The most polarised US election in decades was on a knife-edge early Wednesday morning as US President Donald Trump appeared to have held off predictions of a sweeping Democratic wave. Democratic challenger Joe Biden, however, also scored key wins.
Against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 230,000 lives in the United States, a quick Biden triumph – dreamed of by some Democrats – looked unlikely with key states too close to call.
Trump enjoyed a slim but vital lead in Florida, widely considered a must win to retain the presidency, despite opinion polls that had shown Biden edging even or ahead.
"It's happening," Trump senior advisor Jason Miller wrote on Twitter of the election, although only Fox News had so far called Florida for the president.
Exit polls showed Trump capturing swathes of the Latino vote, making strong gains among Cuban-US citizens after the Republican tycoon's relentless attacks against leftist leaders in Latin America and rhetorical attempts to link them to Biden.
Biden's team has long insisted that it doesn't need to win Florida and analysts pointed to gains for the Democrat in some Trump areas of the state that might bode well in other big states.
Biden for his part enjoyed early strength in Arizona, which Trump carried four years earlier, and he was neck-and-neck in Ohio and Texas – two states where the Democrat a few weeks ago saw little chance.
And Biden – as expected – collected the biggest prize of the night with a win in solidly Democratic California.
But attention quickly turned to results emerging from Georgia and North Carolina, two more states Biden hopes to wrest away, and the Midwestern trio of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – in which Trump squeaked out surprise 2016 wins over Hillary Clinton that handed him the White House.
With a record more than 100 million citizens having voted ahead of Election Day due to the Covid-19 pandemic, definitive final results could easily take hours or even days to be tabulated.
Race for Congress
Networks projected the Democrats to have maintained control of the House of Representatives, as widely expected, but it remains to be seen if they can win back the Senate.
The Democrats flipped one Senate seat from the Republicans in Colorado, with former governor John Hickenlooper projected to triumph, but were also expected to lose an especially vulnerable senator in Alabama.
Trump, 74, expressed confidence as the evening approached, tweeting in all his characteristic all-caps: "WE ARE LOOKING REALLY GOOD ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. THANK YOU!"
It was not clear whether Trump – who was holding a watch party at the White House – would speak to the public at some point but he said earlier Tuesday that he wasn't yet "thinking about a concession speech or acceptance speech."
"Winning is easy," he said. "Losing is never easy -- not for me."
Biden, hunkered down with family at home in Delaware, likewise said voter patterns during the day seemed to favor his side.
"What I'm hearing is that there's overwhelming turnout. And overwhelming turnout particularly of young people, of women, and an overwhelming turnout of African American voters, particularly in Georgia and Florida, over the age of 65," he told reporters.
"The things that are happening bode well for the base that has been supporting me."
Accepting the results?
Trump has repeatedly refused to confirm he will accept the results of the election – a first for a US president. He argues, without offering proof, that the vast number of mail-in ballots could be used to rig the polls against him.
In the final run-up to Election Day, Trump focused especially on Pennsylvania, which allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive afterward.
Trump somewhat dampened fears that he will try to declare victory prematurely, telling Fox News that he will only declare "when there is victory."
"There is no reason to play games," he said.
Americans could not be more divided over Trump. For some he represents a breath of fresh air who brought his business instincts to shake up the Washington establishment. For the other half of the country, he is a corrupt leader who wrecked the US reputation abroad and stoked dangerous racist and nationalist sentiments at home.
In Miami, Juan Carlos Bertran, a 60-year-old Cuban-American mechanic, said Trump "seems better to me for the country's economy."
"Now I have two jobs," he said. "Before I only had one."
But voting in New York, Megan Byrnes-Borderan, 35, said Trump's threats to challenge the election results in the courts were "scary."
"I believe that Trump will go through all odds to try to win the election," she said.
Outside the White House, a boisterous, peaceful protest in a plaza renamed for the Black Lives Matter movement turned heated as the night wore on, with scuffling after a person appeared to throw a gas cannister.
In Portland, the centre of confrontations this summer between leftist protesters and police, some 400 people marched toward the downtown under a watchful eye of state police.
Question of Covid
Biden has tapped into widespread public disapproval for Trump's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more people in the United States than any country.
Trump – who recovered quickly from his own bout with the virus in October – is gambling that Americans want to put the crisis behind them and reopen the economy fully. Biden, in contrast, is preaching caution and accuses the president of having abandoned his basic responsibilities.
"We're done with the chaos! We're done with the tweets, the anger, the hate, the failure, the irresponsibility," Biden said at an election eve rally in Cleveland, Ohio.
Fears of Covid-19 drove the huge flow of early voters, encouraged by Biden. Trump has countered by holding dozens of mass election rallies with no social distancing, underlining his message that it's time to move on.
One notable win in the Senate was for the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who easily fended off a challenge in Kentucky.
And in Georgia, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene – a political newcomer who has promoted the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory – won a seat in the US House of Representatives, giving the widely debunked movement a voice in Congress.