11/08/2016 18:31 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

Trump near the White House doorstep: Billionaire makes U.S. vote a nail-biter

WASHINGTON — The market-shaking, expectations-defying prospect of a Donald Trump presidency appeared well within the realm of possibility Tuesday, hinging perhaps on the outcome of a state rarely deemed a major electoral battlefield: Michigan.

If Trump wins Michigan, where he and Hillary Clinton were within a mere handful of votes, the billionaire showman is almost guaranteed to be president.

Trump was written off again and again, repeatedly shocking the political establishment since last year — first by running, then by becoming a contender, winning the nomination and now knocking on the door of the White House.

He vastly outperformed electoral prognostications and market forecasts that viewed a historic Hillary Clinton victory as a fait accompli, leading in Florida, taking Ohio, and mounting surprisingly strong challenges in places like Michigan, which hasn't gone Republican in decades.

Suddenly, Clinton became the underdog.

The prospect of a Trump presidency jolted the markets: futures markets plunged hundreds of points, as did the Mexican peso.

His threat to scrap trade deals and slap tariffs on foreign-made goods as punishment for job outsourcing might have dismayed many economists, businesses and brokers. Yet it was central to his message to white working-class voters in the old industrial belt.

Democrats made another bet — that his comments about Mexicans, Muslims and women that made him a hero to white-supremacist groups would prove so disgusting to other voters that Clinton would be carried to the presidency on the backs of minorities, the college-educated, and females, the coalition that elected Barack Obama.

Democrats began the evening expecting to celebrate a different kind of history.

Clinton had an evening rally scheduled under a see-through roof in Manhattan, a symbolic nod to the prospect of the first female president smashing the ultimate glass ceiling and occupying perhaps the most powerful office in the world.

Her campaign was repeatedly sidetracked: hacks of her aides' emails, conflict-of-interest allegations into her family's charitable foundation, an investigation and leaks from the FBI and voter confusion about her platform.

Her platform, titled "Stronger Together" in a nod to Trump's racially tinged rhetoric, was heavy on promises designed to attack economic inequality. Some, like a parental-leave program, are shared by her rival — who is the least conservative Republican nominee in memory.

Trump's inimitable style of American populism veers from right to left; from military hawkishness to doveish language. He could have the opportunity to pass an unusually high number of bills, depending on which party agrees with his policy of the moment.

His North American neighbours would be watching nervously for moves on trade. He's demanded a renegotiation of NAFTA, without offering details, and promises to rip it up if unsuccessful.

One Canadian official expressed doubt in a recent conversation that it would get that far. Even if a president did order NAFTA scrapped, the impact of the move would be softened by several firewalls — the need for Congress to reinstate old tariffs, and potentially by the continued existence of the old 1987 Canada-U.S. agreement.

"I don't really think we're in danger there," said the Canadian official. "There would be a revolt by the private sector... His own party would revolt.''

If it happens, a Trump victory would also deprive the current president of a historic achievement.

A Democratic win would have placed Barack Obama in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as the only postwar presidents to have a successor extend their party's time in the White House beyond two terms.

If they pull it off, it certainly won't be a cakewalk.

Republicans roared to big victories down-ballot that allowed them to retain some control of Congress: they held the House of Representatives as expected, and saw their chances of retaining the Senate massively boosted by wins in Indiana and Marco Rubio's re-election in Florida.