Updated at 7:04 p.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Voters were deciding between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden on Tuesday, closing an epic campaign marked by rancor and fear that will influence how the U.S. confronts everything from the pandemic to race relations for years to come.
The first set of polls closed, beginning to draw to an end a campaign that was reshaped by the coronavirus and marked by contentiousness. Each candidate declared the other fundamentally unfit to lead a nation grappling with COVID-19 and foundational questions of economic fairness and racial justice.
The night began with predictable victories for each candidate, Trump taking Kentucky and Biden winning Vermont.
Millions of voters put aside worries about the virus — and some long lines — to turn out in person, joining 102 million fellow Americans who voted days or weeks earlier, a record number that represented 73% of the total vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Spirits were high — and positive — in many polling places after a long, exceptionally divisive campaign.
“The most important issue is for us to set aside our personal differences that we have with each other,” said Eboni Price, 29, who rode her horse Moon to her polling place in a northwest Houston neighborhood.
Biden entered Election Day with multiple paths to victory, while Trump, playing catch-up in a number of battleground states, had a narrower but still feasible road to clinch 270 Electoral College votes. Control of the Senate was at stake, too: Democrats needed to net three seats if Biden captured the White House to gain control of all of Washington for the first time in a decade. The House was expected to remain under Democratic control.
The president began his day on an upbeat note, predicting that he’d do even better than in 2016. But during a midday visit to his campaign headquarters, he spoke in a gravelly, subdued tone.
“Winning is easy,” Trump told reporters. “Losing is never easy, not for me it’s not.”
Trump left open the possibility of addressing the nation Tuesday night, even if a winner hadn't been determined. Biden had scheduled a nighttime speech from his Delaware hometown but, hours before slated to deliver it, he turned noncommittal, saying, "If there’s something to talk about tonight, I’ll talk about it. If not, I’ll wait till the votes are counted the next day.”
“I’m superstitious about predicting what an outcome’s gonna be until it happens ... but I’m hopeful," said Biden, who earlier had made a last-minute pitch in the critical state of Pennsylvania. “It’s just so uncertain ... you can’t think of an election in the recent past where so many states were up for grabs.”
With the coronavirus now surging anew, voters ranked the pandemic and the economy as top concerns in the race between Trump and Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.
Voters were especially likely to call the public health crisis the nation’s most important issue, with the economy following close behind. Fewer named health care, racism, law enforcement, immigration or climate change
The survey found that Trump’s leadership loomed large in voters’ decision-making. Nearly two-thirds of voters said their vote was about Trump — either for him or against him.
The momentum from early voting carried into Election Day, as an energized electorate produced long lines at polling sites throughout the country. Voters braved worries of the coronavirus, threats of polling place intimidation and expectations of long lines caused by changes to voting systems, but appeared undeterred as turnout appeared it would easily surpass the 139 million ballots cast four years ago.
No major problems arose on Tuesday, outside the typical glitches of a presidential election: Some polling places opened late, robocalls provided false information to voters in Iowa and Michigan, and machines or software malfunctioned in some counties in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas.
The cybersecurity agency at the Department of Homeland Security said there were no outward signs by midday of any malicious activity.
The record-setting early vote — and legal skirmishing over how it would be counted — drew unsupported allegations of fraud from Trump, who had repeatedly refused to guarantee he would honor the election’s result. The hard-fought campaign left voters on both sides eager to move on, although the result might not be known for days.
“I believe there’s a lot of division and separation,” said Kelvin Hardnett, who was among more than two dozen voters who lined up more than an hour before the polling site at the Cobb County Civic Center outside Atlanta opened on Tuesday. “And I believe that once we get past the names and the titles and the personal agendas, then you know, we can focus on some real issues.”
Jaffe reported from Pittsburgh. Miller reported from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Kevin Freking, Aamer Madhani, Deb Riechmann and Will Weissert in Washington, Bill Barrow and Haleluya Hadero in Atlanta, Jeff Martin in Cobb County, Georgia, Juan Lozano in Houston, Corey Williams in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, and Natalie Pompilio contributed to this report.