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It's 'white-knuckle time' for Biden and Trump

Analysis: Whether or not the election outcome is clear Tuesday, the final day of voting closes four years of chaos that has further divided an already polarized nation.
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WASHINGTON — Members of Florida's congressional delegation upbraided Joe Biden's state director last week about Biden's failure to mobilize Black voters in South Florida and around Jacksonville, according to two people who were on the conference call.

The state is one of two battlegrounds — along with Pennsylvania — where victory would likely give Biden a glide path to the presidency. His strength or weakness at the top of the ticket may also affect a series of down-ballot races across the state. And Democratic Party officials see a barnburner shaping up.

In a memo to state party insiders Monday morning, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa explained his view that a 120,000-ballot edge for registered Democrats over registered Republicans heading into Election Day would put Biden in range of winning. NBC News, in conjunction with the company TargetSmart, has calculated that 119,552 more Democrats than Republicans had voted early in-person or by absentee ballot through Sunday.

"It's white knuckle time," Peñalosa wrote in the memo, which was obtained by NBC News.

He might well have been speaking for all Americans on the eve of Election Day 2020.

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Whether or not the outcome is clear by the time Tuesday ends, the final day of voting is a culmination of four years of political, social and cultural chaos that has further divided an already polarized nation. The cliché that every election is more important than all of its predecessors rings particularly true this November as clashing tribes of voters see a threat to their way of life either in Trump's re-election or in a transfer of power to Biden.

"By my lights, polarization is not the result of politics, policy or personality," said Charlie Messina, 77, a Trump supporter from Sarasota, Florida. "Those are proxies for a values divide tearing the country apart. Both sides rightly believe the values of the other side to be existential threats."

And, he added, "regardless of who wins, the postelection atmosphere will be toxic and ugly."

The voting occurs against the backdrop of a nation divided over how to respond to a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 of its people, forced the federal government to pump trillions of dollars in deficit-financed relief into the economy to avert a depression and turned science into a political football.

It also happens during a national reckoning over racial injustice that pits Trump's heavily freighted "law and order" message against protests over police killings of Black people that have been accompanied by rioting and violent suppression of demonstrators by federal agents and private "militia" members.

The election will decide how the most powerful office in the world shapes policies to deal with these crises and communicates with the public about them. A mask-wearing Biden has promised compassion in handling strife over racial injustice and a virus-first approach that predicates economic recovery on stopping the disease. Trump often fans the flames of discord, and, by words and action, he has encouraged Americans to resume business as usual.

"We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," he said in late March.

But America was sharply divided over Trump long before the virus and the protests. He has played to his formidable political base at every turn, sacrificing the support of educated white suburban Republicans to find new voters who subscribe to his brand of politics.

While he failed to fulfill the No. 1 promise of his 2016 campaign — sealing off the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall paid for by Mexico — he has tried to build some of it by rerouting money intended for military base construction and other priorities. Likewise, he pursued a crackdown on illegal immigration that separated children from their parents at the border and viewed the detention of immigrants in squalid conditions as a deterrent.

He has launched an all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, repealing parts of it and arguing in the courts that the rest of it should be gutted. For those who see the government-backed health insurance program as a threat to free markets, he has been an aggressive champion.

Clare Meehan, 21, a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, said she voted for Biden because he would protect the law's provision requiring insurance companies to cover customers who are believed to be higher risks because of their health histories.

"I have a pre-existing condition," Meehan said in an interview Friday.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said many Democrats fear that another four years of Trump will see the further erosion of their efforts to make American society more equitable.

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"With President Trump and his brand of Republicanism, it is going to take the country in a very different direction, one where Democrats are going to see a lot of progress rolled back" if he wins, she said. But, she said, Trump's base voters see a country in peril if he is stripped of the presidency.

"They believe he is the answer to everything," she said. "They are ride-or-die."

The perceived stakes on both sides have driven the quadrennial national outbreak of election anxiety to new heights. It could take some time to determine a winner in some of the battleground states, which, in addition to Pennsylvania and Florida, include North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

Two decades ago, a 537-vote margin in Florida determined the national presidential result. Twenty years later, in the same perennial battleground, Biden began Election Day eve exactly 448 Democratic voters shy of the number party officials project he would need to win it.