After a rancorous presidential campaign that exposed the depth of the political divisions in the United States, Americans streamed to the polls on Tuesday to choose either incumbent Donald Trump or challenger Joe Biden to lead a pandemic-battered nation for the next four years.
Voters lined up around the country to cast ballots in election that many observers and pundits argue tilts toward Biden, but is still very much in Trump's grasp - with few willing to make all out predictions.
However, American University Professor Allan Lichtman, whose election forecasting model has correctly predicted every U.S. presidential election since 1984, including Trump in 2016, says the die is already cast.
Lichtman told Fox News over the weekend that his model, based on which candidate wins more "keys," had Trump winning before 2020 took a turn with the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.
In 2016, Lichtman says, candidate Trump had only six "keys" against him, but today "Trump the incumbent, has seven Keys against him."
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"My prediction is that Donald Trump will become the first sitting president since George H. W. Bush in 1992 to lose a reelection bid, and Joe Biden will become the next president of the United States."
Ahead of Election Day, just over 100 million voters cast early ballots either by mail or in person, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, driven by concerns over crowded polling places during the coronavirus pandemic as well as extraordinary enthusiasm. The total has shattered records and prompted some experts to predict the highest voting rates since 1908.
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Biden, the Democratic former vice president who has spent a half century in public life, has held a consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president and appeared to have multiple paths to victory in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines the winner.
But Trump is close enough in several election battleground states that he could repeat the type of upset he pulled off in 2016, when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton despite losing the national popular vote by about 3 million ballots. The president is aiming to avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Supporters of both candidates appeared to agree the election was a referendum on Trump and his tumultuous first term.
Monique King, a 54-year-old surgical technologist, headed straight for her polling site at a college basketball gym in Santa Monica, California, at 7 a.m. after finishing a 12-hour overnight shift at her hospital.
"I think that the coronavirus was mishandled," King said. "I think we have too many deaths. I can't do another four years of Trump. ... Lie after lie after lie."
In McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, voters lined up, bundled in jackets and hats on a chilly morning.
"He's a bit of a jerk, and I appreciate that," Martin Seylar, a 45-year-old welder who had just finished his shift, said of Trump, his preferred candidate. "He doesn't get everything that he says done, but the way I see it is he's trying, versus where everybody else blows smoke at us."
Trump, sounding tired and hoarse after days of frenetic campaigning, predicted that he would win during a phone interview on Fox News on Tuesday morning.
"We have crowds that nobody's ever had before," said Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats for holding packed rallies in defiance of social-distancing recommendations. "I think that translates into a lot of votes."
Biden traveled to his birthplace of Scranton in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning. Speaking to a couple dozen volunteers using a bullhorn, Biden returned to some of his familiar campaign themes, promising to unite Americans and "restore basic decency and honor to the White House."
He later stopped at his childhood home, where he signed one of the living room walls, writing: "From this house to the White House with the grace of God. Joe Biden 11-3-2020."
Biden's low-key stop in Scranton was in sharp contrast to Trump's appearance there on Monday, when he delivered a speech to more than 5,000 supporters at an outdoor rally.
Among the most closely contested states that are expected to determine the outcome are Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, with Democrats hoping that Biden may even threaten Trump in states that once seemed like Republican locks such as Ohio, Iowa and Texas.
The pandemic, which has killed more than 231,000 Americans and left millions more jobless, ensured that Election Day felt far from normal, with poll workers and voters in masks and people standing several feet apart. Experts predict the vote total could reach 160 million, exceeding the 138 million ballots cast in 2016.
In anticipation of possible protests, some buildings and stores were boarded up in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and New York. Federal authorities erected a new fence around the White House perimeter.
U.S. stocks moved higher on Tuesday, as investors wagered that Biden would prevail and usher in fresh stimulus spending.