By Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt, Reuters
Democrat Joe Biden crept nearer to victory over Donald Trump on Thursday in an exceedingly close U.S. election that hinged on razor-thin margins in a handful of states, while the Republican president escalated his legal efforts to influence vote counting and made fresh unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud.
Biden, the former U.S. vice president, was chipping away at Trump’s leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia while retaining slim margins in Nevada and Arizona.
Ballot tabulation dragged on in those battleground states two days after polls closed, while protesters from both sides staged demonstrations in major cities over the vote counting.
After an acrimonious campaign waged during the coronavirus pandemic, the election appeared to be moving toward a nail-biting conclusion in the coming hours and perhaps days.
At stake is whether to give Trump and his “America First” policies four more years in office after a tumultuous first term or turn to Biden, a figure on the national stage for a half century who promises to deliver steadiness at home and repair overseas alliances.
There is still a narrow path for Trump to win if he holds on in Georgia, where he leads by 12,800 votes, and Pennsylvania, where he is ahead by 108,600 votes, and overtakes Biden in Arizona, where he trails by 68,100 votes, or Nevada, where he is 11,400 votes behind.
Trump, who attacked the integrity of the U.S. voting system during the campaign, again on Thursday alleged voting fraud without providing evidence and accused Democrats of aiming to “steal” the election.
His campaign has filed several lawsuits and called for a recount in Wisconsin. His latest move was a lawsuit announced on Thursday alleging voting fraud in Nevada.
“Be patient, folks,” Biden, who a day earlier predicted he would win, wrote on Twitter. “Votes are being counted, and we feel good about where we are.”
One of the most unusual presidential races in modern U.S. history was conducted amid the pandemic, which has killed more than 234,000 Americans and left millions more out of work. Concern about the virus caused a surge in voting by mail, with the laborious counting contributing to the delayed results.
Some legal experts called Trump’s legal challenges a long shot unlikely to affect the election outcome.
“What we are seeing on these legal suits are that they are meritless, and nothing more than an attempt to distract and delay what is now inevitable: Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States,” Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters.
Trump’s campaign predicted victory, with campaign manager Bill Stepien saying, “Donald Trump is alive and well” in the election.
Some of the outstanding votes in Georgia and Pennsylvania were clustered in places expected to lean Democratic – like the Atlanta and Philadelphia areas.
The president, who falsely declared victory a few hours after polls closed on Tuesday, lashed out on Thursday on Twitter and in a campaign statement in which he said, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win the election! If you count the illegal and late votes, they can steal the election from us!”
Trump wrote on Twitter, “STOP THE COUNT!” and “STOP THE FRAUD!” although he has no authority over ballot counting. He added that “all of the recent Biden claimed States will be legally challenged by us.
Despite Trump’s allegations, U.S. election experts have said fraud in balloting is very rare.
To capture the White House, a candidate must amass at least 270 votes in the state-by-state Electoral College. Such electoral votes are based largely on a state’s population.
Edison Research gave Biden a 243 to 214 lead in Electoral College votes on Thursday after calling a district in Maine for Trump. All major news outlets said Biden had won Wisconsin, which would give him another 10 votes.
Biden also led Trump by more than 3.7 million in the national popular vote, though that plays no role in deciding the winner. Trump lost the popular vote by about 3 million to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 but won crucial battleground states to take the White House in an upset victory.
He is trying to avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since fellow Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Trump, who has often relished legal battles during his long and turbulent business career, was at the White House working the phones and monitoring developments on television, two Trump advisers said. He has been talking to state governors as well as close friends and advisers and dispatched some of his closest advisers out in the field to fight for him.
Biden has largely remained at home in Delaware and has consulted with aides including legal adviser Bob Bauer.
The close election has underscored the political polarization in the United States and the deep divisions along racial, socioeconomic, religious and generational lines as well as between urban and rural areas.
Biden, even if he holds on to win, has not dealt Trump the overwhelming electoral defeat that Democrats had hoped for, reflecting the deep support the president enjoys among large swathes of the population, especially among white men, religious conservatives and rural residents.
After a summer of protests against racism and police brutality, some of which led to violence and looting, authorities are worried about mass demonstrations around the election but protests so far have been peaceful.
Demonstrators rallied in cities including Philadelphia, Washington, Phoenix and Detroit, for the second day in a row on Thursday.
Supporters of both candidates appeared outside a vote-counting center in Philadelphia on Thursday. A group of Trump backers held Trump-Pence flags and signs saying: “Vote stops on Election Day” and “Sorry, polls are closed.” Across the street were Biden supporters, who danced to music behind a barricade. Similar rallies were planned later in the day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital.
The Trump campaign said its Nevada lawsuit would allege a series of voting irregularities in populous Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, such as voting by people who left the state or were dead. Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt and other campaign figures who announced the lawsuit gave no evidence to support their allegations and refused to answer questions from reporters.
“My response is that we are not aware of any improper ballots that are being processed,” Joe Gloria, the Clark County registrar, told reporters, adding that Trump’s campaign has not presented him with any evidence showing otherwise.
In Pennsylvania, Trump’s campaign and other Republicans have already filed various legal challenges. An appeals court in Pennsylvania on Thursday ordered that Trump campaign officials be allowed to more closely observe ballot processing in Philadelphia.
The campaign on Wednesday also filed lawsuits in Michigan and Georgia. A judge on Thursday dismissed the Georgia suit.