OTTAWA -- Canadians absorbed the first trickle of results Tuesday as their American neighbours went to the polls, capping a campaign marked by voter intimidation, threats of postelection violence, and concern about the potential breakdown of democracy itself.
The first returns showed U.S. President Donald Trump ahead, as expected, in Indiana and winning Kentucky, while an early see-saw for the crucial state of Florida was underway. But it was going to be a long night that would likely not produce a definitive result, said Mark Feigenbaum, the Toronto tax lawyer who is the chairman of Republicans Overseas Canada.
“It's really encouraging that a lot of people are out voting. Whomever they're voting for, I think it's good,” he said.
Democrat Joe Biden was making stronger than expected showings in Republican strongholds such as Texas and Georgia.
The struggle for Florida, with its 29 votes in the electoral college, was closely watched.
Trump won the state in 2016, but Biden was behind in the key county of Miami-Dade.
“Criticism that Biden didn't have enough boots on ground to get out the vote in Miami-Dade may be valid,” said Colin Robertson, a retired diplomat who served in multiple U.S. postings.
Bessma Momani, an international affairs specialist at the University of Waterloo, said it was too early to draw any definitive conclusions.
“People are just projecting their own hopes,” she said.
“The early voting is pretty spectacular. From the academic side of this, usually early voting does not indicate a vote for the incumbent.”
Earlier Tuesday, a new poll from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found a clear majority of Canadians surveyed worried that the United States will suffer a breakdown of its system marked by “social chaos” if no clear winner emerges.
That fear was driven by the assumption that Trump won't accept defeat if he does in fact lose, or may prematurely declare victory on election night before all votes, including mail-in ballots, can be legally counted.
The Leger poll found that three-quarters of those surveyed in Canada are worried about the U.S. election, and 68 per cent worry that there will be a “complete breakdown of the political system in the U.S. leading to a period of social chaos.”
Four out of five respondents said they were concerned that increased racial tension would lead to protests and violence.
“It's a bit like watching your neighbour's roof catch fire,” said Perrin Beatty, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“You're both fascinated and horrified.”
The survey of 1,516 Canadians selected from an online panel was conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. Polls conducted this way do not come with a margin of error, since they are not considered random.
The survey delved deeper into Canadians' anxiety: The possibility of “significant civil unrest or violence” in the streets on election day or the following days worried 77 per cent of respondents; 72 per cent were concerned that Trump wouldn't accept the election result if he lost; 62 per cent were worried about a stock market crash.
Georganne Burke, an Ontario-based dual Canadian-American citizen who has campaigned for Trump in the U.S., blamed the Democrats for stoking fears of unrest and violence.
Burke is deeply troubled by the chaos she is viewing from abroad, and said the only comparison in her lifetime is the race riots in the late 1960s.
Burke said it was “hype” that Trump would refuse to accept a defeat.
“That's garbage. Will he be unhappy? Sure, he'll be unhappy. Will he say outrageous things? Probably. But he'll leave.”
But if Trump wins, that will just embolden Democrats to spend four more years trying to undermine his presidency, she said.
The Leger poll left no doubt who Canadians want to win the White House - 80 per cent favoured Biden.
Robertson said Canadians have every reason to be concerned about what's unfolding south of the border, but now is not the time to take sides.
“What can we do? Keep calm, consult with the allies and, as (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau said, prepare for all contingencies.”
Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada's job is to work with whomever American voters elect, and cited trade deals as particular evidence that his government has been able to work with Trump.
He said he would spend some time watching the results Tuesday night, though he acknowledged that word of a definite winner could take days or even weeks.
“Our federal government is absolutely ready. We have thoughtfully prepared for all eventualities and I am really confident that we have a plan no matter what happens,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland added.
If there should be trouble in the U.S., she said in response to a question about that possibility, Canadian diplomats will be prepared to assist Canadians living there.
“It is absolutely a responsibility of our government to be there for Canadians outside out country, and we will be there for them, too.”
Like Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Canadians would be closely watching as Americans “practise their democracy.”
Sarah Goldfeder, now an Ottawa-based consultant and former U.S. diplomat under two American ambassadors, said Canadians must be vigilant to guard against the ideological infiltration of extreme, divisive politics into Canada.
“Literally, stores are boarded up across America right now, in anticipation of civil unrest in the streets. And that's not good for anybody that has to do business with the U.S.”
Bruce Heyman, who was Barack Obama's second ambassador to Canada, said Americans are equally worried but only a “handful” of the 330 million of them are troublemakers.
“Canadians should sit back and take note that the United States-Canada relationship is our most important relationship. But Donald Trump has done damage to the trust part of that relationship,” Heyman said.
“We have a chance to turn the ship around and head in the direction we were progressing along, regardless of party, Republican or Democrat,” he added.
“I hope that we can put this in the dustbin of failed presidencies and bad periods.”