Achieving a goal that had eluded him for decades, Joe Biden won the presidency on Saturday, defeating President Donald Trump after a drawn out election that came down to a handful of battleground states that spent days counting a record number of mail-in ballots.
Biden was declared the winner of the Electoral College vote Saturday, finally crossing the 270 vote threshold needed after he officially won Pennsylvania. Biden also won the popular vote, completing a remarkable comeback after a four-year hiatus from political office that started with a slow climb out of a crowded primary field and ended with a resounding defeat of a president whose victory in 2016 ushered in a new era of American politics and remade the Republican Party. With Biden’s win, Sen. Kamala Harris also becomes the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian American elected to the vice presidency.
Trump becomes the first incumbent not to win a second term since George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump’s legacy as a one-term president paves the way for Democrats to argue that his break-the-norms presidency was a historical aberration, one that did not reflect a majority of the voting public’s views on health care, climate change, immigration and other issues.
At a victory speech Saturday night, Biden thanked the people who voted for him, while promising to work just as hard for those who didn’t.
“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but unify — who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States,” Biden said before a crowd that gathered at a drive-in event in Wilmington, Delaware.
Not yet ready to admit defeat, Trump hasn’t given a concession speech, but released a statement earlier today saying Biden was “rushing to falsely pose as the winner” and that the election was “far from over.”
Trump correctly asserted that Biden has not been certified as the winner of any states — a process that usually occurs later in November if not early December — and noted that his campaign still has outstanding legal challenges.
“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. He also repeated unfounded claims of fraud. Earlier in the day, before the race was called for Biden, he had tweeted that he “won this election, by a lot,” though at the time Biden was leading in three of the remaining uncalled battleground states and in the Electoral College and popular vote.
The cloud of a possible court battle has hung over the election since long before the first results were reported. Trump repeatedly indicated in the weeks before Election Day that he would challenge the results in court if he was not the winner. And in the days since voting concluded, his campaign has filed numerous lawsuits in battleground states where Biden was winning.
But the Trump campaign and its Republican allies face a high bar to convince state legislatures and the courts that they should intervene. Courts in a number of states have already declined to let cases launched by the Trump campaign move forward.
Meanwhile, Biden’s margin of victory in the popular vote and in the Electoral College is expected to grow as states finish counting a record number of mail-in and absentee ballots. The 2020 election marked the fifth time in the last six elections that the Democratic presidential nominee won the popular vote, though in two of those races, the Republicans who lost the popular vote ultimately won the Electoral College.
In Congress, the Democrats in the House have so far secured 214 seats but are expected to reach the 218 to retain the majority. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are dead even, 48-48, as two races remain uncalled and another two, both in Georgia, are headed for a run-off in January.
Biden had expressed confidence in his chances of winning up until the very end of the election. He led Trump in the polls in nearly every major battleground state, from Florida to Michigan to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The former vice president also polled ahead of or even with Trump in states like Georgia and North Carolina, traditionally Republican states that the Biden campaign hoped to flip from red to blue, though both of those states remain uncalled.
Four years ago, Clinton also led Trump in the polls in the run-up to the election, but wound up falling short. This time, Biden’s leads held in enough states to claim victory, though he lost early in several others where polling suggested a closer race.
Biden has so far won four states that Trump carried in the 2016 election — Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, worth a combined 57 electoral votes — while also winning every state that Clinton carried four years ago.
Democrats will likely use Trump’s one-term run as a reason to try to undo his signature achievements, many of which were implemented through executive action and can be more easily changed than if they had been passed by Congress and signed into law. Without a second term to add to his legacy, Trump’s presidency could be remembered most for the yearslong investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, his impeachment by the House, and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
To date, more than 9.7 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 236,000 Americans have died from the virus. Millions have lost their jobs, as businesses shut down to limit in-person interactions. Globally, the death toll has topped 1.2 million.
The pandemic ultimately became one of the top issues for voters. In that way, the election was in part a referendum on Trump’s response. The Biden campaign hammered the president, who eventually also tested positive for COVID-19, for the slow expansion of testing, shortages of personal protective equipment for doctors and other essential workers, holding crowded rallies where supporters weren’t required to wear masks, and pushing back against top public health officials. Meanwhile, the president touted his decision to ban travel from China early in the pandemic, focused on reopening the economy, and pushed to develop a vaccine ahead of the election, an effort that did not come to fruition.
