Biden campaign leaders said they expected Trump to falsely declare victory Tuesday night, before the tabulation of all mailed-in ballots, which Democrats have preferred as a method of voting this cycle. Trump campaign advisers argued that Democrats were attempting to play down votes cast in-person on Tuesday, which Trump is expected to win, and clear the way for legal action that could lead to ballots being counted despite arriving after state-mandated deadlines.
The last-minute jockeying reflected an alarming feature of this year’s presidential campaign: Rather than an orderly process to arrange the peaceful maintenance or transfer of power, the nation has spent the past several days preparing for disorder, with property owners across the country boarding up storefront windows against fears of civil unrest, law enforcement agencies going on high alert to prevent polling place disruptions and frequent threats from Trump to call into doubt the legitimacy of the election.
In his final campaign events, Trump argued that Biden “hates” the American people. He repeatedly attacked the Supreme Court for recent rulings allowing some states to continue accepting ballots if they arrive after Election Day, a practice that is not new this cycle.
The president claimed that delayed results would be “dangerous” for the country and open the door to “cheating” — though there’s no evidence that the kind of fraud he described is widespread and lengthy counting delays are commonplace.
“I’m just so tired of some of these horrible political decisions that are being made. It’s a shame, it’s a shame,” Trump said in Fayetteville, N.C. “You know, I won’t get into it too much, but I’m going to start getting into it because they’re hurting our country.”
At his rally in Avoca, Pa., Trump again suggested without proof that late-arriving ballots could lead to chaos and fraud, calling the circumstance of an unknown election result “physically dangerous.”
Biden focused in his events on attacking Trump’s character and ability, calling him a “disgrace” who acts like the “puppy” of Russian president Vladimir Putin, while also blaming him for the U.S. failure to contain the coronavirus.
“Donald Trump’s not strong; he’s weak,” Biden said. “This is a president who not only doesn’t sacrifice, he doesn’t understand courage, physical courage.”
As Trump stoked fears of fraud, the Biden campaign arranged a call with reporters to argue that the nature of the electoral map, and the schedule for counting ballots in key states, meant it was impossible for Trump to declare a legitimate victory on Tuesday night.
“Under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared a victor tomorrow night,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said, arguing that Biden has more paths to an early victory. “We know that all the ballots are not going to be counted on election night.”
Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel who is advising the campaign, said the Biden team was prepared for any fights to come, promised that all rules would be followed and said even discussion of polling place disruption was an effort to suppress Democratic turnout.
“His lawyers are not going to win the election for him, there is no doubt about it,” Bauer said of Trump. “The case he is turning over to his lawyers when the voters have spoken is a case no lawyer can win.”
Trump deputy campaign manager Justin Clark released a memo predicting that Democrats would soon file legal motions seeking to count late-returning ballots that should be voided by law.
“The last gasp of the Biden campaign will be ugly and it will be ruthless,” Clark wrote.
As the hours ticked down to Election Day, neither campaign expressed certainty in the final result. The Washington Post polling average on Monday showed a clear advantage for Biden, with a 10-point lead nationally and a nine-point lead in Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the three states Trump flipped in 2016 en route to his electoral college victory. Biden led Trump in the third, Pennsylvania, by five points, the same margin as North Carolina, and led by four points in Arizona. Other southern states of Florida, Georgia and Texas all showed the race within two or three points. Trump won all of those states in 2016.
But the factor that neither campaign could predict was Election Day turnout, which both campaigns acknowledged could still swing the final electoral college result. Republicans were counting on a massive showing for Trump, as yet undetected in the polls, and a poor showing by Democrats, who they argue are more fearful of voting in person.
“Trump defied oddsmakers and defied pollsters by getting new voters to the polls — people who hadn’t voted in a long time,” said Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “There’s probably about 15 percent of social conservatives who didn’t vote in 2016, who are supporting President Trump, and if you get them to turn out now, that may be the margin he needs.”
Democrats expressed confidence that they now find themselves in, at minimum, a better position than four years ago, when Trump shocked Democrat Hillary Clinton by outperforming his poll numbers.
“Whereas four years ago, you could see red flags in the data, even for people like me who didn’t want to see red flags, you don’t see as many red flags right now,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist working with independent groups to defeat Trump.
One continuing point of concern for Democrats was Biden’s advantage among Black and Hispanic voters, which has been smaller in many states than Clinton’s. The Trump campaign put out a news release Monday boasting of the campaign’s recent conversations with the rappers Lil Wayne and Ice Cube, and the president’s support from the rapper 50 Cent.
“As President Trump continues to transcend politics, the culture is responding accordingly,” declared Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign senior adviser.
Biden appeared in Pennsylvania on Monday with the pop star Lady Gaga, and also introduced his grandchildren as he made an appeal to younger voters to get to the polls.
“You guys can own this election,” Biden said.
In Florida, Democrats admitted concern about early-voting numbers in Miami, traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has committed at least $100 million to winning the state, added an additional $500,000 over the weekend to that city’s television market, with an ad that featured former president Barack Obama praising Biden.
But the focus of the candidates’ time has largely shifted northward. After a visit to North Carolina that had been canceled last week because of weather, Trump appeared in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden started in Ohio, before holding two events in Pennsylvania, where he plans to return on Tuesday for two stops.
No state is more important in the electoral college map, because the polls there are measurably tighter than in Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin or Michigan, the other battlegrounds that could, often in combination, give Trump a win if he holds the southern states.
If Trump posts early losses in southern states, especially Florida or Texas, the contest could be called early in Biden’s favor. But if Trump holds, the result could come down to states that will probably require more time to count. Pennsylvania is attempting a large vote-by-mail effort for the first time and will not start counting until Tuesday.
Democrats emphasized that delays in getting the result are routine, particularly in high-turnout elections, not the result of a failure, and that rules for counting ballots had been clearly defined in each of the key states. They also sought to assure voters that they should not fear efforts to disrupt or intimidate them at polling places.
Election results in Wisconsin probably won’t be known until at least early Wednesday morning, when Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, is expected to complete its count of roughly 175,000 absentee ballots, officials said Monday.
In North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein (D) told reporters that state officials expect to count as many as 97 percent of votes on Tuesday night. Still, he said if the election is close, a winner might not be known promptly.
“The country is on edge. There’s a lot of anxiety. Some people are acting out across the country. There’s a great deal of misinformation about the integrity of these elections. We understand that anxiety,” he said. “Voters across the country should take comfort in knowing that they will be the ones who determine the winners of these elections.”
Referring to the possibility of foreign interference in the election, a senior defense official on Monday said there was “no evidence a foreign adversary has gained access to election infrastructure.”
“Given the size, complexity and diversity of America’s electoral system, no country has the ability to change the outcome of the election,” the official said in a statement, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject on the record.
Trump, meanwhile, continued to encourage dramatic and sometimes threatening shows of support from his loyalists. He praised on Twitter the caravan of vehicles flying Trump flags that surrounded a Biden campaign bus in Texas on Friday. When the FBI confirmed it was looking into the incident, Trump reacted angrily on Sunday.
“In my opinion these patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Instead, the FBI and Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA.”
In his call with reporters, Bauer, the Biden campaign attorney, said they were monitoring similar shows of force by the “Trump Train” participants and that voters should not be concerned about them. He asked Biden supporters to contact a campaign hotline if they witness similar behavior near a polling place Tuesday.
“We will make sure that this is addressed,” Bauer said.
Toluse Olorunnipa, Rosalind S. Helderman, Amy Gardner, Dan Simmons and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.