Dawn broke over the United States on Wednesday with the presidential election undecided and the specter of hours or even days of uncertainty ahead, as seven states counted millions of ballots in razor-thin contests that could tip the balance to President Trump or former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
After a long election night rife with dramatic twists and victories by both candidates, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden battled to a near draw in electoral votes, each several dozen votes shy of the 270 needed to capture the presidency.
The field of battle had dwindled to a trio of northern states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that vaulted Mr. Trump to victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as Arizona and Nevada, where Mr. Biden had narrow leads, and Georgia, where he trailed but was gaining ground with every vote counted. Mr. Trump prematurely declared victory and said he would petition the Supreme Court to demand a halt to the counting. Mr. Biden urged his supporters — and by implication, Mr. Trump — to show patience and allow the process to play out.
Their dueling, post-midnight appearances captured the raw struggle of a contest that many feared would leap from the campaign trail to the courts, as Mr. Trump’s lawyers readied legal maneuvers.
The president’s statement, delivered in the White House, amounted to a reckless attack on the democratic process during a time of deep anxiety and division in the country. Mr. Biden, speaking from a flag-draped stage in Wilmington, Del., appealed for calm and tried to reassure supporters rattled by a vote that was much closer than the pollsters or political analysts had predicted.
“It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who has won this election,” Mr. Biden said, to a chorus of honking car horns at a drive-in rally. “That’s the decision of the American people.”
Mr. Trump, however, derided the vote-counting as “a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner,” he said. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”
Vote counting continued into the morning from Pennsylvania to Nevada, as election officials labored to process a flood of mail-in ballots and huge numbers of in-person votes in an election that was sure to shatter records.
So far, Mr. Trump was holding off Mr. Biden in two Southern states that the former vice president had hoped to snatch back from the Republican column: Georgia and North Carolina. These were not must-win states for Mr. Biden, but he spent heavily in both and visited them in the final stretch of the campaign.
Mr. Biden lost Texas, a long-shot hope that some Democrats invested in late in the campaign in hopes of earning a landslide repudiation of Mr. Trump that did not arrive. The former vice president also fell short in Florida after Mr. Trump made inroads with Cuban-American voters in the Miami area.
But Mr. Biden offset those loses by amassing a solid lead in Arizona, a state Mr. Trump won in 2016. That, plus his pick up of a single electoral vote in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, could prove crucial. It opens a potential pathway for Mr. Biden to the presidency without winning Pennsylvania, if he carried all the states that Mrs. Clinton did, and added Michigan and Wisconsin.
Arizona’s strategic importance was clear when Mr. Trump’s campaign expressed fury after Fox News called it for Mr. Biden while many votes were still out. Yet the president appeared determined to cut off counting in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Mr. Biden expressed hope that he would close the gap.
“They are trying to STEAL the election,” Mr. Trump declared on Twitter shortly after Mr. Biden had spoken. Twitter immediately marked it as content that was “disputed and might be misleading.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. started election night with many paths to 270 electoral votes, but by Wednesday morning President Trump had won Florida, Ohio and Texas and was within striking distance of winning North Carolina.
That left a diminished but still significant number of ways by which Mr. Biden could prevail, mostly clustered around recapturing Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the once-reliable “blue wall” states that Mr. Trump toppled four years ago.
One alternate path still available for Mr. Biden: winning both Arizona and Georgia, Sun Belt states where he appears in good shape with tens of thousands of votes left to be counted.
Mr. Biden is on track to win Arizona, the first flip of a 2016 Trump state after a succession of near, and not-so-near, misses in other battlegrounds.
If Mr. Biden prevails in Georgia, he can reach 270 electoral votes while losing Pennsylvania and Michigan or Wisconsin.
Or he could become president simply by winning back Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
In Georgia, where Mr. Trump held a substantial lead with about 80 percent of the vote counted, a leak at a processing center in the central part of the state halted the tabulation of ballots for Atlanta and its suburban counties, which are seen as Democratic strongholds.
Well over half the vote remains left to count in DeKalb County, a heavily Democratic suburb of Atlanta, making the race a tossup heading into Wednesday morning.
Mr. Biden, appearing briefly before his supporters in Wilmington, Del., early Wednesday, said he was “feeling real good about Wisconsin and Michigan” and predicted a win in Pennsylvania, a central battleground that is notorious for its sluggish counting of ballots.
