Joe Biden urged calm across the US on Thursday night as he held on to a lead against Donald Trump that brought the Democratic challenger tantalisingly close to the presidency – even as votes were still being counted in a handful of critical states.
Facing possible defeat after one term, Trump from the White House appeared to dig in for a long fight, falsely claiming: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.
“If you count the votes that came in late, we’re looking at them very strongly, a lot of votes came in late,” he said, in a tone that seemed calculated to inflame divisions. There was no evidence that illegal or late votes were being counted, nor that the election was being stolen.
Trump went on to rail against “historic election interference from big media, big money and big tech … The pollsters got it knowingly wrong.”
Biden and his running mate, the California senator Kamala Harris, on the other hand had emerged in Biden’s home state of Delaware, telling the country that “each ballot must be counted.
“In America, the vote is sacred,” Biden said. “Democracy is sometimes messy. It sometimes requires a little patience, as well. But that patience has been rewarded now for 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.”
Biden noted he and Harris “continue to feel very good” about the ultimate result of the race. “We have no doubt that when the count is finished, Senator Harris and I will be declared the winners,” Biden said.
As the country remained on edge, awaiting the declaration of a victory almost 48 hours after the polls had closed and as sporadic protests have broken out in places such as Arizona, Michigan, Portland and New York, Biden said: “I ask everyone to stay calm.”
The White House was set to be decided by razor-thin margins in five battleground states. Trump was still holding on to leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia but Biden was narrowing the gap in the two states as a backlog of postal ballots was counted. A win in Pennsylvania alone, with its 20 votes in the electoral college, would be enough to make Biden president.
In Arizona, a Biden lead was being gradually eroded by late-counted Trump votes. The Associated Press (AP) and Fox News called the Democrat the winner in the state on election night, but by Thursday morning no other major TV network had followed suit. The Guardian, which uses election data from AP, has called the race for Biden.
With Arizona included in his tally, Biden would only need six more electoral college votes to reach the 270 required for victory, so a win in any other state would be enough.
In Nevada on Thursday morning, Biden bolstered a very slim lead to about 12,000 (about 1% of the vote) but there are about 200,000 votes still to be counted. Trump was leading North Carolina but the outcome depended on mail-in ballots. Jon Ralston, a leading political analyst in Nevada, tweeted: “I see no path left for Trump here.”
In the nationwide popular vote, Biden so far has a record 72.3m and about 3.5m more than Trump.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, the Biden campaign manager, said during a press call: “Joe Biden now has won more votes than any presidential candidate in history, and we’re still counting. Over 140m votes have been counted so far with more than 72m of those votes going to Vice-President Biden.”
Dillon added: “Because he sees the same data we do and knows he’s losing, Donald Trump continues to push a flailing strategy designed to prevent people’s votes from being counted.”
Millions of Americans got on with their lives on Thursday even as the election, described as the most important in generations, hung in the balance and moved at an excruciating pace. The candidates themselves maintained a low public profile.
The president was also active on Twitter, posting: “Stop the count!”
It was a confusing plea because in Arizona and Nevada the Trump camp would be relying on late-counted votes to win. In these south-western states, the campaign strategy has been to focus on alleged irregularities in the count so far, seeking to undermine faith in its integrity.
Raucous crowds of Trump supporters staged protests outside vote-counting centres in Phoenix in Arizona, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and Detroit in Michigan, riled by unfounded claims from Trump and some of his loyalists of widespread irregularities and the insistence that the reversal of the president’s early leads in the counts meant the election was being “stolen”.
The demonstration in Phoenix on Wednesday night saw about 150 Trump supporters gather outside the Maricopa county elections department chanting “Count the votes!” and “Where are the votes?” as officials inside the building worked to tabulate ballots.
Many of the protesters wore “Make America great again” hats and waved Trump flags. Some were carrying guns. Sheriff’s deputies wearing tactical gear moved inside the office as the crowd continued to grow, according to CBS News.
Facebook said it had taken down a group where Trump supporters posted misinformation, violent rhetoric and organised protests. The group had grown to more than 365,000 members in one day.
The social media network said: “In line with the exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension, we have removed the Group ‘Stop the Steal’, which was creating real-world events.”
The Trump campaign said it called for a recount in Wisconsin, although CBS News reported that the state’s top election official said no such request had been received. Biden led by more than 20,000 ballots out of nearly 3.3m counted.
The Trump campaign also launched a flurry of lawsuits in four states with an array of technical challenges. In Michigan, which has already been called by the Associated Press for Biden, the president’s lawyers lost a legal demand for the count to be suspended until a campaign representative could be at each postal ballot counting table.
The Michigan court of claims judge Cynthia Stephens said: “I have no basis to find that there is a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”
In Nevada, the campaign filed a lawsuit on Thursday claiming about 10,000 voters who cast ballots there were no longer residents. It has another lawsuit pending in Nevada challenging the efficacy of signature-matching software, a case the Trump camp has already lost twice.
In Pennsylvania, the president’s camp is seeking to ask the supreme court to reverse its decision allowing the state to extend until Friday the period in which it accepts late-arriving ballots that were postmarked by Tuesday. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, said in a CNN interview the lawsuit was “more a political document than a legal document”.
On Thursday, counting was paused in Allegheny county, the greater Pittsburgh area, until Friday, pending a legal challenge.
The Trump campaign was distributing email to supporters seeking donations for an “official election defense fund”.
There was no proof of voter fraud. Ben Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer, told the Axios website: “This just smacks of a little bit of desperation.”
The Biden camp has assembled its own legal teams and launched a “fight fund” to finance the effort.
Bob Bauer, a Biden campaign lawyer, said: “These lawsuits don’t have to have merit, that’s not the purpose. It is to create an opportunity for them to message falsely about what’s taking place in the electoral process.”
If Trump wants to go to the supreme court, Bauer added, “he will be in for one of the most embarrassing defeats a president ever suffered before the highest court of the land”.
In the Senate race, Democrats clung on to a slender hope that they might wrest control of the chamber from Republicans.
One contest for one Georgia seat has gone to a runoff, and the second seat hung in the balance on Thursday morning with the Republican incumbent barely holding the 50% share in the vote to avoid a second round, but votes are still being counted. A tight Senate race in North Carolina had also not been called by Thursday morning.
The count was unfolding against the backdrop of the worsening coronavirus pandemic. The US recorded 102,831 new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, the first time it had reported a six-digit number. Even if Trump loses, he will remain in charge of the pandemic response until inauguration day on 20 January 2021. The pandemic has killed more than 233,000 people in the US, more than any other country.