There’s a stark partisan difference in who has been affected by the coronavirus: Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to live in communities hit hard by Covid-19.
This has contributed to a partisan divide in attitudes about the pandemic, one in which Republican governors, lawmakers, and voters have remained broadly supportive of Trump — and have pushed for policies like the rapid reopening of businesses — while Democrats have not.
It is well known that the disease has disproportionately hit large cities and metropolitan areas. Given the geographic pattern of American political polarization, this also means that Democratic areas of the country have suffered the most from the pandemic, while Republican areas — despite recent outbreaks in smaller towns as the disease has spread at meatpacking plants — have been hit relatively lightly, if at all.
As of April 27, according to county-level case data compiled by the New York Times, Covid-19 cases and deaths were far more prevalent in counties won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 than in counties won by Donald Trump. Clinton counties make up a slight majority of the US population, but so far they have seen 76 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 80 percent of the deaths. Trump counties are 44 percent of the population, but just 24 percent of Covid-19 cases and 20 percent of the deaths.
This means Democrats and Republicans have experienced the pandemic in objectively different ways. These differences are already shaping the nation’s pandemic response — and may well influence American politics for years to come.
Covid-19 has hit counties won by Hillary Clinton much harder
On April 8, 77 percent of cases and 80 percent of deaths were in Clinton counties, versus 23 percent of cases and 20 percent of deaths in Trump counties. Despite some evidence of the virus spreading to more rural and Republican areas, these numbers have not changed over the past three weeks.
Of course, the true number of Covid-19 cases and deaths is unknown because of the lack of widespread testing. Still, given that the gap between Democratic and Republican areas hasn’t changed as more testing has become available suggests that the disparity between urban and rural areas is not just an artifact of incomplete testing.
Overall, Clinton counties have had nearly 2.5 times more cases per 100,000 people, and 3.2 times more deaths per 100,000 people, than Trump counties.
But these overall numbers obscure how the disease has had the most impact in heavily Democratic areas, but the least impact in heavily Republican areas.
In counties where Hillary Clinton won in a landslide (20 percentage points or more), there have been 486 cases per 100,000 people. Where Trump won in a landslide there have been only 120 cases per 100,000 people. And this is not just because of New York City, the nation’s biggest metropolis and a Democratic stronghold, as well as the city worst-hit by the pandemic: Excluding New York City only drops the rate in Clinton landslide counties to 364 cases per 100,000 people.
Similarly, in Clinton landslide counties there have been 27 deaths per 100,000 people; in Trump landslide counties, there have 5 deaths per 100,000. Even without New York City this pattern holds with Clinton landslide counties still having 17 deaths per 100,000 people.
Trump voters are also heavily concentrated in counties with few Covid-19 cases or deaths. In fact, a majority of Trump voters (56 percent) live in counties with fewer than 100 cases compared to a majority of Clinton voters (56 percent) living in counties with more than 500 cases.
The same is true for deaths. Almost one in five (18 percent) Trump voters live in a county with zero deaths from Covid-19. Half of Trump voters (49 percent) live in a county with 10 or fewer deaths. In comparison, only 31 percent of Clinton voters live in these counties.
As much as we might like to think that this crisis will unite Americans across party lines, the reality is very different. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to reside in counties with large numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths and therefore much more likely to have a friend, neighbor, coworker, or family member affected by the disease, not to mention possibly contracting the virus themselves.
On the other hand, for many Republicans, the disease and the deaths associated with it are more likely to be abstractions, something with little if any direct impact on them or their community so far.
Democrats and Republicans’ opposite coronavirus experiences are leading to opposing views on policy
There is some evidence these vastly different experiences are contributing to Democratic and Republican lawmakers — and voters —advocating for divergent policies. For instance, an April 19-21 Economist/YouGov survey found 81 percent of Democrats worried about contracting the virus, compared to only 54 percent of Republicans. This gap has not changed over the course of the pandemic. Another Economist/YouGov poll in mid-March found 71 percent of Democrats worried about contracting the virus compared to only 45 percent of Republicans.
Similarly, the April Economist survey found that 26 percent of Republicans thought that people were overreacting to the risk of the virus, but only 6 percent of Democrats did.
For Republicans, concentrated in counties with few cases, the primary impacts of the pandemic are the economic and social dislocations caused by business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, which is affecting Democratic and Republican areas more equally than the disease itself: the April Economist survey found no difference between Democrats and Republicans on how much income they have lost due to the shutdown.
To be sure, Republican Party leaders, from President Trump on down, have presented mixed messages or inaccurate information about the disease. This misinformation may well have contributed to Republican attitudes about the pandemic from the start.
But the relatively light impact of the virus in Republican areas gives Republican officials and conservative commentators a receptive audience when they claim that stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns cause too much economic damage and threaten personal liberty, or when Fox News stars like Tucker Carlson, Britt Hume, and Laura Ingraham claim that the official death toll from the pandemic is inflated.
Furthermore, anti-lockdown protests have sprung up in several states. To be sure, conservative groups have organized and directed these protests for their own purposes and the number of persons involved is still relatively small.
Nonetheless, the protests have been supported by a number of prominent Republicans, including President Trump who tweeted out calls to, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”; “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”; AND “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” Given this support, the protests seem likely to continue — and perhaps escalate — if Republican areas remain relatively untouched by the virus but continue to suffer economic damage. Exactly that happened in Lansing, Michigan, where protesters crowded into the state Capitol building and tried to gain access to the House floor while legislators debated whether to extend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration.
Still, at the federal level, we have seen lawmakers advocating for economic aid on a bipartisan (albeit asymmetrical) basis, resulting in the implementation of programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. But the parties have been divided more on public health measures. Passage of last week’s small business relief bill was held up because Democrats insisted, over Republicans objections, on including money for hospitals and more testing.
The differential impact of the pandemic also gives us clues about how the 2020 election might play out. Democrats will likely continue to criticize President Trump’s erratic and ineffectual response to the crisis and the need for the federal government to provide funding to meet the ongoing medical and economic emergency. President Trump, meanwhile, might argue that his actions have limited the pandemic at least in the areas where most of his voters reside, while Republicans might accuse Democrats of hyping the crisis in order to ramp up government spending for their voters in large urban areas.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office has already called aid to state and local governments devastated by the pandemic “Blue State Bailouts.” Such a message is all the more pernicious and perhaps more effective since it triggers prejudices related to race, religion, and immigration. If so, it seems likely that the pandemic will only deepen America’s chronic social and political divides.
Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America.