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On The Trail: Deeply divided nation shows blue islands in a red sea

On The Trail: Deeply divided nation shows blue islands in a red sea
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American voters on Tuesday delivered a split decision on two parties that could hardly have offered more starkly differing views of the future of the nation in an election that defied expert predictions and all but guaranteed at least two more years of divided government.

By early Wednesday morning, Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE had captured at least 238 electoral votes, while President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE had claimed 213. Nine more states, among them the critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, remained uncalled as elections administrators raced to count millions of absentee and mail-in votes.

Biden trails Trump in those three battleground states as well as North Carolina and Georgia. But given the number of absentee ballots left to count, the advantage Biden held among early voters and the counties from which those ballots came, the former vice president appeared to be the slight — but by no means certain — favorite to notch the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

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Even if he does win, he is more likely than not to face a Senate controlled by Republicans. Democrats needed to gain a net of three seats and the White House to win the Senate, a goal of which they appeared to fall short.

Republican incumbents managed to overcome huge spending disadvantages to retain seats in Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina on Tuesday. Republican incumbents led in Maine, Georgia and North Carolina, though ballots remain to be counted.

Democrats had flipped two Senate seats: in Colorado, where former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLobbying world DNC taps veteran campaign hands for communications staff Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee MORE (D) ousted Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R), and in Arizona, with former astronaut Mark Kelly (D) projected to defeat Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona state senator announces bid for Kirkpatrick's seat Democratic Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick says she won't seek reelection Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R). Republicans had captured a seat in Alabama, where former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville (R) ousted Sen. Doug Jones (D).

In the House, Democrats appeared poised to retain control, though they suffered unexpected losses instead of expanding their majority. Heading into Election Day, election handicappers and Democrats were expecting gains of five to 15 seats.

About a half-dozen Democratic incumbents were ousted Tuesday, though many other races have yet to be called. Democratic lawmakers lost contests in Florida, New York, Oklahoma and elsewhere; in Illinois, Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Democrat Cheri Bustos to retire from Congress GOP campaign chief confident his party will win back House MORE (D), who heads the House Democratic campaign arm, appeared to have survived a late surge from a Republican challenger.

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The overall results will be scrutinized closely for their divergence from public surveys conducted in the last several weeks, both those released by media outlets and those conducted for Democratic and Republican campaigns, all of which showed Biden outperforming and Democrats making major gains in the House and Senate.

Though there are millions of votes left to count, those results appear to have been off by a more substantial margin than public surveys were in 2016, the last time Trump performed better than polls suggested.

“There is a group of Trump voters that pollsters — GOP, Democrat, media or academic — simply cannot get to either take polls or answer them accurately,” said Jim Blaine, a Republican strategist in North Carolina. “This is 2016 all over again, despite these professionals’ best efforts to fix their issues.”

The results themselves showed a nation more deeply divided than even in 2016, when Trump ran up huge margins among rural voters who swamped Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE’s gains in urban areas.

This year’s results show Biden winning back more voters in suburban counties than did Clinton but Trump gaining even more in the sparsely populated rural areas — a map akin to an archipelago of blue scattered across a vast ocean of red.

Biden advanced Democratic gains in urban and suburban counties from Clinton’s performance in 2016. With thousands of votes left to count in Texas, Biden looked poised to win Williamson County, just outside Austin; Trump won the county by 10 percentage points in 2016. In Arizona, Biden led early tallies in pivotal Maricopa County by 9 points, a county Trump won by 3 points four years ago. And in Pennsylvania, early vote tallies showed Biden leading Trump by 24 points in Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia, a 3-point improvement over Clinton’s performance.

But in rural areas across the country, Trump not only repeated his gangbusters performance from 2016; he bettered it. In some areas, including the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and parts of Florida, Trump even improved on his performance among nonwhite voters, a cohort at the core of the Democratic base.

Early waves of exit polls showed Trump carrying 32 percent of self-identified Latino voters, 4 points better than his performance in 2018. He took 12 percent among Black voters, another 4-point increase. Biden improved among white voters, taking 42 percent, but Trump repeated the 57 percent he took among those voters in 2016.

Millions of votes remain to be counted; Biden is almost certain to win the popular vote by many millions, and he remains favored to carry the Electoral College in the coming days.

But a likely Republican Senate and an all but certain Democratic House means the president sworn in next year will inherit a divided government in the face of a global pandemic that continues to rage, an economy that continues to sputter and a nation that is deeply divided against itself.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.