US prepares for election turmoil as voters head to the polls

US retailers prepared for post-election unrest by boarding up stores as Donald Trump and Joe Biden tried to win over undecided voters on Tuesday following one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in recent history.

Tuesday marks the end of a political race as surreal as it was polarising, having taken place in the shadow of a pandemic that has claimed more than 231,000 American lives and resulted in Mr Trump’s own hospitalisation with the virus.

However, there will be fewer undecided voters up for grabs on election day this year owing to a surge in early voting by Americans who did not want to contract the virus at crowded polling stations.

By Monday evening, almost 99m Americans had already cast ballots either in person or by mail, equivalent to 72 per cent of the entire 2016 vote and putting the country on track for record turnout.

The majority of early votes have been cast by Democrats, according to the US Elections Project, meaning Mr Trump must turn out Republicans in big numbers on Tuesday if he is to overcome their advantage.

In the case of a close contest, the victor is unlikely to be announced on election night given that the crucial industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are not expected to complete their ballot counts in time.

And the final result could then be delayed by days if not weeks as Democrats fight expected legal efforts by Republicans to prevent some mail-in votes from being counted.

In a sign of heightened tensions ahead of an election that has been cast by both sides as one of the most consequential in history, retailers from Target to Tiffany have boarded up their stores to prepare for possible violence. Many other businesses and some federal buildings in Washington, DC were also covered in hoarding, while temporary fencing was erected around the White House.

The fears of turmoil come after Mr Trump made baseless claims about voter fraud that have energised his base and led to accusations from Democrats that he is relying on dirty tricks to win the election. It also follows months of anti-racism protests and a foiled plan to abduct the Democratic governor of Michigan.

At a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Donald Trump warned that the election of Joe Biden would imperil the post-pandemic economic recovery © AP

On Monday evening the president appeared to suggest his supporters were ready to take to the streets because of a US Supreme Court decision to allow Pennsylvania to extend deadlines for mail-in ballots.

“The Supreme Court decision on voting in Pennsylvania is a very dangerous one. It will allow rampant and unchecked cheating and will undermine our entire systems of laws. It will also induce violence in the streets. Something must be done!” Mr Trump said in a tweet.

The post prompted the social media platform Twitter to add a disclaimer saying the president’s claim was “disputed” and “might be misleading”.

Mr Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power and, during his first debate with Mr Biden, even urged a white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by”.

On Monday the two contenders made their closing arguments, with Mr Trump claiming that his Democratic rival would prevent the economy from recovering after pandemic-related lockdowns, while Mr Biden said Mr Trump should be ousted because of his handling of Covid-19.

“It’s time for Donald Trump to pack his bags and go home,” Mr Biden said in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as he campaigned with Lady Gaga, one of several musicians along with Bruce Springsteen and John Legend who is trying to help the Democrats turn out voters.

Joe Biden campaigned in Philadelphia with Lady Gaga, one of several musicians trying to help Democrats boost turnout © AP

Across the state in Scranton, the northeastern Pennsylvania city where Mr Biden was born, Mr Trump slammed his rival during another of his big rallies, which have sparked concern because they run the risk of fuelling the rise in coronavirus cases in the US.

“We win Pennsylvania, we win it all,” Mr Trump said of the state, which had been a Democratic stronghold since 1992 until he won it narrowly four years ago.

Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by 8.1 points, according to an FT analysis of polling data compiled by RealClearPolitics. He also has the edge in every swing state, except Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. And he is neck and neck with Mr Trump in Texas, a traditionally Republican state that awards 38 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

But Mr Biden’s lead in some swing states, including Florida, is within the margin of error, raising concern among some Democrats that Mr Trump could repeat his surprise win of 2016, when some opinion polls underestimated the level of his support among white working-class voters in the rustbelt.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Mr Trump is hoping that these “Trump Democrats”, who propelled him to victory four years ago, will support him again. But Mr Biden is banking on winning back some of these white men, in addition to securing a higher turnout of black voters than Hillary Clinton managed four years ago while also attracting the votes of enough suburban women.

In recent days, Mr Trump has repeated his baseless allegation that the Democrats are trying to steal the election and warned that his lawyers would try to block the counting of absentee votes after election day.

But the president on Monday suffered a twin blow in his attempts to use the courts to influence the outcome of the election, after judges in Nevada and Texas ruled against Republicans in high-profile legal cases concerning the validity of mail-in ballots.

In Pittsburgh, Mr Biden slammed Mr Trump for trying to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. “I don’t care how hard Donald Trump tries, there is nothing . . . that is going to stop the people of this nation from voting.” 

Both campaigns claimed to have the upper hand heading into Tuesday. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Mr Biden’s campaign manager, said the lead the former US vice-president had secured in early voting would be “difficult to overcome on election day”.

However, Bill Stepien, her Republican counterpart, said Mr Trump was poised for a big turnout on Tuesday. “If the voters that we know are still out there for election day show up on election day, President Trump has four more years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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