On Monday, voters on both sides of the widening political divide of the nation prepared to render a verdict on the four tumultuous years of President Donald Trump in the White House and, in particular, his management of the coronavirus pandemic that has upended American life for the past eight months.
As Trump and Joe Biden raced in a frenzied final push for votes across the most important battleground states, the 2020 election unfolded in a country with urgent problems: an uncontrolled public health crisis, a battered economy, profound ideological divisions, a national race calculation, and uncertainty as to whether the outcome of the vote will be disputed.
Americans have already shown, undeterred by the pandemic, an unusual determination to have their voices and votes heard this year. In advance of Election Day, almost 100 million cast their ballots, shattering records as they endured long lines at early voting sites or sent by mail in their ballots.
Much of the country felt on the edge as if it had finally arrived at the often-predicted "most important election of a lifetime." Companies in cities from Denver to Detroit to Washington, D.C., boarded their windows with plywood before the polls opened Tuesday, as they prepared for the possibility of civil unrest. The National Guard was being prepared by some governors.
"Everyone is starting to panic," Fernando Salas, a construction worker, said at a storefront in a trendy shopping district near Los Angeles as he pounded nails into a plywood frame.
During a pandemic, election managers braced themselves to pull off the twin challenges of holding an election and fending off efforts by a president who is trailing in the polls to undermine confidence in the voting-counting process.
"Please be patient," urged Jim Kenney, Philadelphia's mayor, the largest city in one of the most important swing states, on Tuesday, predicting long lines. The Trump and Biden campaigns were both preparing lawyers' armies for a potentially prolonged battle.
Still, the unchecked spread of COVID-19 shadowed the election, and a report by the White House Virus Task Force coordinator on Monday contradicted the president's repeated claims on the campaign trail that the U.S. was on its way to defeating the virus.
Dr. Deborah Birx's report warned against the sort of rallies Trump had been holding. It also predicted that the U.S. would continue to see days when, according to a White House official who reviewed the document, which was first reported by The Washington Post, the number of new cases exceeded 100,000.