A nation on edge watched and waited Friday as Democrat Joe Biden’s lead gradually widened over Republican President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, one of a handful of key battleground states that will decide the election.
Biden also edged ahead of Trump Friday in another key battleground, Georgia.
After a bitter election contest conducted during a deadly pandemic, neither candidate has yet reached the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House. But Biden has the advantage after eclipsing Trump in Wisconsin and Michigan, two crucial Midwestern battleground states. That left both campaigns increasingly focused on developments in Pennsylvania and Georgia.
By 9 p.m. Friday, Biden had opened a lead of 21,749 votes in Pennsylvania. Biden held a slim lead of 4,020 votes in Georgia. Earlier in the day, when the Georgia margin was at about 1,600, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said, “With a margin that small, there will likely be a recount in Georgia.”
Biden is also leading in two other crucial states, Nevada and Arizona. But a victory in Pennsylvania alone, with its trove of 20 electoral votes, would lift him over the 270-vote threshold.
The winner of the election will have to lead the country during tough times. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 235,000 people; the economy is ailing; political divides are deep; and the nation faces a reckoning on racism.
Trump, who has sought to sow doubts about the validity of election results, continued to question them in a statement issued by his campaign Friday afternoon, vowing, "We will pursue this process through every aspect of the law to guarantee that the American people have confidence in our government.”
“I had such a big lead in all of these states late into election night, only to see the leads miraculously disappear as the days went by,” he mused in a tweet Friday evening.
The Biden campaign, responding to reports Trump may not concede if he loses, said, “As we said on July 19th, the American people will decide this election. And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House,” Bloomberg News reported.
Anxious Americans endured a third full day of suspense about the outcome of the race. With many ballots still to be tabulated, Biden has already received more than 73 million votes nationally, the most in history. Trump had more than 70 million.
With his pathway to reelection appearing to narrow, Trump on Thursday advanced unsupported accusations of voter fraud to falsely argue that Biden was trying to seize power. It was an extraordinary effort by a sitting American president to cast doubt on the democratic process, The Associated Press reported.
“This is a case when they are trying to steal an election, they are trying to rig an election,” Trump said from the podium of the White House briefing room.
Biden spent Thursday trying to ease tensions and project a more traditional image of presidential leadership. After participating in a coronavirus briefing, he declared that “each ballot must be counted.”
“I ask everyone to stay calm. The process is working,” Biden said. “It is the will of the voters. No one, not anyone else who chooses the president of the United States of America.”
Trump’s erroneous claims about the integrity of the election presented Republicans with a choice: follow along or break with a president who, though his grip on his office is growing tenuous, commands sky-high approval ratings from rank-and-file members of the GOP.
Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, a potential presidential hopeful who has often criticized Trump, said unequivocally: “There is no defense for the President’s comments tonight undermining our Democratic process. America is counting the votes, and we must respect the results as we always have before.”
Sen. Mitt. Romney, R-Utah, said in a tweet Friday, “He is wrong to say the election was rigged, corrupt and stolen -- doing so damages the cause of freedom here and around the world, weakens the institutions that lie at the foundation of the republic, and recklessly inflames destructive and dangerous passions.”
“Counting every vote is at the heart of democracy,” said Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who has been a regular critic of Trump. “Have faith in our democracy, in our Constitution, and in the American people.”
Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said at a coronavirus response update news conference on Friday, “I think the president’s comments that there’s some national conspiracy around this aren’t supported by any of the facts.” He said the claims were "damaging to democracy, they cheapen all of those of us who serve in public life and who ran, and who were either elected or defeated based on the will of the people.”
Other Republicans chose to align themselves with Trump, including Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who tweeted support for Trump’s claims, writing that “If last 24 hours have made anything clear, it’s that we need new election integrity laws NOW.”
Trump’s campaign has engaged in a flurry of legal activity to try to improve the president’s chances, saying it would seek a recount in Wisconsin and filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia.
Election officials and candidates knew that vote counts would stretch beyond Election Day. The pandemic led many states to encourage voting by mail, and some states did not allow poll workers to tally those ballots until after polls closed Tuesday. A large number of mail-in ballots, combined with an extremely tight presidential contest, resulted in key races — and the presidency — still being up in the air.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used.
Martin finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.