Joe Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States on Saturday when Pennsylvania delivered the electoral votes he needed to claim the White House, ending a vitriolic campaign that sorely tested the nation amid a pandemic and deep partisan divisions.
The result also amounted to a crushing verdict on the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who became the first incumbent to lose his reelection bid in nearly 30 years.
The win caps an extraordinary three-decade pursuit of the presidency for Biden, the former vice president and before that longtime senator from Delaware.
It also ushers the nation to a historic milestone as his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, is the first woman and person of color to become vice president-elect.
Biden and Harris prepared to declare victory in Wilmington, where the former vice president lives.
It is rare for sitting presidents to lose at the polls. Incumbents seeking a second term have won 17 of 24 times since 1860, a better than 70% success rate. The last president to lose his reelection bid was George H.W. Bush in 1992.
But Trump faced powerful countervailing forces: a once-in-a-century pandemic, the resulting economic collapse, and a wrenching debate over the country’s painful history of racial discrimination.
Alone among modern presidents, Trump’s approval rating never surpassed 50% in a reliable opinion survey — his provocative behavior, racist comments and trampling of presidential norms ensured that. But he also never tried to broaden his support, focusing on his base among conservative, mostly white, rural and exurban voters — many of them thrilled by his outrageous antics — while largely ignoring, or antagonizing, others.
His cavalier handling of the coronavirus — which has killed more than 235,000 Americans and sent millions more to the hospital — proved his undoing in the way the Vietnam War ended the career of President Johnson, the Iranian hostage crisis damaged President Carter, and a limp economy hurt Bush. All either lost or gave up their reelection hopes in great part because they appeared to be overmatched by events.
Even so, Biden’s victory was hard-won and came only after a days-long and divisive counting of the votes, brought on by the exigencies of the pandemic, which led many voters to cast ballots by mail. Also contributing were the machinations of Trump and his supporters, who blocked measures in several key states that would have allowed those mail ballots to be processed more quickly.
The final drama centered on four states — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona — where vote-counting continued three days after the election as the Trump campaign filed multiple legal claims in a largely unsuccessful effort to slow or block the tabulations.
The turning point came Friday morning, when Biden’s tally first surpassed Trump’s in Pennsylvania, where a trove of 20 electoral college votes was at stake.
Trump had led there since election day, when he was up by more than 700,000 votes. But the gap steadily narrowed as mail ballots from the state’s heavily Democratic metropolitan areas were slowly counted.
Amid the count, Trump and his allies continued to make accusations of fraud but offered no evidence of widespread problems.
On Saturday morning, the president baselessly claimed on Twitter that “tens of thousands of votes were illegally received after 8 P.M. on Tuesday, Election Day, totally and easily changing the results in Pennsylvania and certain other razor thin states.”
Trump’s repeated and unfounded allegations represented an extraordinary and desperate attempt to undermine the country’s faith in the democratic process as he neared defeat.
Rather than remain holed up in the White House on Saturday, Trump went to his Virginia golf course. Shortly before arriving in his motorcade, he falsely tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”
In Georgia, where Biden pulled ahead to a lead of 7,248 votes, state election officials said the race would likely go to a recount. Under Georgia law, a losing candidate can request a recount if the margin between two candidates is 0.5% or less of the total vote.
Trump’s campaign has also indicated it will ask for a recount in Wisconsin, where Biden leads by around 20,500 votes, and it insists that Nevada remains in play, even though the president trails by nearly 23,000 votes as the counting continues. The result in North Carolina also remains uncertain, but Trump holds the lead there.
Any recounts could prolong the partisan jockeying but are unlikely to affect Biden’s status as victor. Recounts rarely turn enough votes to change an outcome, and Pennsylvania gives Biden enough electoral college votes to win even without the other states.
From the outset of his campaign, Biden cast the election as a “battle for the soul” of a country that was being transformed by an erratic, divisive Trump presidency. He prevailed over a sprawling primary field of mostly younger and more progressive candidates largely because Democrats viewed him as the best-equipped to defeat Trump, unify the party and win back white working-class voters who had defected to Trump.
Winning Pennsylvania, along with previously declared states of Wisconsin and Michigan, fulfilled Biden’s core strategic goal: rebuilding the “blue wall” of traditionally Democratic states in the industrial Midwest that Trump claimed in 2016.
More broadly, Biden prevailed by assembling a Democratic coalition of women, college-educated men, and Black and Latino voters.
He also won independents — the free-floating bloc that often decides elections — 54% to 40%, according to preliminary exit polling. Four years ago, the exit polls showed Trump winning independent voters 48% to 42%.
Biden, who was criticized by some fellow Democrats as too old, too centrist and too politically cautious, outperformed Hillary Clinton by several measures in addition to his larger share of the popular vote.
He cut Trump’s margin among male voters, nearly breaking even, and outperformed Clinton among female voters even as she ran to become the first woman to win the White House.
With the COVID-19 pandemic as a worrisome backdrop, Biden carried voters older than 65, according to exit polls. That group went for Trump four years ago. Biden also expanded Democratic support among voters ages 18 to 29, who during the party’s primaries strongly preferred his left-leaning rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Notably, however, Trump made some gains among two groups that have been key to Democratic successes: Black and Latino voters.
He won 12% of Black voters, compared with 8% four years ago, and upped his share of the Latino vote from 29% to 32%, exit polls indicated.
Biden’s four decades in public life spanned the period from Richard Nixon’s presidency, when he first was elected to the Senate, and includes eight years as vice president to America’s first Black president, Barack Obama.
His triumph over Trump, whose presidency was devoted in large measure to undoing Obama’s legacy, was a tribute both to his raw political ambition and to the personal determination that helped him overcome a stutter in his childhood and remain undeterred by humiliating defeats in the early rounds of the 2020 Democratic primary.
No one was scared off when Biden entered the contest in April 2019. To the contrary, the Democratic field grew to a floorboard-busting 26 candidates. Other candidates vastly outraised him, and the crowds he drew, back when social distancing wasn’t a thing, were embarrassingly small.
Biden finished a dismal fourth in the Iowa caucuses, and eight days later performed even worse in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth. By then, many had written him off.
He insisted, however, that those first two contests in small, heavily rural states were not representative of the country, or more particularly of the base of the Democratic Party, and that he would fare better in the next set of contests.
He was right.
Biden finished second in the caucuses in Nevada, which has a far more diverse electorate. That vaulted him into the South Carolina primary three days later. His endorsement there by Rep. James E. Clyburn, the most powerful Black lawmaker in Congress, proved vital to Biden in a state where about 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters were Black.
He won the state in a landslide and then rapidly reeled off a series of victories as Democrats rallied around him. By mid-March, the matchup with Trump was set.
His general election victory extended what has been an unusually volatile period in the nation’s political history.
Between 1960 and 1978, there were three elections in which control of the House, Senate or White House switched parties. Between 1980 and 1998 there were four. Since 2000, with Biden’s election, there have been nine.