While Trump has now been limited to a single term in office, his impact on American culture and conservative politics could be long lasting. In the wake of his loss, Republicans will be tasked with rebuilding a party that has been dominated by Trump for the better part of five years, ever since the former New York real estate developer and reality TV star launched his White House bid at Trump Tower in 2015. The president’s rhetoric and behavior, particularly on the issue of race and his public airing of grievances against or firing of members of his own party or administration, are among the many issues that have divided Republican voters. While some members of the Republican establishment have criticized the president’s behavior — including his attempts to try to stop the counting of ballots — many have also tied themselves to Trump and Trumpian politics. His loss will unmoor a number of lawmakers elected during Trump’s presidency on a non-traditional Republican platform more reminiscent of the Trump brand than the party establishment.
For Biden, the win Tuesday ended a quest for the White House that included two failed attempts to secure the Democratic nomination, in 1988 and 2008. To many supporters, the victory offered hope that Biden’s brand of bipartisan, centrist politics still had room in today’s hyper-polarized political environment.
Biden stumbled in his first two presidential runs, dropping out without winning a single primary contest. He considered running again in 2016 but ultimately decided not to, citing his grief over the death of his son Beau Biden.
But Biden said he felt compelled to try again after Trump won the presidency, and formally launched his campaign in April of last year with a rally in Philadelphia. He said he decided to run after Trump claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Biden vowed to “restore the soul of the nation,” and made that the rallying cry of his campaign.
Running as a moderate Democrat, Biden joined a crowded, diverse and star-studded primary field of more than 20 opponents, including the popular progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
The group also included Harris, Biden’s eventual running mate, who memorably seared the former vice president in the first set of Democratic primary debates, which took place in Miami in June 2019.
The exchange, in which Harris criticized Biden’s record on school busing, underscored what many saw as Biden’s two biggest challenges: running as a septuagenarian white man in a field with several women and people of color, and running as a centrist at a time when the party had shifted left on everything from criminal justice reform and health care to climate change and economic policy.
Yet while Biden stumbled in the primary debates, he never relinquished his frontrunner status, at least in the polls. And though he did not win any of the first three nominating contests of 2020, when the race turned to Southern states with large numbers of Black voters, Biden routed the competition and put himself on a path to winning the nomination.
Then the coronavirus pandemic upended the election.
In March, states began ordering shutdowns, after weeks of growing concerns and a spike in infections and deaths in New York, California, Washington and other states. The White House, facing criticism that it was not doing enough to contain the spread of the virus, declared a national emergency.
With that, the presidential election came to a virtual standstill. Numerous states delayed their primary contests, and the Biden and Trump campaigns ceased most in-person activity. Biden spent the following two months at his home outside of Wilmington, Delaware, holding virtual events with donors and Democratic groups but rarely venturing outside.
Trump, meanwhile, held near-daily press conferences on the coronavirus at the White House, as the pandemic swept aside all other news and issues and became the biggest economic and public health threat to the U.S. and countries around the world.
From the start the president used his bully pulpit to tout his response to the virus and criticize Democratic governors in charge of states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases. He also criticized Biden for “hiding in his basement” in Delaware, at times blurring the lines between campaign rhetoric and his day-to-day work of running the country.
But Trump also stopped holding large campaign rallies, and for several months both campaigns continued in a virtual world of Zoom fundraising calls and jabs over social media.
The president rarely wore a mask in public, and frequently contradicted the recommendations and information put out by his top health advisers. Biden criticized Trump’s response, wore a mask when he did go out in public, and vowed that if elected president he would use facts and science to bring the virus under control.
The two candidates began, slowly, to resume normal campaign activities in late spring. But by then the country was engulfed in another crisis, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Protests erupted across the nation, and have continued for months in response to other police killings of Black Americans this year and long before, including the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, last March. Along with the pandemic, the protests became a main storyline in the election.
