First U.S. polls close as voters pick between Clinton, Trump after brutal campaign

By Steve Holland and Amanda Becker

By Steve Holland and Amanda Becker NEW YORK (Reuters) - Polls began to close on Tuesday in the long and bitter race for the White House between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, with last-minute opinion polls giving Clinton the edge in the final hours of the race. Polls in the Eastern time zones of Indiana and Kentucky were the first to close, and a flood of vital battleground states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio - where polls were due to close in the next hour - would provide initial clues about the possible winner. Clinton led Trump, 44 percent to 39 percent, in the last Reuters/Ipsos national tracking poll before Election Day. A Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation poll gave her a 90 percent chance of defeating Trump and becoming the first woman elected U.S. president. In a campaign that focused more on the character of the candidates than on policy, Clinton, 69, a former U.S. secretary of state, and Trump, 70, a New York businessman, accused each other of being fundamentally unfit to lead the country. Trump again raised the possibility on Tuesday of not accepting the election's outcome, saying he had seen reports of voting irregularities. He gave few details and Reuters could not immediately verify the existence of such problems. Financial markets, betting exchanges and online trading platforms largely predicted a Clinton win, although Trump's team said he could pull off a surprise victory like the June "Brexit" vote to pull Britain out of the European Union. Voters appeared to be worried about the country's direction and were seeking a "strong leader who can take the country back from the rich and powerful," according to an early reading from the Reuters/Ipsos national Election Day poll. The poll of more than 10,000 people who voted in the election showed a majority worried about their ability to get ahead in life, with little confidence in political parties or trust in the media. Also at stake was control of Congress, with Republicans defending a slight four-seat majority in the 100-member Senate. The House of Representatives, where all 435 seats were up for grabs, was expected to remain in Republican hands. The Dow Jones Industrial Average index ended up 0.4 percent as investors bet on a win for Clinton, seen by Wall Street as more likely to ensure financial and political stability. Mexico's peso hit a two-month high on Tuesday on the expectation of a loss for Trump, who has vowed to rip up a trade deal with Mexico. In the closing stages of the race, the two campaigns focused on several vital battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, as they tried to piece together the 270 Electoral College votes needed to capture the White House. Clinton had more options to reach 270, with Trump needing a virtual sweep of about a half-dozen toss-up states to win. Majorities of voters told pollsters they viewed both candidates unfavorably after a particularly bruising and divisive campaign that began in early 2015. For months, polls showed both Clinton and Trump were unpopular, although Trump was more so. "They're both not good candidates, but I'd rather vote for 'worse' than 'worser,'" said Estefani Rico, 20, a first-time voter who cast her ballot for Clinton in Miami. "It's nerve racking that in my first time being able to vote I get the worst candidates ever," she said. Mary Wheeler, 94, held her nose when asked which candidate she was supporting as she stood in line to vote in St. Petersburg, Florida. "I always vote Republican, so I guess I'll do that," Wheeler said. "He can make a fool of himself but I think he may be able to straighten things out a little bit," she said of Trump. Trump, who has never previously held political office, pledged to shake up the Washington establishment but also alienated many people, including in his own party, with a campaign heavy on personal insults and unorthodox positions such as a proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants. Asked if he believed the election would not be over on Tuesday night, Trump on Tuesday told Fox News: "I'm not saying that. I have to look at what's happening. There are reports that when people vote for Republicans, the entire ticket switches over to Democrats. You've seen that. It's happening at various places." Fears of violence and voter intimidation across the country appeared largely unfounded. Police said two or three were wounded by gunfire near a polling station in Azusa, California, but there was no indication the incident was election-related. Local media in Pennsylvania reported that voters in several counties had reported that touch-screen voting machines had not been recording their ballots correctly. Republicans in Pennsylvania also complained that some of their authorized poll watchers were denied access to polling sites in Philadelphia, local media said. Trump also sued the registrar of voters in Nevada's Clark County over a polling place in Las Vegas that remained open on Friday during an early-voting period to accommodate people, many of them Hispanic, who were lined up to cast ballots. A Nevada judge on Tuesday rejected Trump's request for records from the polling site. Trump and Clinton are seeking to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama, who is nearing the end of his second four-year term in the White House and is barred by the U.S. Constitution from seeking another term. (Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson and Amanda Becker traveling with the candidates, Letitia Stein in St. Petersburg, Florida, Luciana Lopez in Miami, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey in Washington, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem and Kim Palmer in Ohio; Writing by Alistair Bell and John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham, Howard Goller and Frances Kerry)