With no winner declared in the 2020 presidential race, President Trump appeared in the White House just after 2 a.m. on Wednesday to brazenly claim he had already won the election — and to insist that votes stop being counted even though the ballots of millions of Americans had yet to be tallied.
Speaking with a mix of defiance, anger and wonder that the election had not yet been called in his favor, the president recounted his standing in an array of battleground states before falsely declaring: “Frankly, we did win this election.”
No news organizations declared a winner between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., and a number of closely contested states still had millions of mail-in ballots to count, in part because state and local Republican officials had insisted that they not be counted until Election Day.
Mr. Trump said, without offering any explanation, that “we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” and added: “We want all voting to stop.”
No elected leader has the right to unilaterally order votes to stop being counted, and Mr. Trump’s middle-of-the-night proclamation amounted to a reckless attempt to hijack the electoral process as results in key battleground states were still not final, something without precedent in American politics.
The president contradicted himself about the vote-counting as he claimed he was gaining strength in Arizona, where votes cast on Election Day were breaking in his favor but where mail-in ballots favored Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee. Mr. Trump spoke at times from a teleprompter, but he veered off his prepared remarks to make unfounded claims about voting fraud. “We don’t want them to find any more ballots at 4 in the morning,” he said.
The president made his remarks as Mr. Biden was leading in Arizona, a battleground that has been trending more toward Democrats in recent years. If Mr. Biden were to win there, it would be the first state Mr. Trump won in 2016 that flipped to the Democrats this year.
A short time before Mr. Trump spoke, Mr. Biden adopted a different tone and approach as he addressed supporters in his home state of Delaware. Mr. Biden projected optimism but asked voters for patience. He pointed to Pennsylvania and Michigan, among other battlegrounds, as slow-counting states that he expected to win.
“As I’ve said all along, it’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who’s won this election,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s the decision of the American people. But I’m optimistic about this outcome.”
Mr. Biden added: “It ain’t over till every vote is counted.”
His campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, issued a statement on Wednesday morning condemning Mr. Trump’s remarks. “The president’s statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented and incorrect,” she said, adding, “It will not happen.”
“If the president makes good on his threat to go to court to try to prevent the proper tabulation of votes,’’ she said, “we have legal teams standing by ready to deploy to resist that effort. And they will prevail.’’
Mr. Trump’s remarks added another bizarre twist to one of the most extraordinary election cycles in the nation’s history. For weeks leading up to Election Day, and in voting across the country on Tuesday, Americans overcame their fears of the coronavirus, long lines at the polls and the vexing challenges of a transformed voting system to bring the campaign to a conclusion, with the fate of Mr. Trump’s tumultuous White House reign hanging in the balance.
Voter enthusiasm never waned. Turnout was expected to break the record of 139 million votes set in 2016, and the percentage of eligible Americans who voted might be the highest in more than a century. More than 100 million early votes had already been cast before Election Day, a record.
As of early Wednesday morning, the race remained shrouded in uncertainty, as Mr. Biden failed to achieve any early breakthroughs, and as Mr. Trump clung to a lead in a number of Southern states that Democrats had hoped to flip into their column.
Mr. Trump dashed Democrats’ hopes of picking up both Florida and Ohio, two swing states that have tilted to the right in recent years, and that Mr. Trump carried four years ago. He also turned back a challenge from Mr. Biden in Iowa, a smaller state where Mr. Biden made a late effort to pick up its six Electoral College votes.
Mr. Trump did not have a clear upper hand, but the prolonged suspense was, at least at the start, something of a victory for the president, who was at risk of being eliminated from contention if one of the big, historically Republican states of the Southeast had defected to Mr. Biden. That was still a possibility in North Carolina or Georgia, where the vote tally was closely divided.
In Georgia, there appeared to be a large number of uncounted ballots in the Atlanta metro area, and those votes were expected to tilt solidly to Mr. Biden. And in a number of the state’s rural counties, Mr. Biden was slightly outperforming the margins posted by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who lost a race for governor there two years ago by about 55,000 votes.
Vote-counting was moving relatively slowly in some battleground states on Tuesday night because of the scale of the turnout, a backlog of absentee ballots received by mail and scattered problems with processing the vote. And each state handled the counting and releasing of its ballots differently.
Ohio, for example, released the results of all of its mail ballots after the polls closed — making the state seem to tilt toward Mr. Biden until more Election Day votes were cast. Similarly, Michigan released its day-of votes in the first hours after polls closed, making it seem that Mr. Trump enjoyed a wide advantage in a hotly contested state.
Much of the uncertainty hanging over the election arose from the inconsistent or patchwork array of state-level policies hurriedly put in place to enable voting amid a public health disaster. In a number of states, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, local Republican officials blocked Democrats’ efforts to make it easier to count ballots cast before Election Day, raising the possibility of a drawn-out count in some of the most important battlegrounds — the very occurrence Mr. Trump protested Wednesday morning.
Democrats feared that in some cases a Supreme Court now dominated by conservative justices could ultimately limit vote-counting in a way that would aid Mr. Trump, a possibility the president raised in his remarks.
For all the angst about a potential breakdown in voting procedures in advance of Election Day, there were no prominent reports of technological failures or chaos at the polls, nor was there any evidence of significant civil unrest midway through the evening. There was still the potential for considerable uncertainty in the slower-counting states, but none of the numerous doomsday scenarios on the logistics of voting seemed to come to pass.
Mr. Biden, the former vice president, was outperforming Hillary Clinton in a number of the country’s large metropolitan areas, but Mr. Trump was reprising or enlarging his margins in many rural areas. With far less support going to third-party candidates this year, Mr. Biden was effectively picking up many of those votes in urban areas while Mr. Trump was adding them to his margins in less populated areas.
