The advantage lay with Biden, who has leads in the vote counts in Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan, three states he would be flipping back to Democrats if he secures them.
But the Trump campaign has announced plans to seek a recount in Wisconsin and halt the counting of votes in Pennsylvania. The president’s team also insists he could yet prevail in Arizona.
But, beyond the presidential result, who are the major winners and losers?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
McConnell easily won his reelection race in Kentucky against Democrat Amy McGrath, despite her dramatic fundraising edge.
But the sweeter success for McConnell came in the broad resilience of Senate Republicans.
GOP senators who were widely considered in grave peril, most notably Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, prevailed. So too did Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who were among top Democratic targets.
Democrats had been excited in the campaign’s closing days by the idea that they could even win in deep-red South Carolina, where Democrat Jaime Harrison mounted a spirited challenge to a key Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) In the end, Graham prevailed easily.
Senate Republicans did suffer some casualties, with Democrats Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper ousting GOP incumbents in Arizona and Colorado, but they picked up a seat, too, when Democratic Sen. Doug Jones was defeated by Tommy Tuberville in Alabama.
Overall, it was a much better election than most people expected for McConnell and his colleagues.
It wasn’t just Republicans in the upper chamber who had a good night. The same was true in the House, where several endangered GOP members, especially in suburban areas, held onto their seats.
Democrats look set to retain their House majority but Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hopes of further cushioning her advantage appeared to be in vain.
Democrats have, so far, not ousted any sitting Republican member, though they have claimed a couple of vacant seats. On the other hand, the GOP has taken at least seven seats formerly held by Democrats. Two prominent Florida Democrats, Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, both lost.
The pollsters who stood out from the crowd
It was a bad night for pollsters as a whole — but some who were at odds with the consensus have been vindicated.
Iowa pollster Ann Selzer has long been considered the gold standard in her state. Selzer came in for fierce pushback from Democrats, especially on social media, when she released her final poll of her home state at the weekend.
Selzer’s poll for the Des Moines Register showed Trump leading by 7 points in a state where other pollsters, including Quinnipiac University and Emerson, had him leading by a single point in their last polls
On Wednesday afternoon, with 92 percent of the estimated votes counted in the Hawkeye State, Trump’s margin was exactly what Selzer had projected: seven points.
Robert Cahaly of Trafalgar Group is a more colorful and controversial figure than Selzer. Cahaly is a Republican, and he makes no bones about his belief that polls can be affected by a “social desirability bias” — something that he thinks has a detrimental effect on Trump’s poll numbers.
Trafalgar’s final Wisconsin poll had Biden leading by 1 point, which is sure to be far more accurate than more high-profile competitors. The final New York Times/Siena poll in Wisconsin had Biden leading by 11 points, while ABC News/Washington Post will be eager to forget their own final survey which had the Democrat up by 17 points in the state.
The Trump campaign’s legal moves, if pursued, could prolong the election fight for days or weeks — and make the names of hitherto obscure election lawyers in the process.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien cast the legal challenge in Michigan as one intended to ensure “meaningful access” for the Trump campaign to “numerous counting locations to observe the opening of ballots and the counting process.”
Democrats say the efforts are a naked power-grab.
For the second presidential cycle in a row, pollsters were left red-faced by a series of embarrassing misses.
The final RealClearPolitics state average in Wisconsin had Biden winning by almost 7 points. In Michigan, he was ahead by more than 4. Both states are likely to have very thin final margins.
As with Trump’s shock win four years ago, the Midwest appears to have been a particular problem for pollsters. Iowa and Ohio did not get as much of the spotlight as other states in the region, but they were nonetheless predicted to be highly competitive. Trump won both handily.
After 2016, pollsters insisted that they had improved their methods. Now, they face a whole raft of new questions.
Democratic congressional leaders
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had expected to strengthen their respective positions. Instead — to just about everyone’s shock — they emerged weakened.
This will have been a particular blow to Schumer, who saw his chances of becoming majority leader slip away. The Democratic performance in the House will be a big disappointment to Pelosi too.
It is not at all clear what the Democratic leaders could have done differently to improve their party’s performance. They may just have got caught in the crosswinds of an unusual presidential election held amid a very strange year. But that won’t take away the sting of a dramatic underperformance.
Democrats enjoyed big fundraising advantages, but their donors didn’t seem to get much bang for their buck.
Biden, running against an unpopular president during a pandemic, had a clear fundraising edge, especially in the campaign’s later stages. The combined efforts of his campaign and his allies at the Democratic National Committee raised $383 million in the crucial month of September, topping Trump and the Republican National Committee by more than $130 million.
Yet even if Biden wins in the end, it will likely be with the narrowest Electoral College margin since at least 2004.
It was a similar story in Senate races. In South Carolina, Graham was outraised by Harrison by an eye-popping $30 million in the third quarter, yet the Republican appears to have won by double digits. Amy McGrath outraised McConnell by more than $32 million in the Kentucky Senate race on her way to a heavy defeat.
Meanwhile, Trump foe and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $100 million to try to help Biden win Florida. Trump actually increased his margin of victory in the Sunshine State from his 2016 levels.
The United States was deeply polarized before and during the presidential campaign. It would be fanciful to think those wounds would have been bound up if Biden had won a more clear-cut victory.
The actual result, however, seems like the worst possible outcome on that score.
Trump has made vague but inflammatory accusations of “fraud,” including during an appearance at the White House in the early hours of Wednesday. There is every sign that he will intensify his efforts to call the outcome of the election into question.
The Wisconsin recount and Michigan court battle are sure to fire up partisans on both sides even further, with each side accusing the other of trying to steal the election.
The U.S. went through a broadly similar experience in 2000, amid a dispute over whether Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore had carried Florida and won the election. Amid huge controversy, the Supreme Court decided the matter in Bush’s favor.
But, intense though the 2000 Florida fight was, the nation is even more febrile and angry now.