WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump was leading Democratic rival Joe Biden in the vital battleground state of Florida on Tuesday, while other competitive swing states that will help decide the election, including North Carolina, remained up in the air.
The two contenders split the early U.S. states to be projected in the White House race as expected, with conservative states like Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee going to Trump and Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Connecticut going to Biden, according to projections by television networks and Edison Research.
But none of the approximately dozen battleground states that will decide the race had been settled as polls closed in a majority of U.S. states, with close races developing in many of them.
In Florida, widely seen as a must-win state for Trump in his quest for the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, Trump was leading Biden 51.2% to 47.8% with 93% of the expected votes counted. Electoral College votes are assigned to each state, in part based on their population.
Part of Trump’s strength in Florida came from an improved performance relative to 2016 in the state’s counties with large Latino populations. Trump’s share of the vote in those counties was larger than it was in the 2016 election.
For months there were complaints from Democratic Latino activists that Biden was ignoring Hispanic voters and lavishing attention instead on Black voters in big Midwestern cities.
The Biden campaign disputed this but in the weeks leading up to the election, opinion polls in key states showed Biden underperforming with Latinos.
Many younger Hispanics were ardent supporters of U.S. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders during the party’s primary campaign, but in opinion polls expressed little enthusiasm for Biden, viewing him as too moderate and out of touch.
In the Miami area, Latinos are predominantly Cuban Americans, where generations of families have fled communist rule in Cuba. Trump’s messaging about Biden being a socialist seemed to be working with them and with Venezuelans there despite Biden’s denials.
Edison’s national exit poll showed that while Biden led Trump among nonwhite voters, Trump received a slightly higher proportion of the non-white votes than he did in 2016. The poll showed that about 11% of African Americans, 31% of Hispanics and 30% of Asian Americans voted for Trump, up 3 percentage points from 2016 in all three groups
Edison’s national exit poll also found that support for Trump declined by about 3 points among older white voters, compared with 2016, while it rose by about 15 points among older Latinos and by 11 points among Black voters between 30 and 44.
Biden, 77, still has multiple paths to the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win without Florida despite having spent lots of time and money trying to flip the state that backed Trump, 74, in 2016.
Biden was neck and neck with Trump in the battleground state of North Carolina, tied at 49.4% with 86% of expected votes counted. In Ohio, another must-win state for Trump, the president was leading 50.5% to 48.1% with 69% of expected votes counted. In Texas, Biden narrowly led 49.6% to 49% with 72% of expected votes counted.
Voters, many wearing masks and maintaining social-distancing to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, streamed into polling places through the day, experiencing long lines in a few locales and short waits in many other places. There were no signs of disruptions or violence at polling sites, as some officials had feared.
The winner - who may not be determined for days - will lead a nation strained by a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 people and left millions more jobless, racial tensions and political polarization that has only worsened during a vitriolic campaign.
Biden, the Democratic former vice president, put Trump’s handling of the pandemic at the center of his campaign and has held a consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president.
But a third of U.S. voters listed the economy as the issue that mattered most to them when deciding their choice for president, while two out of 10 cited COVID-19, according to an Edison Research exit poll on Tuesday.
In the national exit poll, four out of 10 voters said they thought the effort to contain the virus was going “very badly.” In the battleground states of Florida and North Carolina, battleground states that could decide the election, five of 10 voters said the national response to the pandemic was going “somewhat or very badly.”
The poll found that nine out of 10 voters had already decided on their choice before October, and nine out of 10 voters said they were confident their state would accurately count votes.
The poll found signs Trump was losing support among his core base of supporters in Georgia.
Ahead of Election Day, just over 100 million voters cast early ballots either by mail or in person, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, driven by concerns about crowded polling places during the pandemic as well as extraordinary enthusiasm.
The total has broken records and prompted some experts to predict the highest voting rates since 1908 and that the vote total could reach 160 million, topping the 138 million cast in 2016.
In anticipation of possible protests, some buildings and stores were boarded up in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and New York. Federal authorities erected a new fence around the White House perimeter.
A REFERENDUM ON TRUMP
Supporters of both candidates called the election a referendum on Trump and his tumultuous first term. No U.S. president has lost a re-election bid since Republican George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, with Democrats narrowly favored to recapture a Senate majority and retain their control of the House of Representatives.
Trump is seeking another term in office after a chaotic four years marked by the coronavirus crisis, an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, U.S. racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.
Biden is looking to win the presidency on his third attempt after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Biden has promised a renewed effort to fight the public health crisis, fix the economy and bridge America’s political divide. The country this year was also shaken by months of protests against racism and police brutality.
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Jason Lange, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington, Katanga Johnson and Rich McKay in Atlanta and Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Writing by Joseph Ax, Alistair Bell and John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham, Paul Thomasch and Howard Goller