Cinnaire’s Policy Pulse: Special 2020 Pre-Election Insights

Chris Neary

Chris Neary, Cinnaire’s Vice President for Policy, Research and Advocacy, provides this up-to-the-minute overview on the state of federal races and their potential implications for our industry. 

With Election Day just days away, here are some insights that may help you understand what to expect on election night and the days that follow. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, and there are too many variables that will likely lead to a lot of confusion. I hope what follows will help you understand the week ahead and provide some insight into what the election might mean for our federal policy priorities.

The State of the Race

First, an update on the state of the race. Here’s what we know:

It’s unlikely that we’ll know the winner of the presidential election on election night – unless there is a massive victory. As most folks are aware by now, states have implemented a patchwork of voting processes to give people more options for voting. This patchwork will mean varying timelines for vote-counting, with delays in some key states that will make for unsatisfying and possibly confusing television on election night. That’s because some states will tally in-person votes cast at polling places on Election Day before they turn to mail-in ballots. In other states, the reverse will be true. Since Republicans are more likely to vote in-person than Democrats, this could lead to confusing swings as the votes are counted and reported.

This dynamic will be apparent in battleground states that could be close and decisive. For example, in the most likely tipping point state, Pennsylvania, counting and reporting of ballots will vary by county. The full official count in that state could take several days.

Add all that up, and there’s a very real chance we won’t know the winner of the presidential race on election night. It may take a few days for all of the ballots to be counted this year.

A Biden win is more likely, but it’s far from a sure thing. Right now, most forecasters favor Vice President Biden, noting his consistent lead in the polls. But they also acknowledge that Trump still has a reasonable chance for a variety of reasons:

  • The polls could be wrong. We learned in 2016 that polls can be off. At the moment, for Trump to win, the polls will need to be off by more than they were in 2016. In battleground states where the polls were off in 2016, including Wisconsin and Michigan, Biden is up by wider margins in polling than Clinton was in 2016. Biden could survive a polling error on the order of magnitude of 2016 in most of those states. Pennsylvania is closer, however, which is why it could be a big tipping point state.
  • Voter access. Although somewhat mitigated by mail-in ballots and early voting, large turnout or spikes in COVID cases can make voting more difficult this year and add another layer of uncertainty.
  • If it’s close, there will be challenges in court that cast doubt on whether late-arriving mail-in ballots will be counted. Court battles are already underway, with challenges being made to set shorter timeframes for mail-in ballots to be counted in critical battleground states. The Supreme Court has sent mixed signals on this, but if the election is close, these cases could prove decisive.
  • It’s 2020. Who knows what the last few days of the election could bring?

That said, there are several fundamental reasons race forecasters favor Biden:

  • Biden has a more consistent and stable lead. His lead in the polling for the Electoral College race has been wider than Clinton’s in 2016, and the race has not tightened to the same extent. He is doing better with key groups, including independents.
  • Biden has expanded the map, making Trump’s path to an electoral college victory narrower. The Cook Political Report notes that Trump will need to win every state it currently have rated as a toss-up — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio, Main’s second Congressional district, and even Texas, where Biden has been tied or in the lead recently. On top of sweeping these states, Trump would need to win two of seven states that Cook currently rates as favoring Biden — Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire. Thats certainly possible, but hard to do.
  • Many votes are locked in. More than 78 million people have already cast their ballots, making it harder for a last-minute surprise to shake up the race. There are also fewer undecided voters this time around.
  • The polls could be off – but not in the way you’re thinking. Forecasters also note that polling errors could be off in either direction. A polling arrow on the order of magnitude needed for Trump to win (4.5 – 5 points) that goes in the opposite direction would mean that Biden wins by 13-14 points nationally, a landslide. A reason for that outcome might be that pollsters have overcorrected for their mistakes in 2016.
Implications for Our Work

As readers of the Policy Pulse newsletter will know, our work relies on support for public-private partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels. As a result, elections often have consequences for those programs. Before we know the outcome of the election, it’s difficult to know exactly what the ramifications of the election will be for our industry. However, with a Democratic sweep, it’s possible we could see major federal movement on policy areas that affect affordable housing and community development. We’ll certainly be working with our coalitions and industry partners to assess the outcome of the election and its impact on our policy priorities, but here are a few things to keep in mind as the results roll in.

