Joe Biden’s chances of wresting the White House from Donald Trump roared back to life on Wednesday, with the key battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona flipping blue, and the Democratic challenger leading the count in Nevada.
“Now, after a long night of counting, it’s clear that we’re winning enough states to reach 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency,” Biden said in an optimistic late afternoon address from Wilmington, Delaware. “I’m not here to declare that we’ve won, but I am here to report that when the count is finished, we believe we will be the winners.”
Even before the Associated Press called Biden the winner of Wisconsin, the Trump campaign said it planned to ask for a recount, despite being down by 20,000 votes.
The campaign also fired off a rash of legal challenges in multiple states, including a Supreme Court petition to intervene in mail-in ballot counting in Pennsylvania. Confusingly, the Trump campaign baselessly declared at the same time that they had won Pennsylvania.
As Tuesday night turned into early Wednesday, things looked eerily similar to 2016. Initial confidence—by Democrats, pollsters, and much of the political class—in a Biden victory took a massive hit when Florida started pivoting toward Trump, then fell further when Ohio and other states' surveys had suggested would be 50/50 battles turned out to be nothing of the sort.
Trump falsely claimed victory in an incendiary White House address at 2:45 a.m. But millions of votes were not yet counted and the result was far from clear in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia. And, by midday Wednesday, a path to victory for Biden was coming into clear focus.
In the key battleground state of Wisconsin, Biden was able to take a lead over Trump after Milwaukee’s mail-in ballots were added to the tally, and prevailed in the state, according to the Associated Press. Suddenly Trump’s tactic—to falsely claim victory and demand votes stop being counted immediately, and wage legal fights if need be—became even more transparent.
Sure enough, the president’s re-election campaign vowed to demand a recount before the vote in the Badger State had even been called. And Trump’s campaign manager announced in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the campaign was suing in Michigan because it “has not been provided with meaningful access to numerous counting locations to observe the opening of ballots and the counting process, as guaranteed by Michigan law.”
A spokesperson for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement following the Trump campaign’s announcement that “Michigan’s elections have been conducted transparently, with access provided for both political parties and the public, and using a robust system of checks and balances to ensure that all ballots are counted fairly and accurately.”
Nessel’s press secretary Ryan Jarvi added, “At this time our department has not been notified by the Court of Claims about this lawsuit and when we are served, we will review it and respond accordingly. Michigan will always continue to protect the rights of all voters to have their ballots counted.”
Other developments in the early hours of Wednesday morning had boosted Biden’s chances. They included the Associated Press calling Arizona for the former vice president, while also projecting that he would win a key electoral vote in the Omaha area in Nebraska.
The Trump orbit expressed vocal anger after Fox News made an earlier move calling Arizona late Tuesday, but a Biden victory in the state made his route to 270 electoral votes much cleaner than it would have been otherwise. The Nebraska electoral vote further boosted his chances, meaning Biden could still lose Pennsylvania but carry Michigan and Wisconsin and win the presidency. (In that scenario, Biden would also need to win Nevada, which was still undecided, as well.)
On Wednesday morning, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted that “hundreds of thousands of ballots in our largest jurisdictions are still being counted, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Warren & Sterling Heights.”
And in North Carolina, where Trump was leading, more clarity on the race is likely slow to come. According to a press release from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, “mail-in absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day will be accepted by county boards of elections until 5 p.m. November 12.”
Georgia and Pennsylvania were also still very much up in the air, but with more hope for Democrats than early returns might have suggested.
Georgia has been a reliably red state in presidential elections since Democrat Bill Clinton last won it in 1992. Unofficial results from Georgia showed Trump leading Biden by under 56,000 votes just after 6 p.m.—down from 76,000 earlier Wednesday afternoon.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, was emphatic that “every legal vote in Georgia will count,” during a press conference before midday. His office said in a later press release “that as of 8:00 p.m. today there are approximately 122,535 ballots still outstanding.”
The Trump campaign announced a separate lawsuit in Georgia late Wednesday focused specifically on the Chatham County Board of Elections. The legal action was much smaller in scope than the others announced earlier that day, with the campaign alleging based off of the testimony of a South Carolina man who was working as a Republican poll watcher in the county that he had “witnessed 53 late absentee ballots illegally added to a stack of on-time absentee ballots,” according to the lawsuit and the campaign’s statement.
Votes were still rolling in from Philadelphia as Biden mounted a late surge in Pennsylvania, even as the potential for legal disputes from the Trump campaign loomed. The state Supreme Court ruled in September that mail ballots would count if they were postmarked by Election Day and received by the Friday after the election. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block that decision last month, though ballots received after Election Day were to be segregated in anticipation the court might later do so.
As the 2020 election wore on into another day, a New York Times headline that “The Remaining Vote in Pennsylvania Appears to Be Overwhelmingly for Biden,” showed exactly why the state could be the major flashpoint from here on out.
Patience was urged in the state on Wednesday morning.
Speaking to reporters, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf made clear the votes would be “counted accurately and they will be counted fully,” before saying “make no mistake, our democracy is being tested in this election."
Wolf was frequently attacked by Trump in the final weeks of the campaign, as Trump stewed about the commonwealth being able to accept ballots postmarked by Election Day until Friday.
“The delay that we're seeing is a sign that the system is working, this is a new system,” Wolf said, noting the large number of mail-in ballots being counted in the state “takes longer,” than doing the same with in-person voting.
“So we may not know the results even today, but the most important thing is that we have accurate results,” Wolf said. “Again, even if that takes a little longer than we're used to.”
Despite concerns in the days ahead of the election about everything from vigilantism to legal fights, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar emphasized "how incredibly smooth," Election Day itself went.
“We are exactly where we said we would be,” Boockvar said. “So we said it was going to take some time to count the mail ballots, and we are approaching 50 percent of the mail ballots counted... But there are still millions of ballots left.”
Later in the day, the Trump campaign put out a scathing statement about Pennsylvania, baselessly saying, “Bad things are happening in Pennsylvania. Democrats are scheming to disenfranchise and dilute Republican votes.”
Trump 2020 Deputy Campaign Manager Justin Clark also outlined in the message different legal moves the campaign was making in the state, including “suing to temporarily halt counting until there is meaningful transparency and Republicans can ensure all counting is done above board and by the law.”
At a press conference Wednesday night, Wolf slammed the Trump campaign for filing “a lawsuit to stop the counting of the ballots in Pennsylvania,” calling it “simply wrong.”
“It goes against the most basic principles of our democracy,” Wolf said.
And Boockvar noted that “excellent progress” had been made on counting ballots in the state and she expected “hundreds of thousands more probably to be counted still tonight.”
“At this point, I think we’re actually probably a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be, which is great,” she said. “But still thinking, we’re talking about a matter of days before the overwhelming majority of ballots are counted.”
—with additional reporting from William Bredderman