“We believe we are on track to win this election,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s victories in Florida, Ohio and Texas did not create a new path for him so much as close off new shortcuts by which Mr. Biden could have claimed victory on Election Day. In remarks made early Wednesday from the White House, the president was adamant that he would hold onto Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — all states with significant percentages of ballots left to count.
“We don’t need all of them” to win, he said.
His last chance for a flip is Nevada, which was expected to be a tight race, but one generally favoring Mr. Biden.
Otherwise, Mr. Trump’s path to winning a second term depends on holding onto the battleground Great Lakes states he won in 2016 and on retaining Georgia.
In Australia and Indonesia, crowds gathered around televisions in restaurants and cafes, trying to get a glimpse of American states turning red or blue. In Iran, the hashtag #Elections_America was trending on Persian Twitter, while in Japan, Fuji Television spent a good portion of Wednesday morning covering the election with graphics that mixed old-school cardboard cutouts with video-game-like avatars.
All over the world, as results trickled in across the American electoral map, it made for confounding, fascinating must-watch drama. The stakes are global, and so was the audience, glued to the sort of blanket news coverage most often reserved for elections closer to home.
“It’s kind of like the World Cup finals,” said Moch Faisal Karim, an international relations professor at Binus University in Indonesia.
The intense worldwide interest reflects the still-considerable power of America and the unpredictability that has shaped the last four years. President Trump has been a global disrupter in chief, seeking to redefine relations with American allies in Europe and Asia, working to blunt the rise of China and cozying up to autocrats in North Korea and Russia.
After surprise upon surprise during his first term, much of the world is desperate to know if the Trump era will continue, or if the United States will shift back toward the more traditional course that Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised.
But while many viewers would have liked nothing more than a quick resolution, there instead was uncertainty and angst. First came the quadrennial refresher courses on the complicated American approach to electing a president, and then, as votes were counted, the hours of waiting, as news websites and television channels filled with the 50-state maps and sliding charts familiar to Americans.
People around the world found themselves doing difficult Electoral College math, while trying to keep up with the patchwork of vote-counting procedures all over the United States. They tried to make sense of images of stores boarded up against the potential for violence, and, like Americans, they wondered what voters would decide and what each candidate would say to the world.
“The biggest issue for me is just how deeply divided the United States continues to be,” said Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, who admitted he had been watching television all day on Wednesday. “People just have not been able to shift their positions — it was this divided four years ago, and Trump fell over the line and not much has changed.”
Battle for the Senate
Democrats’ path to seizing the Senate continued to narrow into the early hours of Wednesday as Republicans held onto a cluster of seats in critical states and the two parties continued to fight to control the upper chamber of Congress in close contests across the country.
Democrats won a crucial seat in Arizona early Wednesday, with Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, defeating Senator Martha McSally, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated Senator Cory Gardner Tuesday night in the high-profile fight for Colorado’s Senate seat. Those victories were essential to Democrats’ push to take the Senate majority.
In Georgia, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a Democrat, advanced to a runoff election against Senator Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent. The other race in the state, between Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger, and Senator David Perdue, a Republican, was too close to call.
But Republicans across the country were successful in holding off well-funded challengers in a number of key races, casting a pall over the night for Democrats. In Montana, Senator Steve Daines defeated Gov. Steve Bullock and in Iowa, Senator Joni Ernst defeated Theresa Greenfield, a businesswoman who had styled herself as a “scrappy farm kid.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, hung onto his seat in South Carolina, fending off the toughest challenge of his political career from Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat whose upstart campaign electrified progressives across the country and inspired a record-setting onslaught of campaign cash.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, defeated a challenge from M.J. Hegar, a former Air Force pilot who Democrats hoped could have an outside chance of winning in the rapidly changing state. In Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, easily won re-election, defeating Amy McGrath, a Democrat who struggled to gain ground despite an outpouring of financial support from her party’s supporters around the nation. And Republicans succeeded in ousting Senator Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, who came to power in a 2017 special election against Roy S. Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting and pursuing teenage girls.
And early returns showed Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, with a lead over his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, in a seat that strategists in both parties identified as a possible tipping point.
There were still several crucial Senate races that were not yet called that Democrats hope to win, including Maine, and Democrats remained bullish on their chances in Georgia.
The argument President Trump made early Wednesday — that he had won an election in which millions of validly cast ballots remained to be counted — was a blatant misrepresentation of the electoral process.