While the presidential race will understandably get a lot of attention, keep an eye on the Senate races. The fulcrum of a potential Biden Administration’s first two years will be the Senate. The Senate will set the speed limit on how aggressive Democrats can be both on COVID relief and their overall agenda, including any kind of “economic rebuilding” bill that could include investments in roads, bridges, broadband, and affordable housing. Currently, Republicans hold a three-seat majority in the Senate. It’s expected that Democrats will lose one seat (in Alabama), so they will likely need to pick up four seats to get to a 50-50 tie. Ties in the Senate are broken by the Vice President, meaning that Democrats would gain control of the chamber with a Biden-Harris win.

It looks like Democrats are likely to pick up at least two Senate seats (Arizona and Colorado), are slightly favored in three other states (Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa), and have a shot in a few others. If Biden wins, it’s more likely than not that they would win a majority in the Senate, albeit a narrower one. A big Biden win could have big coat tails, leading to a larger majority.

Even with a majority in the Senate, however, it’s not clear how much of the Biden Administration’s agenda could get through that chamber. This is for a few reasons. First, it’s unlikely that Republicans will support much of the Biden agenda. Under current Senate rules, major legislation needs 3/5 of the Senate – 60 votes – to pass the chamber. Democrats will have a decision to make on whether to end of modify legislative filibuster, enabling them to pass bills by a simple majority instead of 60 votes. We don’t know whether they’d go this route – Joe Biden is a creature of the Senate, after – but it is looking more possible as Democrats anticipate unified Republican opposition to their agenda.

Second, Democrats in the Senate will be more moderate than the House, creating some difficult dynamics within the Democratic caucus. The Democrats will have a crowded agenda, with pent-up pressure from the left to act on climate change, healthcare, paid family leave, voting rights, gun controls, criminal justice reform, and a host of other issues. Democrats aren’t all on the same page on these issues, and there are already fights brewing about what the priorities should be and how far to go. Divisions within the Democrats “big tent” could be on full display in 2021, especially without a foil in President Trump.

Regardless of the outcome, Congress has a lot on its plate for the lame duck – the period after the election and before the new Congress and possibly new President are sworn in. Congress will need to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep federal agencies running, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They will also need to pass a tax extenders bill to continue expiring tax provisions, including the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC). It is also possible that long-stalled COVID relief legislation could be considered.

The crowded agenda means that our industry needs to be consistent, persistent, and united. Vice President Biden certainly has an aggressive affordable housing and community development agenda, including major investments, but that’s true for a host of issues. Our challenge will be ensuring that these issues are prioritized as part of both COVID relief legislation and economic rebuilding legislation down the line, while maintaining bipartisan support.

House Democrats have already voted to pass affordable housing and community development investments as part of their COVID relief and infrastructure bills, including CDFI grants, rental assistance, the 4% minimum rate and LIHTC allocation increases, and NMTC boosts and permanence. But it’s not a given that they would be included in future legislation. Regardless of the electoral outcome, we’ll need to continue educating Members of Congress and their staffs on the value of public-private partnerships in helping to meet the urgent needs of the communities we serve.

Our coalitions have already been pushing for these priorities and will continue to do so. We’ll need to continue building bipartisan support for these policies. It could be a very busy year ahead on the federal level.

I’ll have more to share after the election, but I wanted to provide this background to help you understand what may be a very confusing week ahead. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Chris Neary

Vice President – Policy, Research and Advocacy

If you have any questions about how to vote, these nonpartisan resources provide important information:

  • provides key deadlines, including early voting
  • Vote 411 for personalized voting information
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