Joe Biden elected president; Trump first incumbent defeated in nearly 30 years

By Mark Z. Barabak, Janet Hook, Noah Bierman Nov. 7, 20208:25 AM UPDATED5:38 PM Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

Joe Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States on Saturday when Pennsylvania and Nevada delivered the electoral votes he needed to claim the White House, ending a caustic campaign that sorely tested the nation amid a pandemic and deep partisan divisions.

In a brief statement, Biden said he and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris of California were “honored and humbled” by their victory, and renewed a call for unity.

“With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” Biden said.

The Democratic victory ushers the nation to a historic milestone as Harris becomes the first woman, first Black person and first Asian American to become vice president-elect. The two prepared to celebrate their victory Saturday evening in Wilmington, Del., where the former vice president lives.

The result amounted to a crushing verdict on the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who became the first incumbent to lose his reelection bid in nearly 30 years.

Trump pledged to continue his fight to overturn the election, though few prominent Republicans rallied to his side; some, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, congratulated Biden.

“Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated,” Trump said in a statement emailed by his campaign after the Associated Press and television networks on Saturday called the race for Biden.

So far, however, Trump’s efforts in court have made little progress, with judges in several states dismissing challenges for lack of evidence.

The president was undeterred. Heading to his Virginia golf course Saturday morning, he tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” He tweeted a similar message in the afternoon, about an hour and a half after returning to the White House.

As news of Biden’s victory spread, a mass outpouring of celebration began in the country’s big cities and other Democratic harbors.

People danced in the streets of Washington, D.C. — where a cheering swarm gathered outside the White House — and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Revelers banged pots and pans in Puerto Rico. Firecrackers rang out across Southern California.

Honking and shouts echoed down New York City’s skyscraper canyons, where crowds cheered Postal Service trucks — a symbol of the mail ballots that helped torpedo Trump’s chance of a second term.

Film director Spike Lee, wearing a protective mask and a Yankees hat, jumped up and down and popped a bottle of Champagne in the middle of the street.

In Wilmington, the streets along the waterfront were awash with people, cars, bikes and dogs in a scene that resembled a hometown celebration for a championship sports team. Kids carried Biden signs with cartoons of the president-elect’s aviator sunglasses; adults hugged each other and waved at strangers as they blared their horns.

One car with two young women blasted Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Not all shared in the jubilation. Counter-demonstrations quickly sprung up throughout the nation.

In Lansing, Mich., several dozen supporters of the president stood on the steps of the state Capitol — maskless, shoulder to shoulder — chanting, “Four more years!” and “Count legal votes!”

“These Democrats are totally trying to steal this election,” said a woman, Rochelle, who would give only her first name.

“Trump won,” she said before quickly walking away.

In Philadelphia, the president’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani held a news conference in a parking lot in an industrial neighborhood, where he once again alleged rampant vote fraud but provided no evidence. In the background, car horns could be heard honking in celebration of Biden’s victory.

Good wishes poured in from around the world, as leaders sent Biden and Harris their tidings, not waiting for Trump to concede.

“Congratulations! The American citizens have made their decision,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I am looking forward to working with President Biden in the future. Our transatlantic friendship is irreplaceable if we want to master the great challenges of our time.”

It is rare for sitting presidents to lose. Incumbents seeking a second term have won 17 of 24 times since 1860, a better than 70% success rate. The last president to lose his reelection bid was George H.W. Bush in 1992.

But Trump faced powerful countervailing forces: a once-in-a-century pandemic, the resulting economic collapse, and a wrenching debate over the country’s painful history of racial discrimination.

Alone among modern presidents, Trump never received an approval rating above 50% in a reliable opinion survey — his provocative behavior, racist comments and trampling of presidential norms ensured that. But he also never tried to broaden his support, focusing on his base among conservative, mostly white, rural and exurban voters — many of them thrilled by his outrageous antics — while largely ignoring, or antagonizing, others.

His cavalier handling of the coronavirus — which has killed more than 236,000 Americans and sent millions more to the hospital — proved his undoing in the way the Vietnam War ended the career of President Johnson, the Iranian hostage crisis damaged President Carter, and a limp economy hurt Bush. All either lost or gave up their reelection hopes in great part because they appeared to be overmatched by events.

Even so, Biden’s victory was hard-won and came only after a days-long and divisive counting of the votes, brought on by the exigencies of the pandemic, which led many voters to cast ballots by mail. Also contributing were the machinations of Trump and his supporters, who blocked measures in several key states that would have allowed those mail ballots to be processed more quickly.

The final drama centered on four states — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona — where vote-counting continued into a fourth day after the election as the Trump campaign filed multiple legal claims in a largely unsuccessful effort to slow or block the tabulations.

