WASHINGTON - Whatever people thought they knew about the state of the presidential race a few weeks ago went out the window on Tuesday, Nov. 3, turning Election Day into a tense night of counting and indecision and proving once again that there are no easy elections in a divided America.
Instead of President Donald Trump prematurely declaring victory based on incomplete results from Election Day voting, or former vice president Joe Biden blowing out the electoral map on the strength of a massive blue wave of early votes, Election 2020 instead produced a night of nail-biting, stomach-churning results - with the possibility that the outcome would not be known for days.
With so many states undecided, it was not clear whether this election would be a repeat of 2016, a shocker to the world and demoralizing to the Democrats, or something closer to 2018, when the Democrats' seemingly slow start eventually became a wave that flipped the House. Either outcome seemed possible with so many states not called.
As the night went on, the prospect for a close outcome in the electoral college continued to grow.
For much of the night, the map was a sea of indecision, with state after state hanging in the balance as the votes were tallied at what sometimes seemed like an excruciatingly slow pace. For Biden, the good news was that some of those states still not decided were ones crucial to Trump's hopes of winning a second term.
Those states included three in the Sun Belt - Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. Of the three, Arizona appeared to be the most promising, with Biden holding a lead. Trump was leading in the other two.
Biden had targeted all three on the theory that changing demographics and shifting allegiances in suburbia would be enough to turn the state from red to blue. Victories in one or more of them would leave Trump in deep, deep trouble and with the most limited of options to secure the necessary 270 electoral votes.
For Trump, a victory in Florida, and by a margin that through much of the night was bigger than four years ago, offered hope that the final week of the campaign had produced enough of a momentum shift to allow him to pull off another victory against the odds, just as he had done against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
There was one clear echo from 2016: The three Northern states that secured Trump's victory - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - appeared poised to play the decisive role again this year. But unlike many other states, none of the three began counting the massive numbers of early votes until Tuesday, meaning it could be days before the identity of the winner is known.
With the election in the balance, the counting of the mail ballots in those Northern states probably will result in legal challenges that could affect which ballots are and are not counted. The president has complained about mail ballots, claiming falsely that they are rife with fraud, and Republicans have sought to limit the time for ballots to arrive to be eligible for counting.
As the counting continued, both camps were checking their models and trying to calculate what votes remained to be counted. In some places, early votes were reported first, giving Biden a lead in unexpected places. In other states, Election Day votes came in first, giving the president the early advantage.
Biden's path to victory remained dependent on big margins in the mail ballots that remained to be counted in those Northern states. Trump's depended on the turnout on Election Day, which explained the near-frantic pace of campaigning by the president in the last week of the election. Biden had bet on the early vote, and Trump knew his only hope was to rally his troops to respond on Election Day.
The reality about the election is that, by the final days, what was happening Tuesday night was predictable. All of the states that were teetering on the edge were, in the estimation of strategists in both camps, too close to call. The fact that the list of competitive states included unlikely places such as Texas and Ohio, both of which Trump won easily in 2016, perhaps gave Democrats a false sense of the overall state of the race. None of those states was going to come easy for Biden.
Meanwhile, up north, Biden appeared to be in a stronger position as Election Day neared. For Biden's team, the easiest path to victory always was the northern route, but the campaign's hope was to find breathing room elsewhere in the changing Sun Belt.
That wasn't out of the question the longer the states remained uncalled, but the last thing Biden's campaign wanted was to find itself in the same position as Clinton on election night 2016, needing to win all three of the Northern states. Ultimately she lost each by less than a percentage point.
Trump's victory in Florida underscored a weakness long identified with the Biden campaign, his lackluster support in the Hispanic community. In Florida, that was especially the case, as the Trump campaign appealed to Cuban Americans and other voters whose roots were in Latin America.
They painted Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as soft on the Castro regime and favoring Venezuelan-style socialist policies. Both fought against those characterizations, but in the end, Biden's margin in South Florida especially was unexpectedly weak with Hispanic voters.
The president's weaknesses also were on display as the results from suburban areas around the country underscored how much his style, personality and behavior had alienated voters - especially women - in those precincts.
Election Day arrived with many Americans exhausted from the nonstop turmoil of Trump's presidency and on edge as they waited for the first results and searched for any signs that would give them hope. No Election Day in recent memory - including the 2016 surprise - seemed to come with as much raw emotion as this one did.
This was, after all, the pandemic election, a campaign waged as a deadly virus arrived, spread, infected and ultimately left more than 230,000 people dead by the day of the vote. More Americans said the economy was the single most important factor in their vote, according to preliminary exit polls, but there was no denying that the economy's fate and future were intertwined with whether and how soon the virus could be brought more under control.
Were it not for the pandemic, or had Trump tackled it head-on from the start, this might have been a different campaign. But his erratic leadership, his determination to deny the science and flout guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, became a weight around his shoulders that offset the normal advantages of incumbency.
There is no evidence that Trump has any intention of changing his approach, which has been to wish away the pandemic rather than confront it. Biden has promised to do the latter but would have to deal with the reality that many Americans continue to resist basic steps - wearing masks, maintaining social distance and avoiding large groups - that experts say can be the difference between success and failure.
The economy showed bounce-back resilience in the third quarter, but the prospect of more shutdowns in the states probably will slow things once again. Meanwhile, assistance to millions whose livelihoods have been damaged by the closure of many businesses languishes in Congress, as the Democratic-controlled House, the Republican-controlled Senate and the administration failed to resolve their differences ahead of the election.
Those problems and many more await the winner of the election, and as 2016 showed, it is not a cliche to say that elections have consequences. Trump and Biden represent and speak for fundamentally different Americas with competing values and conflicting priorities on issues. Those were the divisions that produced the results that were unfolding as Tuesday turned into Wednesday and the nation waited for the answer to the question of who won the presidency.
This article was written by Dan Balz, a reporter for The Washington Post.
Dan Balz is chief correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s deputy national editor, political editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.