Why US election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will shape the future of a nation in crisis
It has become a quadrennial cliché, but in this year of all years, there is more than a ring of truth to the idea the most important US election in the post-war era is upon us.
In one corner stands the incumbent candidate, the grandson of a Lewis crofter and the only impeached president in the history of the US to win his party’s nomination for re-election.
In the other, a 77-year-old political veteran promising the moral renewal of a nation that, for generations, stood as a beacon of hope.
Whether it is Donald Trump or Joe Biden who prevails in the 59th presidential election, the ramifications will be near unprecedented. Not only will the result determine the direction of travel of the US for the next four years, it will exert a major influence on the future of a post-Brexit UK and the ongoing global response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As America heads to the polls, here are some of the key issues in play.
When will the first results be known?
The first polls close at midnight GMT, but election officials in the US have sounded caution the result may not be known for some time.
Some states do not allow the arduous task of processing mail-in ballots until election day itself, and with an unprecedented 80 million voters casting their ballots by post due to Covid-19, it could be several days, if not weeks, before a full picture emerges.
One of the main narratives throughout the night could be a surge in votes for Mr Biden as early tallies are released. But as in-person votes are added to the total, the tide could turn back towards Mr Trump.
The wait is likely to be long in swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, where some counties will not begin counting postal ballots until Wednesday, and in California, where officials accept postal votes provided they are sent by the day of the election, it could be even longer.
In states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, results are expected quicker. That, at least, is the theory.
If the race between Mr Trump and Mr Biden is close to call in those states, it could come down to absentee ballots sent close to the election date.
There are also questions about how the US electoral system will cope during an election unlike any other. States which allowed early in-person voting have already seen huge queues, and concerns persist about the ability of the cash-strapped US Postal Service to cope with the deluge of ballots.
What are the key states to watch for?
There are numerous states on which the outcome of the election could hinge. As a general guide, all eyes will be on proceedings in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In 2016, Mr Trump won five of those states by a slender margin, ensuring his victory in the electoral college. Whether Mr Biden is able to reclaim swathes of the US once known as the ‘Blue Wall’ will be a key determinant.
According to a poll by the New York Times and Siena College, Mr Biden is leading Mr Trump in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and, by a margin of 11 points, in Wisconsin.
If Mr Biden holds on his lead in three of those states, it would almost guarantee his place in the White House. Were he to win Florida, it is likely he would require just one more big state than Mr Trump won four years ago.
Will we definitely have a winner on Wednesday morning?
It is impossible to have an official winner by then, and it is even unclear whether there will be a projected winner. With states counting ballots after election day, and deadlines for official results weeks away, those hoping for a definitive result will be disappointed. Even if Mr Biden looks to have mounted an unassailable lead on election night, it is highly doubtful that his opponent will concede defeat.
It has been reported that Mr Trump is prepared to declare victory on election night if it looks likely that he is ahead, a tactic designed to sow doubt in the democratic process and cast aspersions on mail-in ballots. The 73-year-old has also declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
Regardless of how the wait for results is - and it could be weeks - Mr Trump will remain in the Oval Office for some time yet as a ‘lame duck’ president. If defeated, he will have 73 days of his term to serve.
What do the polls say?
The latest national polls indicate that Mr Biden has a lead of around eight points over Mr Trump. The major polls put Mr Biden at anywhere between 50 and 54 per cent, with Mr Trump at 41 to 44 per cent.
Such mechanisms are a good guide as to how popular a candidate is across the US as a whole, but they are an inexact prediction of the election result. Projected margins in certain swing states are considerably tighter than the margins in the national popular vote.
Few can have forgotten that in 2016, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, commanded a clear lead over Mr Trump in the national polls for almost the entire campaign, only to end up losing in the electoral college.
While the overwhelming majority of election models suggest that it is Mr Biden’s poll to lose, there are some dissenting voices.
Robert Cahaly, a Republican pollster with The Trafalgar Group, who used unorthodox polling to correctly predict five swing states and Mr Trump's electoral college tally in 2016, has predicted that undercounted voters will secure him a second term.