The turning point came Friday morning, when Biden’s tally first surpassed Trump’s in Pennsylvania, where a trove of 20 electoral college votes was at stake.

Trump had led there since election day, when he was up by more than 700,000 votes. But the gap steadily narrowed as mail ballots from the state’s heavily Democratic metropolitan areas were slowly counted.

The AP and television networks issued their projections Saturday morning that Biden had won after his lead in Pennsylvania expanded beyond half a percentage point, the state’s threshold for a mandatory recount.

Nevada and its 6 electoral votes tipped into Biden’s column soon after.

In Georgia, where Biden pulled ahead to a lead of more than 9,500 votes, state election officials said the race would likely go to a recount. Under Georgia law, a losing candidate can request a recount if the margin between two candidates is 0.5% or less of the total vote.

Trump’s campaign has also indicated it will ask for a recount in Wisconsin, where Biden leads by more than 20,500 votes. The result in North Carolina also remains uncertain, but Trump holds the lead there.

Recounts could prolong the partisan jockeying but are unlikely to affect Biden’s status as victor. Such proceedings rarely turn enough votes to change an outcome, and Pennsylvania gives Biden enough electoral college votes to win even without the other battleground states.

From the outset of his campaign, Biden cast the election as a “battle for the soul” of a country that was being transformed by an erratic, divisive Trump presidency. He prevailed over a sprawling primary field of mostly younger and more progressive candidates largely because Democrats viewed him as the best-equipped to defeat Trump, unify the party and win back white working-class voters who had defected to Trump.

Winning Pennsylvania, along with previously declared states of Wisconsin and Michigan, fulfilled Biden’s core strategic goal: rebuilding the “blue wall” of traditionally Democratic states in the industrial Midwest that Trump had claimed in 2016.

More broadly, Biden prevailed by assembling a Democratic coalition of women, college-educated men, and Black and Latino voters.

He also won independents — the free-floating bloc that often decides elections — 54% to 40%, according to preliminary exit polling. Four years ago, the exit polls showed Trump winning independent voters 48% to 42%.

Biden, who was criticized by some fellow Democrats as too old, too centrist and too politically cautious, outperformed Hillary Clinton by several measures in addition to his larger share of the popular vote.

He cut Trump’s margin among male voters, nearly breaking even, and outperformed Clinton among female voters even as she ran to become the first woman to win the White House.

With the COVID-19 pandemic as a worrisome backdrop, Biden carried voters older than 65, according to exit polls. That group went for Trump four years ago. Biden also expanded Democratic support among voters ages 18 to 29, who during the party’s primaries strongly preferred his left-leaning rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Notably, however, Trump made some gains among two groups that have been key to Democratic successes: Black and Latino voters.

He won 12% of Black voters, compared with 8% four years ago, and upped his share of the Latino vote from 29% to 32%, exit polls indicated.

Biden, who turns 78 on Nov. 20, is the oldest president-elect in history. His four decades in public life began under Richard Nixon’s presidency, when Biden was first elected to the Senate, and includes eight years as vice president to America’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

His triumph over Trump, whose presidency was devoted in large measure to undoing Obama’s legacy, was a tribute both to his raw political ambition and to the personal determination that helped him overcome a stutter in his childhood and remain undeterred by humiliating defeats in the early rounds of the 2020 Democratic primaries.

No one was scared off when Biden entered the contest in April 2019. To the contrary, the Democratic field grew to a floorboard-busting 26 candidates. Other candidates vastly out-raised him, and the crowds he drew, back when social distancing wasn’t a thing, were embarrassingly small.

Biden finished a dismal fourth in the Iowa caucuses, and eight days later performed even worse in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth. By then, many had written him off.

He insisted, however, that those first two contests in small, heavily rural states were not representative of the country, or more particularly of the base of the Democratic Party, and that he would fare better in the next set of contests.

He was right.

Biden finished second in the caucuses in Nevada, which has a far more diverse electorate. That vaulted him into the South Carolina primary three days later. His endorsement there by Rep. James E. Clyburn, the most powerful Black lawmaker in Congress, proved vital to Biden in a state where about 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters were Black.

He won the state in a landslide and then rapidly reeled off a series of victories as Democrats rallied around him. By mid-March, the matchup with Trump was set.

His general election victory extended what has been an unusually volatile period in the nation’s political history.

Between 1960 and 1978, there were three elections in which control of the House, Senate or White House switched parties. Between 1980 and 1998 there were four. Since 2000, with Biden’s election, there have been nine.

Barabak reported from San Francisco, Bierman from Wilmington and Hook from Washington. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Philadelphia, Kurtis Lee in Lansing, Mich., and Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.