After nearly two years of bitterness and rancor, America began electing its 45th president Tuesday, making Hillary Clinton the nation’s first female commander in chief or choosing billionaire businessman Donald Trump, whose volatile campaign has upended United States politics.
Polls opened at 6:00 am (1100 GMT) in nine states mainly in the east – Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Virginia – with the rest of the country due to get started later in the day.
Democratic candidate Clinton cast her vote in Chappaqua, New York, while Republican candidate Trump voted in Manhattan. They were then to hold victory rallies about a mile apart in the evening in New York City.
Till the filing of this report, Clinton had a slim lead but no one ruled out a Trump win either. The name of the winner was not expected to be known before 0300 GMT.
EYES ON FLORIDA, NORTH CAROLINA
In a battle centered largely on the character of the candidates, Clinton, 69, a former secretary of state and first lady, and Trump, 70, a New York businessman, made their final, fervent appeals to supporters late on Monday to turn out the vote.
An early indicator of the strength of each candidate could come in North Carolina and Florida, two must-win states for Trump that have been the subject of frantic last-minute efforts by both the Republican and Democratic campaigns.
Races in both those states were shifting from favouring Clinton to being too close to call.
A strong vote for Clinton could jeopardise Republican control of the US Senate, as voters choose 34 senators of the 100-member chamber. Democrats needed a net gain of five seats to win control. The 435-seat House of Representatives was expected, however, to remain in Republican hands.
VIEWED UNFAVOURABLY BY MAJORIY OF VOTERS
Voters had to choose between Clinton, who was vowed to largely continue the policies of Democrat Obama, and Trump, who has never held public office and has positioned himself as a change agent. Both were viewed unfavourably by majorities of voters.
The long-running US election campaign has been one of the most negative in American history with each candidate accusing the other of lacking the character and judgment to be president.
Trump, a former reality TV star, revelled in the drama and seized the spotlight time and again with provocative comments about Muslims and women, attacks against the Republican establishment and bellicose appeals to build a wall along the US southern border with Mexico to stem illegal immigration.
But the spotlight was not always kind to Trump, with the release of a 2005 video in which he boasted about groping women damaging his campaign and leaving him on the defensive for critical weeks.
Clinton, a former US senator with a penchant for secrecy, sustained damaging blows of her own linked to her handling of classified information as the country’s top diplomat. FBI Director James Comey shook up the race and slowed her momentum with an Oct 28 announcement the agency was reviewing newly discovered emails that might pertain to her email practices.
On Sunday, Comey told Congress that investigators had found no reason to change their July finding that there was no criminal wrongdoing in Clinton’s use of the server.
THE MAGIC NUMBER IS 270
In the White House race, the winner needs at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes up for grabs.
Rather than one big nationwide election, this is really 51 small ones — in the 50 states and the US capital Washington.
As the results come in, they will form an electoral map that colors each state red for the Republicans and blue for the Democrats.
This shaded map is a fixture of American politics every four years, with news media and websites fashioning them to give a real-time picture over the course of Election Night to illustrate how the candidates and parties are doing.
FINAL WEEK OF CAMPAIGNING
Their final week of campaigning was a grinding series of get-out-the-vote rallies across battleground states where the election is likely to be decided.
“We choose to believe in a hopeful, inclusive, big-hearted America,” Clinton said in Philadelphia before a crowd of 33,000 – the biggest of her campaign.
She was joined by Democratic President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton
Trump made one of his final appearances late on Monday in Manchester, New Hampshire, where polls showed a tight race.
“Tomorrow, the American working class will strike back,” Trump said. “It’s about time.”
He brought much of his family on stage for his last rally in the state where he scored his first victory in the Republican nomination fight.
FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT
Clinton went into Election Day as the favourite to become the first US woman president after spending eight years in the White House as the first lady in the 1990s.
A Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation poll gave Clinton a 90 percent chance of defeating Trump and said she was on track to win 303 Electoral College votes out of 270 needed, to Trump’s 235.
But Trump advisers said the level of his support was not apparent in the polling and believed the New York businessman was in position for an upset victory along the lines of the “Brexit” vote in June to pull Britain from the European Union.
“We have seen enormous momentum,” said deputy Trump campaign manager Dave Bossie.
Financial markets brightened in reaction to the latest twists in what has been a volatile presidential campaign. Global stock markets and the U.S. dollar surged, putting them on track for their biggest gains in weeks.
Investors, who see Clinton as a known quantity, were buoyed by an announcement on Sunday by FBI Director James Comey that cleared Clinton of a cloud of controversy involving her use of a private email server while President Barack Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
While opinion polls showed a close race, but tilting toward Clinton, major bookmakers and online exchanges were more confident of a Clinton victory. PredictIt put her chances of capturing the White House at 81 percent.
‘I WILL FIGHT FOR YOU’
“Do you want America to be ruled by the corrupt political class, or do you want America to be ruled, again, by the people?” he demanded at a rally in New Hampshire, a state won in 2012 by Obama that Trump hopes to flip into his column.
Promising to end “years of betrayal,” tear up free trade deals, seal the border, halt the drug trade and exclude all Syrian refugees, Trump told his supporters: “I am with you and I will fight for you and we will win.”
Trump´s campaign spooked world markets seeking stability after the recent global slowdown.
Last week, US stocks as measured by the S&P 500 index fell for nine straight days for the first time since 1980, only to recover a little when the FBI confirmed Clinton would not face prosecution over her emails. Asian markets were up slightly on Tuesday as the world remained on tenterhooks for the result.