Donald Trump has cast doubt in advance on Tuesday’s election results, while Democratic challenger Joe Biden went on the offensive on the final full day of campaigning ahead of a vote that could have consequences for the US for years to come.
After the president threatened legal action on Sunday to stop vote counting in some crucial states such as Pennsylvania, his campaign released a statement on Monday accusing Democrats of trying to “subvert state deadlines for receiving and counting ballots”.
If Pennsylvania ballot counting takes several days, as is allowed, Mr Trump claimed “cheating can happen like you have never seen”.
At the same time, revealing some of his re-election concern, he told supporters at a North Carolina rally that he “could lose” distant Wisconsin, a battleground state he carried four years ago.
Mr Biden dipped into Ohio, a show of confidence in a state the president won by 8 percentage points four years ago. The challenger reiterated the central message of his campaign: that Mr Trump cost lives by mismanaging America’s response to the worst pandemic in a century.
“The first step to beating the virus is beating Donald Trump,” the Democrat said in Cleveland.
“Donald Trump is not strong, he’s weak,” Mr Biden added. “This is a president who not only doesn’t understand sacrifice, he doesn’t understand courage.”
On the eve of the election, the US is at a crossroads, gripped by a historic pandemic that is raging in nearly every corner of the country, and a reckoning over race.
Both campaigns insist they have a pathway to victory, although Mr Biden’s options for picking up the required 270 electoral college votes are more plentiful. Mr Trump is banking on a surge of enthusiasm from his most loyal supporters in addition to potential legal manoeuvres.
The president was spending the final day sprinting through five rallies, from North Carolina to Wisconsin. Beyond Ohio, Mr Biden was devoting most of his time to Pennsylvania, where a win would leave Mr Trump with an exceedingly narrow path to victory.
More than 93 million votes have already been cast, through early voting or mail-in ballots, which could lead to delays in counting. Mr Trump has spent months claiming – without evidence – that the votes would be ripe for fraud while refusing to guarantee that he would honour the election result.
He has used stark terms to threaten litigation to stop the tabulation of ballots arriving after election day — counting that is allowed with earlier postmarks in some states. As soon as polls close in battlegrounds, “We’re going in with our lawyers”, Mr Trump said on Sunday.
It was unclear precisely what he meant. There is already an appeal pending at the Supreme Court over the counting of absentee ballots in Pennsylvania that are received in the mail in the three days after the election.
The state’s top court ordered the extension, and the Supreme Court refused to block it, though conservative justices expressed interest in taking up the propriety of the three added days after the election.
Those ballots are being kept separate in case the litigation goes forward. The issue could assume enormous importance if the late arriving ballots could tip the outcome.
One of Mr Biden’s top legal advisers Bob Bauer said: “It’s very telling that President Trump is focused not on his voters but on his lawyers, and his lawyers are not going to win the election for him. We are fully prepared for any legal hijinks of one kind or another. We’re not worried about it.”
Mr Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris, said Mr Trump was simply blustering to “distract from the fact that he actually has no record to run on”, adding: “He wants to scare people, he wants to distract people, confuse people.”
Under the shadow of possible legal battles, Pennsylvania loomed as the most important battleground.
For Mr Biden, who was born there and lives in neighbouring Delaware, Pennsylvania has long been a focus of his campaign, a bulwark to block Mr Trump from securing the electoral votes needed for re-election.
Mr Biden and his running mate and their spouses were criss-crossing the state on Monday, hoping to deliver a knockout blow big enough to avert a legal challenge.
Mr Trump once led comfortably in Ohio, but Mr Biden announced on Sunday during his national team’s daily call that he planned to return to the state at the urging of senator Sherrod Brown, who said he and other Ohio Democrats in Congress had encouraged it, suggesting a final late visit could win.
That trip comes after Mr Biden’s ticket has pushed into other formerly reliable Trump strongholds including Georgia, where the Democrats’ most popular surrogate, former president Barack Obama, was campaigning on Monday.