WASHINGTON - Former vice president Joe Biden pulled close to victory on Wednesday after flipping states President Donald Trump won in 2016. But the nation’s suspense stretched another day as the number of battlegrounds still pending shrunk to four in the race for the presidency.
Biden can go over the top with wins in any of those: Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina, assuming he maintains his lead in Arizona. Trump needs to sweep all four to survive.
The Democrat declared confidence that the race would end well for him, after a drumbeat of good news through the day. Projected wins in Michigan and Wisconsin put him about a dozen and a half votes shy of the 270 needed to clinch, with some media organizations calling Arizona and its 11 electoral votes for Biden, well ahead of Trump’s tally, 216. Trump’s team insisted that Arizona was too close to call.
The president’s team filed for a recount in Wisconsin, where Biden led by 21,000 out of 3.2 million votes. And they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to limit counting in Pennsylvania as the president, hunkered down at the White House, insisted the election was being stolen.
How, exactly, neither he nor his aides explained. But the claim echoed warnings he’d leveled for months that the widespread use of mail ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic would invite fraud on a mass scale.
As workers across the country sorted and tabulated millions of such ballots, Trump insisted that his claim had come true.
Governors in both parties, and state election officials, rejected the claim.
What was indisputable was that Trump’s election night leads eroded in key states as workers sorted and tabulated absentee ballots, and his prospects were far dimmer Wednesday night than they’d been 24 hours earlier.
Biden appeared Wednesday afternoon and spoke to supporters and a national TV audience. He said that he wasn’t declaring victory and wouldn’t until enough votes were counted to clarify the outcome. Moments later, the Associated Press declared that he had won Michigan’s 16 electoral votes, with a lead of 61,000 votes out of 5.3 million.
AP and Fox News had already declared him the winner in Wisconsin and before that, Arizona.
“Only three presidential campaigns in the past have defeated an incumbent president. When it’s finished, God willing, we’ll be the fourth. This is a major achievement,” Biden said.
Trump aides bristled especially at the Fox News call on Arizona, a state Trump had carried against Hillary Clinton.
It put them in the delicate position of having to explain why it was critical to keep an open mind as straggler ballots arrived in Arizona, while allowing tabulation to continue in Pennsylvania invited mischief.
Pennsylvania was among the states where counting of mail ballots didn’t even start until polls closed.
Early returns from Election Day voting showed Trump ahead. But Democrats were more likely to vote by mail, and tallies are never frozen at midnight on Election Day or when one candidate is ahead.
“Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled. Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted. VERY STRANGE,” Trump wrote in one of several tweets that Twitter labeled as disputed or misleading.
At an afternoon news conference in Philadelphia, Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, made a claim that dead people had voted and called the counting in the Democratic city “totally illegitimate.” Trump prodded campaign aides, lawyers and supporters to apply pressure to stave off defeat.
“Just like I predicted from the start, mail-in ballots are leading to chaos” as Democrats “try to steal this election!” he claimed in one email blast to supporters.
In Detroit, protesters thronged to a convention center where workers were counting some 170,000 absentee ballots, demanding access and chanting “stop the count.” In Las Vegas, a Trump supporter interrupted a news conference at the county elections office shouting that “the Biden crime family is stealing this election!”
In Phoenix, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar called on “red blooded American patriots” to rally at the Maricopa County elections office to “protect our president.”
On the legal front, Trump lawyers asked a Georgia court to step in to ensure that only ballots received by 7 p.m. on Tuesday would be counted, asserting that Democrats were trying to pad their count with late ballots.
Trump led in Georgia, though votes from Democratic strongholds around Atlanta and other cities were still pending and his lead fell through the day.
The president’s legal teams asked a Michigan court to halt counting of mail ballots, complaining the process wasn’t transparent enough, and the U.S. Supreme Court to block Pennsylvania from extending the deadline to receive mail ballots by three days, as the state’s high court had ordered.
It’s unclear how many ballots that would affect. More than a million were not yet counted at mid-afternoon.
“Pennsylvania will have a fair election, and that election will be free of outside influence,” Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in Harrisburg.
The Trump side demanded a recount in Wisconsin even before that race was called. Campaign manager Bill Stepien cited unspecified “irregularities” in several counties that “raise serious doubts about the validity of the results.”
Candidates can request and pay for a recount when the margin is less than 1%. But former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, suggested it won’t do much good for Trump, given his 20,000-vote deficit. He noted that recounts in 2011 and 2016 shifted statewide tallies by no more than 300 votes.
In Arizona, Biden led by 92,000 votes out of 2.7 million.
Trump strategist Jason Miller maintained that enough ballots weren’t yet counted that the president’s chances of catching up were more than plausible.
Trump will win a second term “as soon as Friday,” he predicted. “By the end of this week it will be clear to the entire nation that President Trump and Vice President Pence will be reelected for another four years.”
Trump remained out of sight all day, venting his pique now and then on social media.
.Both campaigns spent the day jockeying for public opinion in the wake of Trump’s unprecedented demand, at 2:21 a.m. from the East Room of the White House, to halt vote counting in order to avert some unspecified “fraud.”
Elections officials and governors of both parties offered reminders that it’s entirely normal to count absentee ballots after polls close.
“All these votes have to be counted that are in now,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump adviser, told ABC News. “You have to let the process play itself out before you judge it to be flawed. And by prematurely doing this, if there is a flaw later, he has undercut his own credibility.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the most powerful Republican in Congress, also weighed in.
“Claiming you’ve won the election is different from finishing the counting,” he said.