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Early voting in several key battleground states shows the US presidential race on a knife edge, with both parties insisting that the closely watched data pointed to their candidate gaining momentum as the campaign entered its final weekend.
The tightening race sent US stocks to their ninth successive daily decline on Friday, with the S&P 500 edging lower to mark its longest string of losses in 36 years.
The early ballots — some submitted by mail, but most cast in early-opening precincts — will not be opened until election day on Tuesday, but Democratic voters were turning up in greater numbers than Republicans in Nevada and North Carolina while Republicans were outperforming in Ohio and Iowa.
According to Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the US Elections Project, 37m Americans had already voted by Friday morning, compared to 32m early votes in the entire 2012 race. He said that as many as 40 per cent of the electorate could cast their votes before election day on Tuesday.
Early indications showed an increase in turnout among Latinos, seen as a fillip to Hillary Clinton, and whites, where Donald Trump pulls most of his support, giving both campaigns reason to trumpet the data.
But with polls showing Mrs Clinton ahead by just 2.3 points at the national level and facing tight races in many bellwether states, the early voting numbers suggest that Mr Trump will need to generate a decisive turnout of his supporters on Tuesday if he is to overcome the strong position that the Democrats hold in the electoral college.
Both candidates have been campaigning for much of the past week in states that allow early voting, particularly Florida and North Carolina, which are both regarded as essential for Mr Trump to secure the White House. The Republican is due to visit both states this weekend, while Mrs Clinton is expected in south Florida on Saturday.
The nastiness of the campaign continued on Friday, as each candidate attempted to rally their base and suppress turnout for their rival. Mr Trump continued to insist a Clinton victory would mean Washington becomes tied up with scandals, while Mrs Clinton returned to her theme of asserting her rival was unfit for the presidency.
“She will be under investigation for years, she will face trials . . . What a terrible, terrible mess,” Mr Trump told a rally in New Hampshire, referring to questions about Mrs Clinton’s email practices. The crowd responded by chanting “lock her up”.
At a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Mrs Clinton said: “Imagine how easy it would be for Donald Trump to feel insulted and start a real war, not just a Twitter war, at three in the morning.”
She urged supporters to “stage an intervention before it’s too late” with friends who were considering voting for Mr Trump. “I mean, really, just sit down with them and ask them what they care about. And if they say they’re just frustrated or angry, say you understand, but anger’s not a plan.”
Waiting for Mrs Clinton to arrive at her next rally in Detroit, Michigan, Nortrice Banner was one of several voters expressing weariness with the campaign. “It’s one big mockery. A lot of buffoonery. I can’t wait for it to be over on Tuesday,” she said. But she added: “God has decided: it is going to be Hillary.”
At the rally in a traditionally Democratic state where the race has tightened dramatically, Mrs Clinton told the crowd of 4,000: “It all comes down to you my friends. You have to vote …Everything that has happened up to this point is on the line.”
Democrats have built a strong advantage in Nevada, where more than half of the electorate generally votes early. By Thursday evening, registered Democrats made up 42.3 of the returned ballots and Republicans 36.9 per cent. The gap was similar to the levels in 2012 when Barack Obama carried the state by seven percentage points.
In North Carolina, the Democrats are also ahead in early voting by 42.7 per cent to 31.8 per cent. However, Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Cawtaba College, noted that Republicans were performing better than at this stage in 2012 when Mitt Romney narrowly won the state.
Throngs of African Americans lined up on Friday outside Fayetteville State University hours before Mr Obama arrived to campaign for Mrs Clinton in North Carolina, a state he won in 2008 but lost to Mitt Romney in 2012.
One black man named Richard who was sitting in a barber shop up the street from the college said he had already voted for Mrs Clinton and could not understand how people could support Mr Trump given his rhetoric, which he said had the stench of white supremacy. “I would put a brown paper bag over my kids’ heads if we walked past the White House” if Mr Trump is president, he said.
Even in the early voting, Florida is extremely tight, with Republicans casting 39.74 per cent of the votes as of Friday and Democrats 39.71 per cent.
There was better news for Republicans in Iowa where the Democrats’ lead in early voting is well down on 2012 levels and in Ohio where they have seen a bigger increase in requests for early ballots than the Democrats and where there are indications of reduced early voting around Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold.
Perhaps reflecting the need to energise her base in Ohio, where she has consistently been behind in recent polls, Mrs Clinton was to hold a rally in Cleveland on Friday evening where she was being joined by the singer Jay Z.
Jobs numbers released on Friday showed continued improvement in the economy, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.9 per cent and momentum in the growth in earnings being maintained.
However, Mrs Clinton focused little attention on the indicators for fear of being accused of being out of touch with the economic anxiety of many voters.