NEW HOPE, Pa. — Voters on both sides of the nation’s widening political divide prepared on Monday to render a verdict on President Trump’s four tumultuous years in the White House and, in particular, his management of the coronavirus pandemic that has upended American life for the past eight months.
As Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. raced across the most important battleground states in a frenzied final push for votes, the 2020 election was unfolding in a country with urgent problems: an uncontrolled public health crisis, a battered economy, deep ideological divisions, a national reckoning on race and uncertainty about whether the outcome of the vote will be disputed.
Undeterred by the pandemic, Americans have already displayed an uncommon determination to have their voices and votes heard this year. Nearly 100 million cast their ballots in advance of Election Day, shattering records as they endured long lines at early voting sites or sent in their ballots by mail.
Much of the country felt on edge, as if the often-predicted “most important election of a lifetime” had finally arrived. Ahead of the polls opening on Tuesday, businesses in cities from Denver to Detroit to Washington, D.C., were boarding up their windows with plywood as they readied for the possibility of civil unrest. Some governors were readying the National Guard.
“Everyone is starting to panic,” Fernando Salas, a construction worker, said as he pounded nails into a plywood frame at a storefront in a trendy shopping district near Los Angeles.
Election administrators braced themselves to pull off the twin challenges of holding an election during a pandemic and fending off efforts by a president who is trailing in the polls to undermine trust in the vote-counting process.
“Please be patient,” Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia — the biggest city in one of the most important swing states — urged, predicting long lines on Tuesday. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns were readying armies of lawyers for a potentially prolonged fight.
Voters were wracked with nervous energy. Katie Whelan, a high school history teacher from New Jersey, crossed the Pennsylvania border to knock on doors over the weekend for Mr. Biden in the key battleground. The previous night, she said, she had awakened from a panic dream involving Hillary Clinton and the dread of falling just short at the ballot box. “She was like, ‘Honey, I’ve been there,’” Ms. Whelan recalled Mrs. Clinton telling her in the dream.
Adding to her anxiety, Ms. Whelan could not tell if the nightmare was set in 2016 or 2020. “I stood over the sink and drank three pints of water,” Ms. Whelan said. “And I said to myself, ‘I better get canvassing.’”
For Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, their final events on the last full day of 2020 campaigning offered as stark a display of their differences as anything they said.
Seeking to project a sense of normalcy even as infection caseloads surge, Mr. Trump flouted public health guidelines with a slate of large rallies in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and even made a winking nod to firing the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, should he win another term, in a Florida rally that lasted past midnight on Sunday.
In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden argued there could be no return to routine until the virus was under control and his itinerary of socially distanced, drive-in rallies — “Honk if you agree with me!” he shouted in Cleveland — served a visual expression of his sober approach. Mr. Biden, the former vice president, cast race as a referendum on Mr. Trump’s stewardship of a pandemic that has infected more than nine million people in the United States and cost more than 230,000 lives.
“The first step to beating the virus is beating Donald Trump,” Mr. Biden declared, adding, “The power to change the country is in your hands.”
In his own meandering and grievance-filled appearances, in which he lashed out against Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Hillary Clinton and the news media, Mr. Trump framed his re-election as an economic imperative to avoid “a deadly Biden lockdown” of the economy’s fragile recovery.
“This is not the crowd of a second-place finisher,” Mr. Trump said in Scranton, Pa., where Mr. Biden will also appear on Election Day, in a sign of Pennsylvania’s potential to tip the election.
Mr. Trump has signaled he may try to declare victory prematurely if the early tabulations favor him, and the Biden campaign held an unusual public briefing on the eve of the election to set expectations. At issue is not just the tallying of the vote but how fast certain states can count. Some key battlegrounds, such as Pennsylvania, are expected to take days while others, like Florida and North Carolina, will likely process most votes within hours.
“Under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared a victor on election night,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, bluntly declared.
As polling places were set to open on Election Day, Mr. Trump’s road back to the White House was plainly narrower than Mr. Biden’s pathway. Polls show Mr. Trump trailing nationally and in most of the key battlegrounds needed to reach the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency.