No state ever reports final results on election night, no state is legally expected to, and if the Supreme Court were to force states to stop counting ballots simply because midnight on Tuesday has passed — as Mr. Trump said he would ask the justices to do — it would be an extraordinary subversion of the democratic process that would disenfranchise millions of voters who cast valid, on-time ballots.
There is nothing new or unusual about prolonged vote counts. In 2008, it took two weeks for Missouri to be called for John McCain. In 2012, it took four days for Florida to be called for Barack Obama. There was no dispute about the legitimacy of these results; it simply took time to finish counting the votes.
In fact, one of Mr. Trump’s own cherished victories, in Michigan in 2016, was confirmed only after two weeks of counting.
Americans are accustomed to knowing who won the presidency on election night because news organizations project winners based on partial counts, not because the entire count is completed that quickly. Because so many people voted by mail this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is taking longer in some states to make accurate projections. But the final, official results will come exactly when they always do: by the certification deadlines each state has set, ranging from two days after the election in Delaware to more than a month after in California.
Mr. Trump sought in his speech from the White House, just as he and his campaign sought in the weeks leading up to Election Day, to conflate two separate things: the casting of ballots after Election Day, and the counting of ballots after Election Day.
“We want all voting to stop,” he said, but it already has; no votes are currently being cast. What Mr. Trump is suggesting is that states not count ballots that were already cast.
The bald political nature of his speech was clear in the contradiction between his comments on Arizona, where Mr. Trump is trailing, and his comments on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where he has the illusion of large leads because huge numbers of votes from Democratic-leaning areas, like Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, haven’t been counted yet.
He complained that Fox News had called Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr. when many votes were still outstanding. Then, in the next breath, he suggested that he had definitively won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin despite the far larger numbers of votes still outstanding.
Control of the House
House Democrats are poised to maintain their majority but faced a series of early blows Tuesday night as Democrats in rural districts faced headwinds and Republican incumbents in suburban districts held their own.
House Democrats appeared to be running strong in most competitive districts they snatched up in 2018, and had begun the night confidently predicting that they would expand their majority, citing polling that showed a dismal national environment for Republicans and a revolt of affluent, suburban voters in traditional conservative strongholds thronging the country from the Midwest to Texas. In the final days of the race, Republican strategists had privately predicted losing anywhere from a handful of seats to 20 and focused their efforts on offsetting their losses in largely rural, white working-class districts.
But early returns did not appear to reflect the scale of losses that strategists in both parties had anticipated in the closing days of the race, as a number of Republican incumbents in suburban districts — that Democrats had hoped to take — held onto their seats, and as some Democratic incumbents who won in 2018 in districts where President Trump is popular faced defeat.
In the Midwest, Representatives Ann Wagner of Missouri, Don Bacon of Nebraska, and Rodney Davis of Illinois all retained their seats in districts where Democrats were confident they could win.
In Iowa, Representative Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat representing the northeastern swathe of the state, lost to Ashley Hinson, a former state legislator and television reporter. Representative Joe Cunningham, Democrat of South Carolina, also lost in a race against Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from Citadel.
With Mr. Trump making significant inroads with Cuban-Americans in the Miami area, Democrats were dealt twin surprise blows, with Representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, a former Health and Human Services secretary, both conceding their races early in the night in their adjoining districts.
President Trump has been declared the winner in Florida after pulling off a remarkable turnaround from 2016 in the Miami area, wooing conservative Cuban-American voters and other Latino groups in numbers sufficient to overcome Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s middling gains with white Floridians.
This is a big, though not huge, moment for his re-election hopes, mainly because it would have been all but impossible for him to win back the White House without capturing this state’s 29 Electoral College votes again.
Four years ago, Mr. Trump lost the Miami-Dade area by nearly 30 percentage points to Hillary Clinton. As of late Tuesday, that margin had shrunk to about eight percentage points with Mr. Biden at the top of the ticket — with Mr. Trump’s vote totals in that critical area increasing from 334,000 in 2016 to around 500,000 this year.
Mr. Biden spent far more time and resources courting Black voters, and he began to heavily invest in a major Latino outreach operation only late in the campaign. He had hoped he would come close to Mrs. Clinton’s benchmark, while siphoning off votes from Mr. Trump among disenchanted suburban whites and older voters.
