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Deprived of a Quick Decision, Democrats Seek a Narrower Path

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign team began Election Day believing that the candidate had multiple routes to 270 electoral votes, as some Democrats dreamed of a landslide.

A day later, it was clear that the path to victory would be narrower, slower and more challenging than many Democrats had hoped, in a vivid reminder of how deeply polarized the nation is and how difficult it has been for the party to secure the votes of some of the diverse constituencies it had courted.

“I thought we were going to have it all over at 10 o’clock last night,” said former Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida. “Obviously, not only was I wrong on Florida, but what happened to Florida has been happening to the entire country.”

Saying that he remained confident that Mr. Biden would ultimately win the presidency, he joked, “I am wearing sackcloth and ashes.”

Mr. Biden has a clear path to the presidency, despite President Trump’s false claims about his own standing in the race. Mr. Biden flipped Wisconsin and Michigan, Midwestern states that were central to Mr. Trump’s path. He is leading in Arizona, another state that for decades was a Republican stronghold but rejected the party under Mr. Trump’s stewardship.

Wins in Nevada, where Mr. Biden narrowly leads, and in Arizona would bring him to 270 electoral votes, the bare minimum number he needs to make him the 46th president of the United States. And on Wednesday night, Georgia was too close to call, too.

In a speech in Wilmington on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Biden said he would reach 270. “I’m not here to declare that we’ve won,” he said, “but I am here to report that when the count is finished, we believe we will be the winners.”

Yet the initial results on Tuesday and Wednesday indicated a far closer race in key states than many political observers — and the polls — had anticipated. Mr. Biden lost Florida, apparently by a bigger margin than Hillary Clinton did, while the outcome in Pennsylvania, long a top political and personal priority for Mr. Biden, remained uncertain, though there were signs it was moving his direction.

In his remarks in Wilmington, Mr. Biden sought to signal that he was already looking past the election as he emphasized the need for the country to come together once the results are in.

“I know this won’t be easy; I’m not naïve,” he said. “I know how deep and hard the opposing views are in our country on so many things. But I also know this as well: To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies.”

Election night, however, underscored just how deep the divisions in the country are. A number of states that Democrats had been hopeful about — places like Ohio, Florida and even Texas, where Mr. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, campaigned — slipped out of range. And states where Mr. Biden was thought to have a comfortable lead, including Wisconsin and Michigan, were extremely close.

Ohio, Texas, Iowa, Florida and most likely North Carolina — all battlegrounds, all reaches for the campaign where it nonetheless made investments of the Democratic ticket’s time in the final week — remained Republican. It was a disappointment to some in Mr. Biden’s campaign who had hoped for an early night and an overwhelming rejection of Mr. Trump, even as they remained encouraged by news out of Arizona.

“Running the table in modern American politics is really hard,” said Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, who hung onto his seat in a part of the state that has become increasingly challenging for his party, and was optimistic about Mr. Biden’s chances over all.

Biden campaign officials had always said that they were seeking to create as many pathways to 270 electoral votes as possible, and Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, warned weeks ago that the race was closer than polls suggested.

“We were always clear that our initial pathway to victory was through the Upper Midwest,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden’s campaign, said on Wednesday. “The goal was to get 270 electoral votes, and we feel very confident that after the votes have been counted, that’s where we’re going to be — above 270, which is how you win the presidency in this country.”

But on Tuesday, campaign officials had also entertained the prospect of having a clear picture of the results early, suggesting that Mr. Biden would give a presidential speech that hit notes of leadership and national unity that evening. Instead, given the close nature of many races, in a year where many Americans voted by mail in a pandemic, he gave only brief remarks in the early hours of Wednesday, urging patience.

An examination of election returns in battleground states showed trouble spots for Mr. Biden in a number of states, Florida perhaps above all else.

The campaign made a significant play for the state, a perennial battleground, deploying the Democratic ticket and former President Barack Obama there in recent days. But as Mr. Biden’s allies in the state had warned, and some inside his campaign had worried, he faced challenges with portions of the diverse Latino community there. And for months, party officials in the state said, he was not especially visible on the ground, while Trump voters were palpably energized.

“Their message, their implied ‘socialism with a Biden win,’ scared a lot of folks in the South Florida area,” State Senator Janet Cruz, a Democrat, said in a pre-Election Day interview. “I call it like a zipper effect: You start with a little issue, you zip it right open. And it worked.”

Mr. Biden won Hispanics in the state by only five percentage points, according to preliminary exit polls, a sharp decrease from four years ago, when Mrs. Clinton won among that group by 27 points.

In one of his most notable setbacks, Mr. Biden was leading by only seven points in Miami-Dade County, which has a majority Hispanic population and many Cuban-American residents, a steep drop from Mrs. Clinton’s 29-point margin four years ago. In Osceola County in Central Florida, which has a large Puerto Rican population, Mr. Biden was ahead by 14 points, a notable decline from Mrs. Clinton’s 25-point advantage there.

Other states show the limitations of Mr. Biden’s efforts to pry away white voters who supported Mr. Trump in 2016. In Iowa, many Trump-friendly counties moved further to the right. The same pattern could be seen in Ohio.

Yet he also appeared, in some states like Pennsylvania, to make gains with other voters, including moderates and independents.

“My friends, I’m confident we’ll emerge victorious,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday. “There will be no blue states and red states when we win — just the United States of America.”

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