Mr. Trump has been forced to defend not just the three Northern industrial states — the former “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — that he flipped in a surprise victory four years ago but also an array of diversifying states across the Sun Belt and the South, including Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and even Texas.
Those latter five states combine for 109 Electoral College votes, nearly all of which analysts believe Mr. Trump must win.
Nov. 2, 2020, 9:38 p.m. ET
On Monday, Mr. Biden dispatched his most potent surrogate, former President Barack Obama, to two of those states: Florida and Georgia. The former president campaigned for Mr. Biden and two Senate Democratic challengers in Georgia, then stumped for Mr. Biden in Florida. Democratic Party strategists are hoping to win the three Senate seats they need to wrest back control of that chamber, along with the White House, and enact a progressive agenda in 2021.
The widening map had some Democrats coveting not only victory on Tuesday but also a landslide repudiation of Mr. Trump and his brand of Republicanism, including aspirations of flipping Texas for the first time since 1976.
That Mr. Biden himself began his final full day on the road in Ohio — a state Mr. Trump carried by eight percentage points — appeared a sign his campaign hoped to run up the score. Ohio was not among the dozen closest states in 2016.
But voters in both parties are mistrusting of the polls. Mr. Trump has actively questioned them on a near daily basis. And many Democrats are still scarred by the shock of 2016.
Outside the Polk County Auditor’s office in Des Moines, the line to vote early stretched around the block. For 18-year-old Mikayla Simpson, who stood in line wearing earbuds and a tan camouflage Trump 2020 baseball cap, the wait to cast her first vote for Mr. Trump was well worth it.
“I’d stand here all day if I had to,” she said.
Turnout on Tuesday will be critical even with the record early voting.
Mr. Trump, who for months has sown mistrust in mail-in ballots, is especially in need of a huge in-person showing, banking that the Republican Party’s early investment in door-knocking will pay off.
Mr. Trump’s chances are mostly pinned on luring white working class voters to the polls — many of whom have flocked to his rallies despite the health risks. Seeking to recapture the energy of his surprise 2016 win, Mr. Trump’s final stop is expected to be in Grand Rapids, Mich., the same city he finished his 2016 schedule.
The Democratic ticket ended the day in Pennsylvania’s two biggest media markets alongside pop stars at rallies in stadium parking lots, with Ms. Harris in Philadelphia with John Legend and Mr. Biden in Pittsburgh with Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga also performed at Mrs. Clinton’s final 2016 rally, then in North Carolina.
“Vote like this country depends on it because it does,” she said Monday.
In the final stretch, both parties were zeroing in on key demographics. Mr. Biden spoke with the African-American community in Pittsburgh while his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, headlined a Latino get-out-the-vote effort in Bethlehem. Mr. Obama campaigned in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous which is a majority Latino and Black.
Mr. Trump continued to obsess aloud about how white suburban women had flocked toward the Democratic Party during his presidency, helping to deliver Democrats the House in 2018 and possibly the White House in 2020.
“I say to the women of the suburbs: love me women of the suburbs,” Mr. Trump said.
For Mr. Tump, the race’s waning days have been a characteristically chaotic closing stretch. He has threatened to send in lawyers to stop vote counting, cheered on supporters who surrounded a Biden bus on a Texas highway and baselessly accused doctors of exaggerating how many people had died from the virus so that they could make more money.
In Fayetteville, N.C., on Monday, Mr. Trump condemned the Supreme Court decision that will allow ballots to be counted in Pennsylvania after Election Day. “Do you know what can happen during that long period of time?” Mr. Trump said without evidence. “Cheating.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump’s closing messages captured their divergent approaches to electoral politics.
“There will be no red states and blue states, just the United States,” Mr. Biden said of his potential presidency.
Mr. Trump had a very different pitch. “You have the power to vote, so go out and vote,” he said. “Unless you’re going to vote for somebody other than me, in which case, sit it out.”
Reporting was contributed by Maggie Haberman in New York; Glenn Thrush in Washington, D.C.; Nick Corasaniti and Katie Glueck in Philadelphia; Louis Keene in Los Angeles; and Mike Anderson in Des Moines.