America remained on edge as the first results of the presidential race arrived on Tuesday night, with Donald Trump collecting his first wins in Kentucky and Indiana, while Hillary Clinton won Vermont.
The biggest battlegrounds, however, remained to be counted in a divisive campaign that early exit polls showed had left many Americans deeply unsatisfied with their choice.
Early exit polls offered some warning signs for Trump’s supporters, none more so than the fact that more than three in five of those interviewed viewed him unfavorably. Clinton fared slightly better, with a disapproval rating of 54 percent.
The exit poll, conducted by a consortium of news organizations, also showed Clinton and Trump virtually tied among white voters with a college degree — a demographic that has gone Republican for a half-century. But Trump led Clinton 65 percent to 29 percent among whites without college degrees — a bigger margin that Mitt Romney carried that group four years ago.
As the polls began closing, there are two key tranches of states that both Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters and Trump Tower were monitoring most closely on Tuesday night.
The first — Ohio, Florida and North Carolina — are worth a combined 62 electoral votes and all three are within the margin of error in polls. Trump is widely believed to need a clean sweep of all three to have a chance of victory, with Ohio seen as the likeliest to land in the GOP column.
The second set of Democratic-leaning states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin and Minnesota — Trump would additionally need to pick off some combination of in order to win. (Trump is also viewed as the narrow frontrunner in Iowa, a state which voted twice for President Barack Obama.)
“Our gateway is North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, and then we start looking at their map and start peeling away,” said David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, on MSNBC on Tuesday.
Michigan, in particular, emerged as a surprise late battleground, as neither campaign invested heavily in ads there. But Clinton, Trump, Obama, Mike Pence and others all blitzed the state in the final days. Trump has not led there in a poll all year but his team has signaled bullishness about his improving standing in the waning days.
The biggest wave of states will finish balloting at 8 p.m., across the eastern seaboard and as far west as Texas. By then, many of the swing states will begin tabulating votes, including Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio.
But if Trump is going down on Tuesday, he signaled it won’t be quietly or without a big fight.
The Republican nominee continued to flirt with a refusal to accept the election result, should he be declared the loser. “We have to see how it is,” Trump said on Fox News, “and hopefully everything is going to be on the straight and up.”
He began questioning the integrity of the presidential contest even before it was complete, after he voted in Manhattan on Tuesday and in separate radio and television interviews.
It added fresh drama to an Election Day already full of it, as control the White House and Senate were on the line, with the latter resting on the outcome in a half-dozen toss-up races.
“There are reports that when people vote for Republicans the entire ticket switches over to Democrats,” said Trump, who plans to watch the returns roll in with his family at Trump Tower. “You’ve seen that. It’s happening at various places today it has been reported.”
As Clinton voted near her home in Chappaqua, she expressed cautious optimism. “I know how much responsibility goes with this and so many people are counting on the outcome of this election,” Clinton said.
For many Republicans, Election Day meant an end to a months-long balancing act between their support for their party’s unlikely nominee and the pursuit of swing voters many believe they need to win in their own races.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey, who for months has refused to say who he will vote for, put off voting until 6:45 p.m., not long before the polls close in his state. In Arizona, Sen. John McCain voted but wouldn’t talk about the top of the ticket.
“I am not, and have not, and will not, okay,” McCain said. “I will not.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was an outspoken Trump critic and then a reluctant backer, tweeted that he had, in the end, chosen to vote for third-party candidate Evan McMullin.
There were also some early recriminations among Trump supporters for those who have not given Trump their full-throated backing. On his show on the eve of the election, Fox’s Sean Hannity told those Republicans, “If Hillary wins, you own it.” And on Tuesday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee threatened, “I’m going to remember them. And I hope every other Republican remembers them.”
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