If Mr. Biden could take any consolation from the loss, it was the fact that he marginally outperformed Mrs. Clinton in the county that includes Jacksonville, defeating Mr. Trump there, while exceeded her performance in Tampa and its suburbs, again by a small amount.
But while it was too early to draw any definitive conclusions about other states, one thing is clear: Mr. Biden had focused, since securing the nomination, on attracting white voters in the Midwest and elsewhere. He spent less time and resources on outreach to Latino voters.
Florida has been a heartbreak state for Democrats since George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore there in 2000 after a partial recount and an intervention on the part of the Supreme Court that effectively handed the election to Mr. Bush.
Polls had shown the race very tight — with many showing Mr. Biden with a lead — but Democrats were hardly confident going into the night, given the closeness of the polls.
Although many winners may quickly be evident on election night, the increase in mail voting because of the pandemic is expected to push back the release of full results in many key states.
The New York Times asked officials in every state and the District of Columbia about their reporting processes and what share of votes they expect to be counted by noon on Wednesday, Nov. 4. There is a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding results in any election, but here’s what they said to expect:
Many states will not have complete results tonight.
Even once the early and in-person ballots are counted, a significant number of votes could still be outstanding. Only nine states expect to have at least 98 percent of unofficial results reported by noon the day after the election. Officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two key battleground states, have said full official counts could take several days.
The increase in mail voting could also lead to more provisional votes cast, increasing the number of ballots counted later.
Results are never official until final certification, which occurs in each state in the weeks following the election.
The results at the beginning and at the end of the night will be skewed in some places.
The order in which different types of votes are reported could also make one party look stronger at various points in the night. Democrats are more likely to vote by mail this year, so in states where those will be the first type of ballots released, like Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, initial results could skew in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr. Places that report in-person Election Day votes first, like most parts of Virginia, will probably look better for President Trump.
But the initial skew in a state’s results may last only a short while, and it will be influenced by which counties or precincts in the state are the fastest to report.
After election night, there could also be misleadingly positive results for Mr. Trump in certain states, with mail ballots trickling in over the following days favoring Mr. Biden.
A major national voter protection hotline has received more reports of voter intimidation than it did in 2016, and results will be delayed in Georgia because of — what else would you expect in 2020? — a burst pipe at a site where election workers were counting absentee ballots.
But no ballots at the site in Atlanta were damaged by the water, election officials said. And despite the disconcerting increase in intimidation reports, with polls closed in more than half the country, voting and vote-counting continued to go more smoothly than many voting rights advocates had feared.
The night was shaping up to be, in other words, a mixed bag.
“I think it’s fairly safe to say that the extraordinary voter protection effort that we have seen this year, which proved strong and robust — combined with litigation that focused with laser precision on tearing down the restrictions and burdens faced by voters during the pandemic — has made today a relatively smooth Election Day across the country,” Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told reporters around 7 p.m. Eastern. “There indeed have been issues and may be issues as we move into the final hours of Election Day, but no doubt we were bracing for the worst and have been pleasantly surprised.”
The reports of intimidation include armed Trump supporters standing outside some polling places — including at least one in Charlotte, N.C., where the man was ultimately arrested, and one in Baker, La., where voters called the Lawyers’ Committee’s hotline to report a man waving a Trump flag and holding a large gun.
“The isolated incidents of voter intimidation have been problems that we cannot ignore,” Ms. Clarke said. “They have not been widespread and systematic, but they have been far greater in number than we have seen in recent elections and are a reflection of the dark times we are in as a nation.”
Republicans were also, as expected, trying to challenge ballots in some states — particularly Pennsylvania, where they were attempting to stop election officials from contacting voters whose mail ballots were rejected on technicalities to offer them provisional ballots. Some machines in Philadelphia malfunctioned early in the day. Voting hours were extended at some polling sites, including in Georgia and North Carolina, because of delays.
And yet, for all the anxiety and abnormality of this election — the masks, the six-foot divides, more than 100 million people casting ballots before the day even started — the voting machines worked, for the most part. The lines were at times long, but they moved quickly, for the most part.
Turnout appeared to be very high. Many states have already surpassed their vote totals from 2016, and Michael P. McDonald, a University of Florida professor who compiles data from across the nation, said earlier Tuesday that the country appeared to be on track for roughly 160 million total votes cast.
That would mean a turnout rate of about 67 percent of the eligible voting population — higher than the United States has seen in more than a century.