Joe Biden won the battleground prizes of Michigan and Wisconsin on Wednesday, reclaiming a key part of the “blue wall” that slipped away from Democrats four years ago and dramatically narrowing US President Donald Trump’s pathway to re-election.
A full day after election day, neither candidate had cleared the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House.
But Mr Biden’s victories in the Great Lakes states left him at 264, meaning he was one state away – any state – from crossing the threshold and becoming president-elect.
Mr Biden, who has received more than 71 million votes, the most in history, was joined by his running mate Kamala Harris at an afternoon news conference and said he now expected to win the presidency, though he stopped short of outright declaring victory.
“I will govern as an American president,” Mr Biden said. ”There will be no red states and blue states when we win. Just the United States of America.”
It was a stark contrast to Mr Trump, who early Wednesday morning falsely proclaimed that he had won the election, even though millions of votes remained uncounted and the race was far from over.
The Associated Press called Wisconsin for Mr Biden after election officials in the state said all outstanding ballots had been counted, save for a few hundred in one township and an expected small number of provisional votes.
Mr Trump’s campaign requested a recount, in addition to filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, seeking to pause the vote count in those key battleground states.
Statewide recounts in Wisconsin have historically changed the vote tally by only a few hundred votes; Mr Biden led by 0.624 percentage point out of nearly 3.3 million ballots counted.
For four years, Democrats had been haunted by the crumbling of the blue wall, the trio of Great Lakes states – Pennsylvania is the third – that their candidates had been able to count on every four years.
But Mr Trump’s populist appeal struck a chord with white working class voters and he captured all three in 2016 by a total of just 77,000 votes.
Both candidates this year fiercely fought for the states, with Mr Biden’s everyman political persona resonating in blue collar towns while his campaign also pushed to increase turnout among black voters in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee.
Pennsylvania remained too early to call Wednesday night.
It was unclear when or how quickly a national winner could be determined after a long, bitter campaign dominated by coronavirus and its effects on Americans and the national economy.
But Mr Biden’s possible pathways to the White House were expanding rapidly.
After the victory in Wisconsin and Michigan, he held 264 electoral college votes, just six away from the presidency.
A win in any state, including Nevada with its six votes, would be enough to end Mr Trump’s tenure in the White House.
Mr Trump spent much of Wednesday in the White House residence, huddling with advisers and fuming at media coverage showing his Democratic rival picking up key battlegrounds.
Mr Trump falsely claimed victory in several key states and amplified unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Democratic gains as absentee and early votes were tabulated.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said the president would formally request a Wisconsin recount, citing “irregularities” in several counties.
And the campaign said it was filing suit in Michigan and Pennsylvania to halt ballot counting on grounds that it was not given proper access to observe.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of votes were still to be counted in Pennsylvania, and Mr Trump’s campaign said it was moving to intervene in the existing Supreme Court litigation over counting mail-in ballots there.
Yet, the campaign also argued that it was the outstanding votes in Arizona that could reverse the outcome there, showcasing an inherent inconsistency with their arguments.
In other closely watched races, Mr Trump picked up Florida, the largest of the swing states, and held on to Texas and Ohio while Mr Biden kept New Hampshire and Minnesota and flipped Arizona, a state that had reliably voted Republican in recent elections.
The unsettled nature of the presidential race was reflective of a somewhat disappointing night for Democrats, who had hoped to deliver a thorough repudiation of Trump’s four years in office while also reclaiming the Senate to have a firm grasp on all of Washington.
But the Republican party held on to several Senate seats that had been considered vulnerable, including in Iowa, Texas, Maine and Kansas. Democrats lost House of Representative seats but were expected to retain control there.
The high-stakes election was held against the backdrop of a historic pandemic that has killed more than 232,000 Americans and wiped away millions of jobs.
The candidates spent months pressing dramatically different visions for the nation’s future, including on racial justice, and voters responded in huge numbers, with more than 100 million people casting votes ahead of election day.
Mr Trump, in an extraordinary move from the White House, issued premature claims of victory – which he continued on Twitter Wednesday – and said he would take the election to the Supreme Court.
It was unclear exactly what legal action he could try to pursue.