American voters are heading to the polls on Tuesday after a star-studded climax to a campaign that could elect either the first female president of the United States or a celebrity billionaire who threatens to rewrite the rules of politics forever.
Minutes after midnight the traditional first election day ballot was cast in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, as Lady Gaga in North Carolina and Donald Trump’s running mate Mike Pence in Michigan introduced competing last-ditch rallies.
With a fumbled start that many will hope does not herald more serious voting irregularities to come, residents of Dixville delivered four votes for Hillary Clinton, two for Trump, one for libertarian Gary Johnson and a quirky write-in for the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Democrats were cautiously optimistic of national victory after Trump’s promise to build a wall against immigrants appeared instead to be bolstering Clinton’s electoral firewall.
Analysis of early voting behaviour suggested the Republican candidate may have stirred a demographic giant by encouraging up to 87% more Hispanic voters than usual in states such as Florida.
Democrats began election day with an average lead in national opinion polling of around three points, though state-level polling suggested several possible paths to victory also remained for Trump among white working-class voters.
Leaving nothing to chance, Clinton and President Barack Obama held afternoon rallies in Michigan on Monday and appeared on stage together in Philadelphia with Bruce Springsteen, a one-man songbook for America’s blue-collar angst.
Springsteen played Thunder Road, ending with the lyric “We’re pulling out of here to win”, and Long Walk Home, a bleak hymn to a town that has lost its businesses but still “wraps its arms around you”.
Before the largest crowd of the Democratic campaign, in front of Independence Hall, Obama slapped the lectern as he introduced “this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother, this grandmother, this patriot, our next president of the United States of America, Hillary Clinton”.
The former secretary of state implored “we have to bridge the divide in our country” as she began pivoting to what may be a key challenge if she does win. “I regret deeply how angry the tone of the campaign became.”
The night’s momentum continued as Clinton boarded her plane, bound for Raleigh, North Carolina, where she held the final rally of her campaign just after midnight.
Accompanied by her family, Clinton was in visibly good spirits while chatting jovially with aides towards the front cabin. The singer Jon Bon Jovi, who performed in Philadelphia and was scheduled for an encore in Raleigh, joined the flight and enthusiastically snapped photos on his mobile phone to document a historic night. Even Huma Abedin – the longtime aide who left the trail amid renewed but ultimately unfounded controversy surrounding Clinton’s emails 10 days ago – had returned.
The revelry resembled a campaign aware it was on the brink of victory, savoring every last moment after an exhausting 18 months.
But Trump was voicing equal confidence he could pull off a surprise victory that would send shockwaves around the world, hoping to channel anger over jobs and trade into an election day upset without parallel.
“Today is our independence day,” he told the audience in Grand Rapids. “Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally.”
“We have one flawed candidate left to beat,” added Trump, reeling off his list of equally unexpected wins in the Republican primary. “It’s going to be the beginning of a new adventure.”
The Trump camp went into the final day of the campaign needing an almost clean sweep of battleground states such as Florida and North Carolina to win outright, plus a series of shock wins in the rustbelt that looked less and less likely.
But sensing possible danger, the Clinton campaign poured last-minute resources into the industrial midwest, a region where she struggled against a similar antiestablishment surge for Bernie Sanders during the primary election season.
Clinton told supporters in Michigan the election was a choice “between division and unity … between strong and steady leadership and a loose cannon who could put everything at risk”.
Speaking to a packed crowd in a community college gymnasium in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Trump outlined his closing message that “this election will decide whether we are ruled by a corrupt political class or by yourselves, the people”.
Both presidential candidates planned to watch Tuesday night’s election returns in New York, prompting the city to stage the largest election day police deployment in its history, officials said.
The New York police department was poised to station 5,000 uniformed officers, including some with automatic weapons and explosives detection equipment, across Manhattan and the city’s 1,205 polling stations.
The Department of Justice announced its civil rights division was deploying more than 500 voting monitors to 28 states, amid particular concern that changes to voting rules in some states such as North Carolina may have deliberately affected African American turnout.