In the battle for the Senate, Democrats gained a seat they were widely expected to win in Colorado, as former Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated Senator Cory Gardner, a first-term Republican. But Republicans made up for that setback in Alabama, where Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat elected in a 2017 special election, lost the seat to Tommy Tuberville, the former football coach.
While it was too early to say which party would control the chamber in January, Democrats faced disappointment in three solidly red states where they were making a bid to stretch the campaign map. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, easily defeated Jaime Harrison; Representative Roger Marshall of Kansas defended an open seat that Democrats had contested aggressively; and Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa turned back a challenge from Theresa Greenfield.
The absence of a decisive shift toward Mr. Biden in the conservative-leaning states that reported their votes earliest raised the prospect of a drawn-out wait for clarity in the Northern battlegrounds, where both parties expected him to run stronger.
In several of the largest swing states on the map, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, local officials were strictly limited in their ability to process ballots cast before Election Day, making it unlikely that they would be called for either candidate by the end of Tuesday night.
Still, the possibility of a romping victory by Mr. Biden appeared far slimmer than it did going into Election Day, based on a mountain of public polling data that showed him to be a clear front-runner across virtually the entire map.
Mr. Biden, 77, appeared to be underperforming with Latino voters, especially in the critical battleground of Florida, where he led Mr. Trump by only single digits in the group, according to exit polls. Mrs. Clinton won Latinos in the state by a wider margin four years ago; Mr. Trump’s improvement appeared to reflect the success of his insistent anti-socialist message in South Florida, where Cuban-Americans and other immigrant communities are wary of far-left policies.
As states began to be called there were no early surprises. Mr. Biden picked up states throughout the Northeast as well as Virginia and Illinois, and the reliable Democratic prizes of New York and California, according to The Associated Press. Mr. Trump won in parts of the South, as well as conservative-leaning Indiana and West Virginia and states in the Northern Plains.
Mr. Biden carried New Hampshire, a small state Mrs. Clinton won by a tiny margin four years ago. Mr. Trump had tried to seize the mercurial Northeastern state this time, but fell well short of doing so.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the winter recast the election as a referendum on Mr. Trump’s leadership in a crisis, restricted the activities of candidates up and down the ballot and upended the voting habits of tens of millions of Americans.
To the end, Mr. Trump insisted that the pandemic was quickly dissipating, despite mountains of evidence that the virus was spreading more rapidly than ever throughout the country. He blamed Democrats and the news media for overhyping the threat from the virus, and never formulated a factual rebuttal to Mr. Biden’s charge that his passivity and ineptitude had led to thousands of needless deaths.
Mr. Trump campaigned vigorously across battleground states in the final days, hoping that a robust turnout from late-voting Republicans and rural white people would help him overcome the advantages Mr. Biden had built across a diverse coalition, especially with white suburban women.
Mr. Biden, who held a steady lead in the polls throughout the general election, maintained a more modest pace with smaller gatherings that showcased his emphasis on public safety in a health crisis. He spent the final days of the race denouncing Mr. Trump’s failure to control the pandemic and his public attacks on scientists in his own administration.
Mr. Biden’s candidacy also had the potential to create a history-making moment for his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent; she was seeking to become the first woman on a winning presidential ticket. And Mr. Biden would be only the second Catholic president, along with John F. Kennedy.
According to recent polls, Mr. Biden appeared to have succeeded in making himself a kind of safe harbor for a wide array of voters unhappy with Mr. Trump, including women, white voters with college degrees, people of color, young people and older adults. But Mr. Biden’s coalition was more impressive for its breadth than its depth, and despite its size and diversity, most voters supporting him appeared more excited to reject Mr. Trump than to install Mr. Biden in his place.
Mr. Trump, by contrast, was relying on a far narrower base of support: rural and less educated white voters, and especially men, who continued to embrace his message of hard-edge nationalism and cultural grievance even as the economic downturn deprived Mr. Trump of the chance to campaign on several years of comfortable growth.
Even aside from the pandemic, the 2020 campaign unfolded against a backdrop of national tumult unequaled in recent history, including the House’s vote to impeach the president less than a year ago, a remarkable wave of racial justice protests in the spring, spasms of civil unrest throughout the summer, the death of a Supreme Court justice in September, and the hospitalization of the president in October.
As a result, Election Day arrived with the nation on edge, confused in some places about new voting systems and court battles over the electoral process, and worried about flare-ups of violence in the aftermath of a disputed result.
Mr. Trump, 74, encouraged those fears, and the underlying social divisions that fostered them: On the eve of the election, he made a baseless claim that a court decision on Pennsylvania’s ballot-counting procedures would lead to street violence. No American presidential race in half a century or more has featured the same scale of civil unrest and uncertainty about the legitimacy of the political process, and no modern campaign has been so defined by an incumbent president who seemed to relish both factors the way Mr. Trump has.
Recent opinion surveys found that Mr. Biden had a strong advantage among people who had already voted. For Mr. Trump, catching up would depend on turning out voters in large numbers on Election Day and winning them by a sizable margin.
The race was the most expensive presidential campaign ever, and Mr. Trump’s much-lauded messaging apparatus was quickly eclipsed by a behemoth Biden operation that caught and far surpassed the Trump campaign in fund-raising. In the final month of the campaign, Mr. Biden’s spending surged, giving him a more than two-to-one advantage on the airwaves and online, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting from Cleveland, Nick Corasaniti from Philadelphia and Giovanni Russonello from New York.