WILMINGTON, Delaware—When former Vice President Joe Biden warned of a “dark winter” in his final debate with President Donald Trump, he was referring to rising cases of COVID-19 across the country. But as Americans woke up Wednesday morning to an unresolved presidential election, the final months of a year defined by fear and uncertainty now threaten to be even more chaotic.
As of Wednesday morning, Trump and Biden remained locked in a battle over the results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with the vote count likely to stretch on for days—all with the specter of Trump making good his campaign-trail promise to call for absentee ballots and mail-in votes to be disregarded in favor of votes cast in person.
The president has threatened for months not to recognize the results of any election he lost. Then, in an incendiary 2:22 a.m. statement from the East Room of the White House, Trump falsely declared victory and threatened to go to the Supreme Court for unspecified reasons. In an apparent attempt to conflate the counting of votes with the act of voting itself, Trump said that he wanted “all voting to stop,” which it has. What the president is really arguing is that valid votes should be tossed aside.
The reasoning behind the tactic became obvious later in the morning when, in the key battleground of Wisconsin, the addition of mail-in votes from Milwaukee shot Biden to a razor-thin lead in the state. In his earlier address, Trump cited Wisconsin as a state where he was winning to back up his false claim that he had already defeated Biden nationwide. A similar trend could be seen in Michigan, where Detroit and Dearborn votes were counted in Wayne County.
For its part, the Biden camp dismissed the president’s speech as a naked attempt to game the election, calling the statement “outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect” and warning Trump that there are “legal teams standing by” to extinguish any attempt to end counting.
Early vote totals in electoral heavy-hitters like Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio were reassuring for Biden, buoyed by record-breaking numbers of early and mail-in ballots that disproportionately lean Democratic. But as in-person totals trickled in, Trump’s tallies in those states overcame the former vice president’s lead.
By 9:30 p.m. ET, Democratic hopes of a landslide victory for Biden—and a decisive rejection of Trumpism—had evaporated. Instead, the Biden campaign was facing a path to victory that lay squarely through the “Rust Belt” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Together, the three states have 46 kingmaking electoral votes, although state rules regarding the counting of mail-in ballots mean that final results for the states may not be ready for days.
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, predicted to reporters on Tuesday night that the state could “potentially see a full result of every tabulation out of Michigan in the next 24 hours.” In Pennsylvania, where half of the state’s nearly 3 million anticipated votes are expected to be cast absentee, the state was legally barred from processing ballots before Election Day—and some counties may not have a full tally until the end of the week.
But promising numbers in the longtime Republican stronghold of Arizona—a state that has only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate one time since the 1940s—potentially open a wider path for Biden. The former vice president can now cross the 270-vote threshold in the Electoral College without Pennsylvania, so long as he can win Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nebraska’s second congressional district.
Over at the Trump White House, as Tuesday turned into early Wednesday, the president and some of his closest advisers and family members were still holding an Election Night watch party, with a sense of incredibly premature victory filling the room. Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump who attended the White House bash, told The Daily Beast that the mood, from the president on down, was “fantastic,” even as some top advisers were starting to break a minor, private sweat.
“Midwest seems dicey for us. We’ll see,” one senior Trump aide said.
Various Trump aides and associates milling about the White House party spent much of the evening assuring The Daily Beast that they now felt that they had this election in the bag, expressing increasing-by-the-minute confidence in critical states such as Pennsylvania as well as a belief that Arizona would be fine—despite a latter call by Fox News that it would go to Biden.
When Fox News made that call, it inspired an immediate backlash from Team Trump, with two top officials venting to The Daily Beast how “bullshit,” in one of the adviser’s words, the right-leaning network’s call seemed. The president himself, the other official noted, was taken aback and “pissed” at the development, and “didn’t believe it.” Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser on the re-election campaign, took to Twitter to call on Fox to “retract their call immediately.”
Shortly before 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday, the president posted to Twitter, “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it.” Trump added that votes “cannot be cast” after the “Poles,” by which he clearly meant “polls” had closed.
Ellis told The Daily Beast shortly after 1 a.m. that “we are [still] very confident,” and “the mood inside the White House is excited and we’re looking forward to four more years!” The Trump legal adviser also noted that if it goes to a contested election, she would be involved in the legal fight against the Democrats. “We are prepared to litigate if needed to ensure we protect the Constitution and free and fair elections,” she said.
