GOP Covid policy is killing GOP voters

Republican attitudes, conspiracy theories and policy failures have created conditions for the Delta variant to thrive.

It’s well-known, by this point, that the Delta variant is currently hitting Republican states and counties the hardest. In the South especially, vaccination rates are low and mask use has typically been spotty, resulting in skyrocketing case and hospitalization numbers in several states.

But the picture on mortality has been less clear. Deaths lag behind hospitalizations, so the former have been slower to rise than the latter. Covid treatment has also improved since the early days of the pandemic, boosting patients’ odds of survival. And senior citizens, the group most vulnerable to the virus, have high rates of vaccination relative to other age groups.

But several months into the Delta wave and the data are clear: over the past month, people living in the most staunchly Republican counties have been three times more likely to die of Covid than those living in Democratic strongholds. While the disease doesn’t make political distinctions, Republican attitudes, conspiracy theories and policy failures have created conditions in which the Delta variant can thrive.

In counties where Donald Trump got fewer than 20 percent of 2020 presidential votes, for instance, there have been, on average, fewer than 5 Covid deaths for every 100,000 people since July 31, 2021 — roughly the start of the latest wave of death corresponding with the Delta variant. In places where he got 80 percent or more of the vote, on the other hand, the death rate is closer to 15 per 100,000. Across all counties there’s effectively a dose-response relationship between Republicanism and Covid mortality: as the share of Republican voters increases in your county, your likelihood of dying from the disease rises as well.

A few notes on these numbers, before we go on. They exclude the states of Nebraska and Florida, which, unconscionably, no longer report reliable county-level Covid statistics. They exclude Alaska as well, as the state does not report election data at the county level (I’m sure there’s a way to finagle this, but I was running short on time).

I’ve also excluded counties with fewer than 10,000 people, because the data for those counties is *extremely* noisy. In those places a single death can result in a massive mortality rate spike because the denominator (population) is so small. They account for a little more than 1 percent of the total population in the sample, so excluding them results in a big increase in reliability at the cost of a small reduction in comprehensiveness.

So in our final sample — excluding Nebraska, Florida, Alaska and small counties — we’ve got 2,327 counties representing 289 million people, or about 87 percent of the total U.S. population. Among those:

  • All but one of the 20 counties with the highest Covid mortality rates in August supported Trump;

  • Counties in which Trump won 50 percent or more of the vote represent 38 percent of the total sample population, but account for 56 percent of August Covid deaths;

  • Counties in which 75 percent or more voted for Trump account for 6 percent of the population, but 13 percent of Covid mortality.

Not all of the people dying in these counties are Republican voters. Statistically speaking it’s likely that many don’t vote at all, and that a number are Democrats. But we know from other data sources that Republicans are considerably less likely to be vaccinated, to wear masks, and to take other Covid precautions than either Independents or Democrats. It stands to reason, then, that Republican voters are bearing a disproportionate brunt of the current Covid wave.

At some point you’d think that raw electoral self-interest would kick in and cause the Republican establishment to make a full-court press on vaccination. But that has emphatically not happened. A few GOP lawmakers have posted the occasional tweet or press release making the bare-minimum case for vaccination, but there’s no indication surviving the pandemic is a priority for the party.

The GOP calculus seems to be that the electoral gains to be reaped from whipping up opposition to Covid measures among the party base will outweigh the losses from whatever percentage of that base ends up dying. It’s easily the most breathtakingly cynical political strategy I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, revealing a stunning level of contempt for the true believers in the party who end up laying down their lives for the cause.

There are some signs that people in the South are finally starting to take the pandemic seriously again. Mask use and vaccination willingness are on the rise there, and there are signs that the Delta wave may be cresting the Southern states hardest hit by it so far. Several weeks from now we may be looking at a new wave of death in other regions of the country, like the Midwest.

But nearly everywhere in the country, the underlying political dynamics are the same: Republican lawmakers pouring political capital not into fighting the pandemic, but rather into opposing the response to it. And that decision is doing the most harm to Republican voters.