SCRANTON — Joe Biden appeared to be on the cusp of winning the presidency Wednesday, even as Pennsylvania’s election results remained uncertain and President Donald Trump made increasingly desperate attempts to stop the vote count.
Biden won the critical swing states Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin, according to the Associated Press, bringing him within one state of securing the Electoral College votes needed to become president of the United States.
As mail ballots continued to be counted, Trump’s early advantage of about 600,000 votes in Pennsylvania had been cut to less than 200,000 by Wednesday night and continued to shrink. With Democrats voting disproportionately by mail, Biden was winning a large majority of those votes — a pattern that, if it held, would put him over the top and into the White House.
Biden also held a narrow lead in Nevada, and had a chance in Georgia, though he trailed there.
With multiple paths to victory open to him, Biden expressed confidence that he would prevail when the counting was done — including in Pennsylvania, where he said he “feels good” about the eventual outcome.
“Every vote must be counted. No one’s going to take our democracy away from us. Not now, not ever,” Biden said at a news conference in Wilmington. He did not declare victory but clearly tried to project himself as the country’s future leader, offering a calming tone at a chaotic moment defined by Trump’s false claims that the election was being stolen from him.
“We the people will not be silenced," he said. "We the people will not be bullied. We the people will not surrender.”
Pushed to the brink, Trump and his campaign abruptly and prematurely declared victory, even with more than one million mail ballots still to be counted.
“We have claimed, for Electoral Vote purposes, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Trump tweeted, shortly after campaign aides told reporters they would win, but declined to take questions.
Even as it expressed confidence and urged a deeper count in Arizona, where Trump trailed, the president’s campaign filed lawsuits seeking to slow or stop the vote count in Pennsylvania and undermine legitimate votes cast on or before Election Day.
The campaign sent Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, to Philadelphia along with the president’s son Eric to raise vague and unsubstantiated claims of fraud at a last-minute news conference that had to be moved from an earlier site that had drawn protesters.
“Guys, this is fraud,” Eric Trump said of the process for counting ballots as Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski repeatedly yelled “no questions” at reporters trying to ask about the claims.
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Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, condemned the lawsuits as an attack on the election itself.
“Pennsylvania is going to count every vote and make sure that everyone has their voice heard," he said in a statement. "Pennsylvania is going to fight every single attempt to disenfranchise voters and continue to administer a free and fair election. ... These attempts to subvert the democratic process are disgraceful.”
By the end of the afternoon, protesters in the city, the birthplace of American democracy, were chanting for votes to be counted as helicopters circled overhead.
The day progressed from uncertain anxiety to a circus of brazen claims of victory and threats of legal action.
Democrats in the state, including Sen. Bob Casey, were projecting that Biden would eventually win by 100,000 votes. Biden was winning nearly 8 in 10 of the mail ballots, and many of those still to be counted were in deeply Democratic areas such as Philadelphia and its suburbs.
The Biden campaign said it expects to win Pennsylvania by larger margins than Trump did in 2016, when he prevailed by 44,000 votes, though a final tally still seemed days off Wednesday evening.
“Unless you’re a person who believes that a bunch of Democrats voted by mail for Donald Trump, you gotta think we’re in a good place,” said State Sen. Sharif Street, a Philadelphia Democrat and vice chair of the state party.
The votes counted by late evening showed the distinct divisions in the state: In Philadelphia, its collar counties, and Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, Biden led by about 660,000 votes. Outside of those counties, Trump had a roughly 918,000-vote advantage. The Philadelphia region, Biden’s strongest base of support, had counted only 78% of its total votes, while everywhere in Pennsylvania besides Philadelphia, its collar counties, and Democratic-friendly Allegheny County had counted 93% of the votes, according to an Inquirer analysis of Associated Press data.
Biden’s campaign indicated early in the day that it expected a legal offensive by the Trump campaign. Even organizers, it seemed, had pre-planned responses to the theatrics.
Dozens of people rallied outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown wearing yellow sweatshirts that said “COUNT EVERY VOTE," and chanting “Voters! Decide! Voters! Decide!”
“We’re the folks being talked about around the world,” Hakim Jones, a Norristown council member, told the crowd. “Whether it takes till Thursday, Friday, or even Monday, we’re going to make sure every vote is counted.”
Eilleen DiFranco, 68, of Mount Airy, joined the rally, though short on rest.
“I did not sleep a wink last night. I could not sleep, I was so upset," said DiFranco, a retired school nurse and clergyperson. "My worst fear was Trump would interfere with counting the votes.”
The so-called blue shift that showed Biden racking up votes as the count went on was long expected, and was not because of fraud or any other malfeasance. Republicans voted more heavily in person, and those votes were counted Tuesday night, allowing Trump to secure more of the early count. But Democrats used mail ballots far more, so Biden’s numbers have climbed as the count has continued.
Contrary to Trump’s insinuations, votes still being counted were not new votes. They were cast on or before Election Day. By state law, elections officials could not begin counting mail ballots until the morning of Election Day.
Trump could still win Pennsylvania, though Biden appeared to be in stronger position given the remaining votes outstanding. Either way, no neutral observer saw enough evidence Wednesday to declare a likely winner either way.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP strategist, said that even with an expected deluge of Democratic ballots coming, Trump could hang on to his advantage in the state.
“To overcome the lead Trump has right now is gonna be tough for Biden. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s gonna be tough,” Gerow said. “The votes that are out there in Montgomery and Philadelphia are not gonna go Trump’s way, but the ones from Westmoreland and Franklin and Cumberland are.”
The detailed breakdown of what happened in Pennsylvania won’t be known until all results come in — possibly not until Friday. But an early known bright spot for Biden was Lackawanna County, where 98% of the vote was in. The county, including his childhood hometown of Scranton, showed a Biden lead of about 9,700 votes, 6,000 more votes than Clinton’s margin there in 2016.
“We fell asleep at the wheel four years ago,” said Chris Patrick, head of the Lackawanna County Democratic Committee. “We figured Hillary was a sure thing. None of us saw what happened coming, and we didn’t want that to happen again.”
He wasn’t ready to predict a Biden win statewide, though, particularly given what appeared to be high turnout for Trump in person in areas he won in 2016. “Look, the Trumpsters are the Trumpsters and they came out. They did their thing," Patrick said.
Across the state, voters in both parties marveled at the unique post-Election Day situation they were in. At Hank’s Hoagies in Scranton, where Biden brought his grandchildren to pick up lunch Tuesday, owner Tom Owens said he was becoming more optimistic about the results of the election as the day went on.
“We’re very hopeful," he said, with a matter-of-fact understanding of what would unfold.
“They count the votes, that’s it." Owens said. "I don’t see what else they can do. In my humble opinion, that is. What do I know? I just make hoagies.”
But Tom Moran, a Trump supporter who lives down the street from Biden’s former home, voiced concerns about the security of mail ballots and said he believed cities like Philadelphia would “play games” with the results. And he said recent changes to laws in some states, such as expanding mail ballots, will have the result of manipulating the election.
“I’m one of the people who believes that you should send an absentee ballot or you show up to vote,” he said.
Across the state, Mark Lumley said he heard people lamenting, “‘Oh, my God. If Biden wins, the country is going this way, that way.’”
“It’s four years; it’s not like a lifetime,” said Lumley, a Trump supporter in Butler, north of Pittsburgh. “And it’s not like it would be the first Democratic president we’ve ever had.” No matter the outcome, he said, “I still have to wake up, go to work. I still have to pay my mortgage. I still get to enjoy my grandchildren.”
Staff writers Chris Brennan, Allison Steele, Sean Collins Walsh, and Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.