WASHINGTON -- U.S. voters have begun casting ballots in a deeply divisive presidential election that could be determined by a few closely contested states where the major-party candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump -- courted voters on the final day before the vote.
Clinton, the Democratic Party's candidate, and Republican nominee Trump each made a last-minute dash on November 7 through several swing states that are expected to tilt the contest in favor of one of the candidates. Opinion polls showed the race tightening in those states ahead of the vote.
U.S. states and election observers are reporting a record surge in early voting, led by unusually strong turnout among Hispanic voters, which appears to be giving an edge to Clinton.
The Associated Press reported that at least 43.2 million people had already voted by November 7, and it expects the number of early voters -- after they are all tallied -- to add up to more than 50 million this election.
That would mean as many as 40 percent of American voters already cast their ballots before election day dawned on November 8, AP said. Record levels of early votes have been reported thus far by 23 states and the District of Columbia.
With most nationwide opinion polls showing Clinton in the lead, Trump began his final day before the vote with a rally in Florida before he traveled to North Carolina.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll published on November 7, Clinton held narrow leads in both crucial swing states.
But that lead was so slight that it made the results there too close to call.
Trump is widely seen as needing victories in both states in order to secure the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House.
Opinion polls suggest Clinton has a broader path to obtaining the 270 votes needed from the U.S. Electoral College system to become the next president.
Addressing a crowd in Florida -- the state whose electoral votes handed Republican George W. Bush the White House, despite the fact that he lost the nationwide popular vote to Democratic candidate Al Gore -- Trump continued to deliver the kind of incendiary rhetoric that has come to define his campaign.
Playing up his status as an outsider bent on overturning the norms of U.S. politics, Trump told supporters in Sarasota, Florida, that his election would mean an end to the "corrupt Washington establishment."
"I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear the words we are all about to say: When we win tomorrow, we are going to drain the swamp," he said, triggering chants of "drain the swamp, drain the swamp" from the crowd.
Trump has said that if he is elected, Clinton would be put in jail for her use of a private e-mail server when she was the U.S. secretary of state.
At the Florida rally, Trump criticized a decision announced on November 6 by FBI Director James Comey that cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing in the matter.
"Now it's up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box," Trump said.
Later in the day, Trump told supporters that Comey was "obviously under tremendous pressure."
Trump on November 7 also continued to portray himself as the target of a conspiracy between political elites and mainstream U.S. media to keep him out of office, telling supporters: "The system is rigged, but at least we know it."
WATCH: Campaigns React After FBI Clears Clinton
Critics of Trump have called Trump's rhetoric a dangerous challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. political system -- including his refusal to say whether he would concede to Clinton if official results show her as the winner.
Both Trump and Clinton were were campaigning in several of the same states on November 7.
In addition to North Carolina, both were holding rallies in the battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump also added a stopover visit in New Hampshire, a state that the Associated Press on November 7 said had moved from "leaning Democratic to a toss-up."
According to an analysis by AP, Clinton was holding advantages over Trump in just enough states during the final days of the campaign to win the election -- although her lead in the nationwide popular vote appeared to have decreased.
A Reuters/IPSOS analysis on November 7 gave Clinton a 90 percent change of winning enough states to gain the 270 Electoral College votes needed to defeat Trump.
An analysis by the respected political-prediction website FiveThirtyEight on November 7 gave Clinton a 66 percent chance of winning the election, while Trump’s chances stood at 33.9 percent.
That website's founder, Nate Silver, correctly predicted the results from all 50 states in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
Early voting by Hispanics is reported to be surging in key states that Trump must win to gain the White House: Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.
In Florida, a record 6.4 million early ballots are already in, or more than three-fourths of the expected vote, AP said, with Democrats ahead by 39.9 percent to 38.5 percent.
In North Carolina, more than two-thirds of the expected votes have been cast. Democrats lead in ballots submitted, 42 percent to 32 percent.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said he sees the uptick in early voting as a sign that the Democratic voter base is strong and motivated going into election day.
“What I am paying very close attention to are those early voting numbers,” Mook said on ABC television on November 7. “We saw just eye-popping turnout in Florida over the last two days, particularly in our strongholds of southern Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere, so we're very encouraged, very positive.”
In a sign of how Clinton may be benefiting from the surge in early voting, in Nevada, more than three-fourths of the likely votes have been cast and Democrats lead by 42 percent to 36 percent.
In Colorado, the two parties are virtually tied at 35 percent among early voters, with more than 70 percent of the ballots in.
Trump appears to be benefiting from the early voting surge in Arizona, Iowa, and Ohio.
In Arizona, with more than two-thirds of the expected total votes cast, Republicans lead in balloting 40 percent to 34 percent.
Clinton on November 7 sought to portray the election as a referendum on the country's "core values."
In an advertisement scheduled to air on national television during prime time, she asks: "Is America dark and divisive, or hopeful and inclusive?"
Earlier in the day, while boarding her campaign plane in upstate New York on the way to Pennsylvania, Clinton conceded that the campaign had exposed deep political fractures in the country and that "some work" will be required to unify the nation.
"I really do want to be the president for everybody -- people who vote for me, people who vote against me," the 69-year-old Clinton told reporters.
The 70-year-old Trump is a wealthy businessman and former reality TV star who has never held public office.
He has upended the Republican Party and the U.S. political scene with personal attacks and controversial policy proposals, such as temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country and building a wall on the southern border to keep out Mexican migrants.
A video from 2005 that emerged in October jolted his campaign because it documented lewd comments he made along with his laughter and bragging about what amounted to sexually assaulting women.
Trump has dismissed his comments in the video as "locker-room" banter, while Clinton has called them part of a huge pile of evidence showing he is unfit for the White House.
Clinton, a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, is widely seen as the status-quo candidate in the race.
She has based her campaign on her long experience as a public servant and has vowed to build on the political legacy of the Democratic Party's outgoing president, Barack Obama.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa, and Politico