For Leon Love, election day was marked by a feeling he’d never had before — the earnest civic pride that comes with casting a ballot. The 51-year-old Milwaukee long-haul driver voted for the very first time, driven by an urge to cast President Trump out of office.
The elation didn’t last long. A few hours later, Love wondered whether his vote would mean anything at all.
More than 1,700 miles away, in a working-class Houston suburb, Tom Donohoe had spent most of Tuesday evening comforted by Trump’s strong performance in Florida. By the next day, the 77-year-old Air Force veteran was fuming as he sat in his recliner, convinced the vote had been marred by fraud.
The seesawing isn’t unique to Love or Donohoe.
America is in a mood. Or, more accurately, many moods — constantly shifting as one candidate claimed momentum and then the other. From the moments the polls closed Tuesday night through the photo-finish counts on Wednesday, this deeply divided country found itself united in political whiplash.
Such was the case for five Americans, spread across the country, differing in age and race and political persuasion, but all enduring the same ride on the postelection emotional rollercoaster.
Tuesday, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
As early results trickled in, Darrell Hester settled onto his couch in his Norcross, Ga., apartment with a bowl of curry soup and garlic bread and switched on MSNBC.
The 25-year-old sales specialist didn’t expect to get a definitive result that night. He had vivid memories of staying up until 4 a.m. at age 13, in 2008, in the hope of finding out whether Barack Obama would become the nation’s first Black president.
This time, the predictable results ticked by: Alabama and Mississippi went to Trump, New York and California to Biden.
Carol Miralia, 72, didn’t want to worry herself with the drip-drip-drip of the state results. The retired mental health counselor was cautiously optimistic after volunteering with local Democrats to drive voters to the polls in Youngstown, Ohio. So she didn’t turn on the election coverage right away. There was an energy out there — she could feel it — and she figured she’d tune in after a couple of hours, once the map was more filled in, to see whether her suspicions were right.
In Miami, Eumelia Rodriguez was watching, and she liked what she saw. Her home was brimming with Trump supporters: her husband, four kids, her sister and two of her nieces. The 47-year-old dental hygienist, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1985, expected the president to win Florida and was thrilled when he did: “I felt excited about it; I felt happy that he got my state.”
She said the president’s victory there seemed to be a precursor to more success on Tuesday, despite what she saw as efforts to rig the election against him.
“He was winning big, that’s why they stopped the counting,” Rodriguez said. “It was a big night for him.”
Donohoe, a retired industrial electrician, shared Rodriguez’s good cheer. But then Fox called Arizona for Joe Biden, leaving the Texas voter stunned. He started scanning social media for explanations. He toggled between Facebook on his cellphone, and ABC and One America News networks on his big-screen TV, looking for signs of voting shenanigans.
Around the same time, in Milwaukee, Love was watching as the TV news colored in more states red for Trump.
“I thought everybody was tired of this guy. And now there is all this red,” said the father of three and grandfather of nine. “I was shocked he made the run he did.”
Wednesday, 12 a.m. EST
In Youngstown, Miralia’s phone buzzed with a text from a cousin in California: a profanity about Ohio. By the time Miralia finally flipped on the television, she had missed the brief window when her state had tilted blue from the early vote. Probably for the best, she said; she was already feeling morose about the future.
“I came to the decision that if Trump wins, I don’t want to hear anything about politics anymore,” she said. “I just want to bury my head in the sand.”
Miralia responded to her cousin that perhaps the family should use their Italian ancestry to get citizenship in Italy. She took an Advil and drifted off to sleep at 1:30 a.m.
In Georgia, Hester had gone to bed an hour before. The 25-year-old was fed up with the lack of clarity from the battleground states, including his own. “It was pretty much up in the air,” he said. “You know what? We’re not going to get any real answers tonight.”
Love, in Milwaukee, had crawled into bed as well, but kept his phone on and listened to updates on ABC radio to see how Biden was doing. He couldn’t sleep. By 8 a.m., when he finally dozed off, things still didn’t feel right. “I was worried,” he said. “Like, after all this, maybe my vote didn’t matter.”
Wednesday, 6 a.m. EST
Miralia awoke at 6 a.m. with an attitude adjustment. After a week of dreary weather in Youngstown, the sun was shining and reoriented her perspective. Sure, Trump may be president again, but she was alive and lucky to wake up each morning. She looked at her phone and saw the race was still too close to call.
“I came to the conclusion Biden is going to lose and just had to accept it,” she said.
In Georgia, Hester awoke about an hour later, turned on MSNBC as he dressed for work and found out Biden had taken the lead in key Midwestern states. Switching over to Fox News, he watched panicked-looking commentators making unsubstantiated complaints of voter fraud.
On his drive to work at a Lowe’s store in Stone Mountain, he learned that Arizona had flipped blue. He could hardly believe it. Inside the big-box store, the atmosphere was subdued.
“In real life, it’s very quiet,” he said. “On the internet, it’s very loud and people are really vocal about it, but when you actually walk around and listen, it’s very quiet right now. It’s almost kind of scary.”
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. EST
Lunching on a BLT sandwich in the Lowe’s parking lot, Hester heard Wisconsin had also tipped to Biden’s column.
“Oh my gosh, this might be it,” he thought. “It’s really turning now. The states are literally flipping from red to blue.”
Soon after, his phone buzzed with a text from his wife, Ariel, with a screenshot of a post in a Christian mother’s group she follows complaining about fraud. “These people have the nerve to complain about BREAKING THE LAW?” she wrote.
It was so close. But by Wednesday afternoon he felt pretty confident that Biden would win. Hester did not mind if he had to wait.
“To me, it feels like I’m waiting for my paycheck,” he said. “It’s like I know it’s coming, but I have to wait two weeks for it to come again.”
In Miami, Rodriguez’s mood had dimmed by the time she ran afternoon errands at Walmart.
“I was happy, but then I got nervous,” she said. Still, she was convinced Trump would prevail — “he’s gonna be the winner.” She repeated it for emphasis.
Donohoe, meanwhile, spent the afternoon still in his recliner, taking the occasional Marlboro break. The news coverage of the count was grating on him.
“Look — North Carolina, 95% of the votes counted and they won’t give it to Trump,” he said.
Donohoe didn’t trust the media coverage, but he was voraciously consuming every bit of information. He believed Trump would win, he said, but “it’s going to be a squeaker.”
Wednesday, 6 p.m. EST
For most of the afternoon, Miralia wouldn’t let herself consider that her candidate, Biden, could win. She did anything she could to avoid the news: She walked her dog, cleaned out her gutters.
Finally, she permitted herself a peek at MSNBC on Wednesday evening, to get up to date on fights over election monitoring in Michigan or a new tranche of ballots in Arizona. She had spent much of the day trying to steel herself for a Trump victory; now, she thought, just maybe the election may swing Biden’s way.
She summed up the back-and-forth of the last day succinctly: “Emotional turmoil.”
Love, her fellow Midwesterner and Biden supporter, had gone through a similar churn. But by Wednesday afternoon he had found some certainty, even as Trump demanded a recount in his state.
“He can have them recount all he wants,” Love said. “It’s going to come out the same.”
By the end of the day, the civic pride he had felt while casting his ballot started to return.
“When it came down to it, I think my vote actually helped here in Wisconsin,” Love said, standing on his back porch and basking in the unseasonable autumn warmth. “Any election from this point on, I’m going to vote. From now until I leave this world.”
Rainey reported from Milwaukee, Hennessy-Fiske from La Porte, Texas, John from Miami, Jarvie from Atlanta and Mason from Wilmington, Del.