Democrats, White House spent months bickering over a coronavirus stimulus bill that never happened: Will it affect voters at the ballot box?

WASHINGTON – Voters watched with anticipation for months as congressional leaders and the White House bickered over another coronavirus stimulus package, one they hoped would provide another round of $1,200 stimulus checks and a more generous weekly unemployment payment to help weather the global pandemic.

But a deal never materialized even as millions found themselves unemployed, COVID-19 case totals climbed and benefits expired. Democrats faulted Republicans. Republicans similarly said Democrats were responsible. The merry-go-round of negotiations, filled with moments of hope then dismay as both sides deadlocked, played out as voters made decisions on who they would back in the election. 

Here’s how the stalled stimulus package could impact the results on Election Day and where stimulus talks go from here:

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How could COVID-19 relief affect the outcome of the election?

The last significant relief Congress passed to help Americans weathering the pandemic was in March – eight months ago.

Since then, unemployment rates have continued to stay at levels not seen since the 2008 recession and COVID-19 cases have  topped 9 million in the U.S. Benefits that allowed for boosted weekly unemployment payments have halted, a vital loan forgiveness program for small businesses expired, government workers in states across the country and those who work for airlines saw furloughs and layoffs while public health professions pleaded for more funds to help fund a vaccine.

Republicans and Democrats offered competing legislation to fill the void over the months, bills that were doomed even before they were introduced as the other side scorched key provisions. 

All the while, top Democrats and White House officials worked to come to a middle ground. The months of discussions have been dizzying: Negotiations appeared dead multiple times only to be revived with optimism and more talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. 

The pair traded letters last week blasting one another over failing to come to compromises on key remaining issues, including a coronavirus testing strategy.

Pelosi had maintained that her desire was to pass a bill before the election or during the lame-duck session, the period between the election and January when new leaders take power. Trump has repeatedly promised another bill would happen after the election. 

Experts, including analysts in both parties, say the bickering is likely to hurt incumbents in both parties, including the president. 

"Whenever you're the incumbent, you get the credit and you also get the blame," said Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Democratic consultant. 

McCorkle said the back and forth over the months fit into an overarching theme that "Washington has not delivered and there hasn't been a comprehensive plan" to deal with the pandemic. But, he added, in his state of North Carolina, the state with the sixth most COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and one of the highest unemployment rates, voters are likely more concerned with the overall issue of the handling of the pandemic. 

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The state, one of several eyed as a key battleground, could not only help determine the outcome of the presidential race but also what party controls the Senate. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is in a close race against Democrat Cal Cunningham. McCorkle said while Tillis could be hurt by the stalled relief efforts, the race is very intertwined with the presidential election.

"If there wasn't a presidential race sucking all the votes, it would be much easier to say that Tillis was on the line for this relief and for the problems," he explained. "He, like other senators in these close races, would be suffering a lot more." 

But watching both sides fight for months without any outcome is still something that could weigh on voters, especially when such legislation would have immediate impacts on their wallets. 

"When voters see dysfunction in Washington, their reaction is that they want to throw every elected official out of office," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. 

Conant noted the rattled economy was not a good sign for both the president or Senate Republicans, who had run on good economic numbers before the pandemic. 

"Historically, presidents tend to not win reelections in the middle of a recession," he added. "It's bad all around for incumbents."

But amid the months of talks on a bill that could help stimulate the economy and offer financial relief to Americans, many voters had already made their mind up on who they were backing. 

Political scientist James Simmons of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh said most voters in the swing state of Wisconsin had committed to how they were going to vote long ago and the latest batch of bickering likely just baked in their beliefs. 

"There is only a very small pool of undecided and persuadable voters," he added, noting the differences in how Republicans and Democrats have viewed the coronavirus pandemic. "The nation and Wisconsin itself is so polarized that it's almost as if we see events through different glasses. Two different worlds."

John Hudak, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies, said the relief package might not play as heavily on voters' minds as party politics. "People tend to vote on partisanship first and less so on their pocketbook," he explained. 

The lack of a stimulus package, he said “is not necessarily going to have much of an impact on the outcome of the election,” rather feeding into a “view that Washington is dysfunctional” already held by many voters. 

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Polling shows the pandemic and the economy are top issues

Even without a stimulus package, voters have COVID-19 top of mind.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll from Oct. 23-27 shows voters, regardless of party, view the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy as the top two most important issues going into Election Day. Asked an open-ended question about the single most important issue, 19% of voters said the economy was the most important issue, and 10% said the COVID-19 pandemic.

Broken down by party, though, Democrats were more likely to say the pandemic motivated them to vote, with 15% ranking it as the most important issue, compared to 4% of Republicans. Only 5% of Democrats said the economy was the most important issue, as compared with 32% of Republicans.

A slim margin of voters approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, with about 48% approving to 45% disapproving. But they disapproved of his handling of the pandemic by a roughly 17-point margin, or 57% disapproving to 38% approving.

Voters seem to blame both sides about equally for the failure to pass a stimulus package. About 41% of voters said Democrats in Congress were to blame, whereas about 45% said Trump and congressional Republicans were to blame, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll from last month. Partisanship appeared to be a driving factor in those results. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats said Trump and Republicans were to blame, whereas 65% of Republicans said Democrats were to blame.

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What could happen after the election? 

The failure to pass stimulus means millions of Americans will be left waiting for relief even as people brace for more economic pain and the death toll from the pandemic climbs higher.

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“If you look at weekly unemployment claims, they're still quite high,” said Michael Klein, a professor at the Tufts University Fletcher School, noting how the highest-ever weekly unemployment claims from 1982 hovered near 700,000 in a single week while 751,000 Americans filed for unemployment last week as high numbers of jobless claims continued.

And Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warned of a coming crunch in the winter months as cash-strapped state and local governments run out of money to conduct more coronav testing.

But Pelosi insisted in a Thursday news conference, her last before the election, that even if Biden won, a deal was still possible in the lame-duck session before a new Congress is sworn in. In a Friday interview on MSNBC, she predicted Republicans would lose badly on Election Day and come around to support a larger stimulus bill, saying the legislation "depends on how much of a rehabilitation tour the Republicans want to take."

Republican senators, however, have expressed skepticism a deal would be possible then. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of Senate Republican leadership, told reporters in the Capitol on Oct. 21, the “lame duck is a really hard time to get much done in,” and “I don’t see why this one would be different.”

Biden himself has expressed support for the Heroes Act, a House Democrats plan that ran roughly $2.2 trillion in its most recent iteration. Asked in the last presidential debate about COVID-19 relief, Biden pointed to the Heroes Act and blamed Republicans for not taking it up in the Senate.

It is unclear how Trump would act on a stimulus deal after the election. He told reporters Tuesday that Republicans would take back the House and “after the election, we’ll get the best stimulus package you’ve ever seen.”