President Trump had privately told those close to him in the days before the election that if Electoral College victory appeared to hinge on uncounted ballots in critical states like Pennsylvania, Florida or Michigan, he could declare preemptive victory based on early vote tallies, regardless of the number of mail-in or absentee ballots that remained to be counted. He also told confidants he wanted Republican lawyers on standby and “ready to fight” at a moment’s notice, if election night were to be thrown into uncertainty. That so-called “red mirage,” as former Housing Secretary Julían Castro dubbed it in a public-service announcement to voters last week, “sounds like a super-villain—and it’s just as insidious.”
“There’s a real possibility that the data will show Republicans leading early, before all the votes are counted,” Castro described at the time. “Then they can pretend something sinister’s going on when the counts change in Democrats’ favor.”
Or, as a source close to Biden grimly told The Daily Beast, “Trump will burn down the country if he can rule over the ashes.”
Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, however, the former vice president encouraged supporters to trust the process—and told them that despite the delays, “we believe we’re on track to win this election.”
“We knew this was gonna go long… but look, we feel good about where we are. We really do!” Biden said at the Chase Center, telling a crowd of honking automobiles that he was confident that he would pull off a victory in Pennsylvania. “It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who’s won the election—that’s the place of the American people.”
“Keep the faith guys, we’re going to win this,” Biden continued. Attendees in masks scurried around the parking lot, while others in their vehicles continued to honk, sometimes at length, after Biden spoke. Displaying one of the only similarities to a traditional campaign event, some Biden fans held flags and signs donning the nominee’s last name.
Leading up to Biden’s speech at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, supporters gathered mostly in their cars in a roughly half-filled parking lot outside of the Chase Center. One woman popped her head out of her sunroof in anticipation of the former vice president’s arrival. Another car, a convertible parked in a separate section, had its top down despite the 39-degree chill in Wilmington.
Several big -creen televisions were turned on to MSNBC with the sound on. Host Steve Kornacki’s voice boomed across the lot, before a rotation of other anchors and guests chatted about the incomplete results. Various cars started honking forcefully when Rachel Maddow announced that Biden was “in the lead” in Minnesota.
In Pennsylvania, for example, state law actually forbade the counting of mail-in ballots before Election Day. And top election officials there have said it could take days, particularly with the crush of absentee votes cast in the midst of the pandemic, to have a final result. In the months ahead of Election Day, the Trump re-election campaign, the Republican National Committee, and numerous conservative allies had already exhausted vast resources and millions of dollars on legal squabbles and advertising campaigns aimed at chipping away at the practice of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
The president, for his part, has apparently been making preparations for a contested election. In the days leading up to Election Day, White House complex was barricaded with non-scalable fencing, and 600 National Guard troops were tasked with deploying to the nation’s capital if the secretary of the Army requested their presence to quell potential protests.
For voters already on the knife’s edge of stability, the prospect of a repeat of the highly contested 2000 presidential election, which stretched into mid-December and was only resolved with a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court, now hangs over the as-yet-undetermined results as the nation simultaneously grapples with a strengthening pandemic—a historic collision of national crises.
Biden, who has framed the campaign from its outset as a “battle for the soul of the nation” itself, had warned in the closing days of the campaign that Trump would dismiss all but an overwhelming victory by the former vice president—a victory that, as of yet, has not materialized. Asked in a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Sunday about reports that Trump would seek to call the race early, Biden said confidently that “the president is not going to steal this election.”
But the Biden campaign was less confident in a clear-cut result in recent weeks, telling high-dollar donors that it was raising funds in anticipation of a drawn-out legal battle on multiple fronts in the event that Trump contested the election.
“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure the election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to create fear and confusion with our voting system, or interfere in the democratic process,” Biden campaign spokesperson Michael Gwin told The Daily Beast last month.
In Wilmington, chilly Biden supporters made it clear that—at least in front of reporters—they are taking that message to heart. After Biden spoke, one woman sat on top of the roof of her Ford SUV, white blanket on her lap, waving a small American flag while “Freedom” by Beyoncé played loudly over the sound system.
“Imma keep running cuz the winner don’t quit on themselves,” the lyrics went.