined by about 3 points among older white voters, compared with 2016, while it rose by about 15 points among older Latinos and by 11 points among Black voters between 30 and 44.

The poll found Biden made significant gains in the suburbs.

In 42 suburban counties spread across 13 states where most of the votes had been counted, Biden was doing about 5 percentage points better than Clinton did in 2016 and than Barack Obama did in 2012.

US stock futures jumped late on Tuesday. S&P emini futures were last up 1.9%, extending a rally during the official trading session in which the S&P 500 delivered its strongest one-day gain in almost a month.

“Markets have taken a step back from the Democratic sweep scenario,” said Stephen Innes, Chief Global Markets Strategist at Axi.

On betting website Smarkets, odds reflected a 74% chance of Trump winning, up from 33% earlier in the day.

Voters, many wearing masks and maintaining social-distancing to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, streamed into polling places across the country through the day, experiencing long lines in a few locales and short waits in many other places. There were no signs of disruptions or violence at polling sites, as some officials had feared.

Biden, the Democratic former vice president, put Trump’s handling of the pandemic at the center of his campaign and has held a consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president.

But a third of US voters listed the economy as the issue that mattered most to them when deciding their choice for president, while two out of 10 cited COVID-19, according to an Edison Research exit poll on Tuesday.

In the national exit poll, four out of 10 voters said they thought the effort to contain the virus was going “very badly.” In the battleground states of Florida and North Carolina, battleground states that could decide the election, five of 10 voters said the national response to the pandemic was going “somewhat or very badly.”

Trump 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, US racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.