At Trump’s rally in Scranton, a blue-collar crowd sitting in steep, narrow bleachers looming from the gym floor was deafening at times. In addition to familiar chants like “Lock her up” and “Build the wall”, Trump supporters shouted “I love you Donnie” about their candidate and “She’s a demon” about his opponent.
Trump, who was repeatedly interrupted by raucous chants of “CNN sucks”, called Clinton “the face of failure” and “the face of failed foreign policy” as he continued his attacks on familiar targets including Jay Z and Beyoncé, as well as the media.
The Republican nominee was heartened by the sound of the rowdy cheers in a state that was last won by a Republican, George HW Bush, in a presidential election in 1988, and where Clinton has long maintained a narrow but consistent lead. “This is not the sound of a second place finisher,” he declared from the stage.
Yet by the time he appeared at the final, hastily scheduled rally in Michigan, he was an hour and a half late and many started streaming towards the exits as the clock approached one in the morning.
But this was not a sign of flagging support. Bruce Dykstra of Grand Rapids said that he had seen the nominee the week before and compared him to a rock star, while Todd Willman, a local furniture maker, was there despite needing to get up a 6am for work. He seemed to typify the devil-may-care ethos of the campaign: “If I was his campaign manager I would made his slogan ‘Fuck it’.”
Under the crisp blue skies forecast for much of the country on election day, Clinton began her last full day of campaigning with a personal moment: one that highlights her historic opportunity to become the first female president in the US and a role model for a generation of young women.
Pausing beneath the plane that has carried her through the closing months of a sometimes interminable-feeling campaign, she stopped to show the scene to her two-year-old granddaughter Charlotte via her cellphone.
“I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I have over 18 months … if I did not believe in my heart that we can do this,” she later told supporters in Pittsburgh. “We don’t have to accept a dark and divisive vision for America. Tomorrow you can vote for a big-hearted America.
“There is fear and anger in our country,” Clinton added. “But anger is not a plan. We have got to start talking to each other again.”
Amid continued Democratic rancour over the late role of the FBI and Trump’s threat to refuse to recognise an election result he claims may be rigged, it will be a tough battle for whoever wins.
Though stock markets rebounded in the wake of better national polls for Clinton, Democrats feared the cloud cast by the FBI could cost them control of Congress and prolong Washington gridlock even if Clinton wins the White House.
Clinton took her closing argument to four cities across three battleground states on Monday, dubbing the choice before voters as among the most consequential in modern history.
“Our core values are being tested in this election,” Clinton said at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “But my faith in our future has never been stronger.”
Earlier in the day she implored thousands of mostly young voters, who filled an outdoor park at the University of Pittsburgh as hundreds more lined the streets, to grasp why this election was different.
“This person is temperamentally unqualified, experientially unqualified to be president,” Clinton said.
“We have got to rise above all of this hate-filled rhetoric, all of these insults and scapegoating and finger-pointing and insulting.”
Between rallies and flights Clinton took her pitch to the airwaves with a series of interviews in pursuit of undecided voters who might still be persuaded or those needing motivation to head to the polls. A conversation with radio host Ryan Seacrest drew Clinton’s first reaction to the announcement by the FBI director James Comey a day prior clearing her once more after reviewing a new batch of emails that may have been pertinent to her use of a private server.
“I kept saying that I was surprised, I never expected them to do that,” she said of Comey’s controversial decision to cast renewed scrutiny over the now-closed investigation into her emails less than two weeks before the election.
“I was just a little bit befuddled by the whole process, but it’s behind us now and I think everybody should focus on what is best for our country and how we’re going to meet the challenges we have.”
Barack Obama urged Americans to focus on the big picture as he began his last day of campaigning, warning that the election could be close-fought.
“I want you to tune out all the noise and I want you to focus because the choice you face when you step into the voting booth could not be clearer: Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief,” he told a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Just think, over the weekend his campaign took away his Twitter account. Now, if your closest advisers don’t trust you to tweet, why should we trust you with the nuclear codes?”