For Trump, the protests over racial injustice represented yet another challenge in a year full of them, including his impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House for pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into alleged corruption by Biden and his son Hunter. Trump was acquitted by Republicans in the Senate in February, but the baseless claims of corrupt business dealings by Biden and his son resurfaced in the final weeks of the race.
When the protests began, the response from the two presidential candidates was stark. Biden decried systemic racism in the U.S. and called for policing reforms, though he stopped short of supporting proposals made by progressive activists to defund police departments and reallocate the money to mental health, social work and other government services.
Trump refused to say whether he believed systemic racism existed in America. He called on governors to deploy the National Guard to swiftly quell the protests, urging them to “dominate the streets.” In early June, law enforcement officers forcibly removed protesters from a park in front of the White House, clearing a path so Trump could visit a nearby church where he posed for a photograph holding a Bible.
The stunt drew swift condemnation from across the political spectrum. But sensing a political opening, Trump stepped up his criticism of the protests, claiming many Americans, especially those living in the suburbs, would be less safe if Biden became president.
Critics on the left, including Biden, accused Trump of stirring up racist fears among white voters. Undeterred, Trump made “law and order” a central theme of his nomination speech on the final night of the Republican National Convention, and incorporated it into his messaging in the final two months of the race.
Biden gave a more uplifting speech at the Democratic National Convention, which was notable for its largely virtual format and for Harris becoming the first woman, Black and South Asian American vice presidential nominee to join a major party ticket for president.
Trump and Biden clashed over the pandemic, race and policing, and the economy in their first presidential debate in late September. But a combative Trump derailed the debate with constant interruptions, and a frustrated Biden resorted to name-calling over the course of 90 chaotic, forgettable minutes on stage in Cleveland.
The second presidential debate was canceled after Trump tested positive for COVID-19 and refused to participate in a virtual debate. Following his diagnosis, the president spent three days in the hospital, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, before returning to the White House and declaring that he had recovered.
The vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Harris went off as planned. Trump and Biden held a second and final debate in late October, but by then more than 40 million Americans had already cast their ballots.
Trump used the final debate to polish his closing argument that he would do a better job than Biden of ending the pandemic and restarting the economy. Biden said Trump had squandered his chance to lead the nation, and asked voters to make a change.
A fight late in the election season over a seat on the Supreme Court ultimately allowed the president to cement his legacy by successfully nominating a third conservative justice in just a single term. The last president to nominate three justices was Ronald Reagan, who served two terms, sending one justice to the high court in his first term and two in his second. President George H.W. Bush nominated two justices in his single term. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each nominated two justices in their eight years in office, and George W. Bush nominated one.
After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton nominee and one of the court’s liberal justices, died in September at age 87 of complications from cancer, Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy. Republicans and Democrats used the fight to galvanize their bases, but it did not appear to significantly impact voter attitudes about the race.
Justice Barrett was confirmed by the Senate in late October in a mostly party-line vote with not a single Democrat’s support, just days before the election on Nov. 3.
Trump’s two other Supreme Court nominations were also contentious. Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings centered on an allegation that he sexually assaulted a young woman when he was in high school, and included testimony from that woman. He was ultimately confirmed on a mostly party-line vote with the support of a single Democrat.
And Justice Neil Gorsuch was appointed at the beginning of Trump’s term after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider Obama’s nominee the previous year to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a fact that Senate Democrats consistently used to argue why Barrett’s confirmation should not move forward, though they didn’t have the numbers to block her approval.
Adding conservative judges and justices to the federal courts has been a priority of Trump’s and Republican leadership in Congress. Some Democrats have suggested “packing the court” — or increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices in order to allow Biden to appoint more liberal justices to restore balance to the now conservative bench. But the move would require an act of Congress, and likely a Democratic majority in both chambers to approve a change to the number of justices.
Though Biden ultimately emerged victorious, his performance was more muted than polls suggested, and House and Senate Democratic candidates also fell short, leaving them shy of a mandate and facing hurdles to moving forward with some of Biden’s platform and policy proposals.
While Democrats are on track to maintain control of the House, though with a smaller majority, the balance of power in the Senate won’t be decided until January, when Georgia holds run-off races for both of its Senate seats. The results of races still to be called will be determinative of how aggressively Democrats can pursue the agenda Biden campaigned on.