The nation will be able to heave a welcome sigh of relief Tuesday after the long-awaited passing of the presidential election — assuming, with perhaps an unrealistic dose of optimism, that a result is reached before midnight.
First, though, an exhausted electorate had to endure the final day of the campaign Monday, in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton parachuted into purple states to feel that, come Election Day, they had done as much as they could do to win this thing.
Only Trump was in Florida, the biggest state he cannot afford to lose, campaigning in Republican-heavy Sarasota before embarking on a daylong trip that would take him to four other states: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Michigan, where his last rally was scheduled for 11 p.m.
To his Florida supporters, he expressed a twinge of nostalgia, wishing them “good luck.”
“This is it,” Trump said. “Get out there. I did my thing.”
Having a little fun as he neared the end of a draining race, Trump held up a Halloween mask of his face that had made its way from an audience member to the stage. “Great head of hair,” he quipped.
Clinton hit Pennsylvania, Michigan, Pennsylvania again and North Carolina, where her final event was planned for midnight. The day’s special guests: Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Jon Bon Jovi.
“For those who are still making up your minds or thinking, ‘Maybe, maybe it’s not worth voting at all,’ let me just say: The choice in this election could not be clearer,” she said in Pittsburgh. “It really is between division or unity, between strong and steady leadership or a loose cannon.”
She had help from friends, including President Barack Obama, who hopped from Michigan to New Hampshire to Pennsylvania — “Do not be bamboozled,” he said in Ann Arbor — and from Vice President Joe Biden, who stopped, among other places, in Tallahassee and St. Petersburg, for a campaign concert with Jimmy Buffett.
The furious dash to the finish marked the end of a campaign that repeatedly broke political precedent, from June 16, 2015, when Trump launched his candidacy after riding the down escalator at Trump Tower and declaring that some Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” to Sunday, two days before the election, when FBI Director James Comey revealed, for the second time, that his agency wouldn’t charge Clinton with wrongdoing over the emails she kept on a private server while at the State Department.
Two-thirds of the more than 9 million Floridians expected to vote this election had already cast ballots by the end of Sunday, a record early turnout. But Democrats who had voted early in person or by mail exceeded Republicans by about 88,000 ballots, about half the lead they held at the same point in 2012 — keeping Florida and its 29 electoral votes stubbornly close.
South Florida voters won’t have to look far Tuesday night to track how the race is going: One of the biggest barometers for the state’s outcome will be voter-rich Miami-Dade County. Elections Supervisor Christina White announced late Sunday the county had shattered its prior single-day early-voting record after 53,095 people cast ballots. That total, added to received mail ballots, amounted to a 61 percent increase from 2012.
The size of Clinton’s lead when early results post in solidly Democratic Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties shortly after polls close at 7 p.m. will serve as a key indicator to both campaigns as to how Florida might swing.
Democrats aim to build an insurmountable advantage: If Clinton leads Trump in early Miami-Dade returns by at least 25 percentage points, it will likely be enough to make up for redder but less populated parts of the state, and propel her to an eventual victory.
Republicans hope to keep the difference closer in Miami-Dade and cobble together enough votes in North and especially Southwest Florida — which has also seen significant turnout. That’s likely why Trump campaigned there Monday.
The two presidential campaigns have spent more on political advertising in Florida than in any other state: about $115 million total, with Clinton spending about twice as much as Trump, according to an NBC News analysis.
Both candidates plan Election Night parties in New York City, Trump at the Hilton Midtown and Clinton at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, just two miles away.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday pegged the Florida race as — surprise! — too close to call, with Clinton ahead of Trump by 46-45 percent. In the state’s U.S. Senate race, Quinnipiac found Republican Marco Rubio handily in front of Democrat Patrick Murphy, by 50-43 percent.
It was Rubio who warned at a Miami-Dade GOP rally Sunday about an uncomfortably tight election, invoking the 2000 recount-that-must-not-be-named between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush won by just 537 votes.
“What if this election is decided by 100 votes?” Rubio said at Francisco Human Rights Park, next to the West Dade Regional Library voting site. “By 150 votes?”
Then, senator, Tuesday will turn into Wednesday, and the night will be very, very long.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Alex Leary contributed to this report from Sarasota.