The 2020 COVID Election


Many believe that the 2020 Presidential election will be a referendum on how President Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic.  Some believe that is why the President is pushing so hard to reopen the economy, so that he can reclaim it as the focal point instead.  I fear that the pandemic will, indeed, play a major role in the election, but not quite in the way we’re openly talking about.  

It’s about there being fewer Democrats.

Now, let me say right from the start that I am not a conspiracy believer.  I don’t believe that COVID-19 came from a Chinese lab, or that China deliberately wanted it to spread.  I don’t even believe that the Administration’s various delays and bungles in dealing with the pandemic are strategic or even deliberate.  

I do believe, though, that people in the Administration and in the Republican party more generally may be seeing how the pandemic is playing out, and feel less incentive to combat it to the fullest extent of their powers.  Let’s start with who is dying, where.

The New York Times put it bluntly: The Coronavirus Is Deadliest Where Democrats Liveas illustrated with their map.

Coronavirus cases in counties won by Clinton in 2016 on left, in counties won by Trump on right; larger bubble means more cases. Data is as of May 21, 2020. By Jugal K. Patel for The New York Times

The article explains: 

The devastation, in other words, has been disproportionately felt in blue America, which helps explain why people on opposing sides of a partisan divide that has intensified in the past two decades are thinking about the virus differently. It is not just that Democrats and Republicans disagree on how to reopen businesses, schools and the country as a whole. Beyond perception, beyond ideology, there are starkly different realities for red and blue America right now.

Potential explanations for the differences include population densities, loci of international travel, and proportion of minority populations.  

Nor is it necessarily true that the current trends will remain; coronarvirus is starting to surge in rural areas.  A Washington Post analysis indicates: “Rural counties now have some of the highest rates of covid-19 cases and deaths in the country, topping even the hardest-hit New York City boroughs and signaling a new phase of the pandemic.”  

It’s not only about red states versus blue states; it is also about who is dying in each.  People of color have been impacted much more.  African-Americans are dying at almost three times the rate of whites or Latinos; in Kansas, the rate is seven times, and five times in Michigan or Missouri.  And not all states are reporting deaths by race, so the problem may be understated.  Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asian Americans have also been hit harder than whites.  

Figure 1. Covid-19 deaths per 100000.  Source: APM Research Lab

APM Research Lab estimates (as of May 20):

If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans, about 12,000 Black Americans, 1,300 Latino Americans and 300 Asian Americans would still be alive.

Some of this has been attributed to underlying health and/or living conditions, but a new study found that, even controlling for differences in age, sex,income and chronic health problems, African-Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white or Latino patients. Co-author Stephen H. Lockhart told The New York Times:  “The important thing we found in this study is that even when we were accounting for all those things, race mattered.”  

There’s an economic toll as well — as shocking as the jobless rates are generally, they are worse for minorities, and minority-owned businesses are being hit hardest.  This may be due, in part, because such businesses had a much harder time obtaining PPP loans.

Certainly not all minority voters vote Democrat, but African Americans tend to overwhelmingly do so and Latino voters also do, although not quite as monolithically.  A disease like COVID-19 that disproportionately impacts minorities hurts Democrats more than Republicans, whether outright through fatality or just in reducing turnout.   

Turnout by minority votes has long been a problem.  Going to a polling place during a pandemic will be problematic for some voters, and if you are a voter who is in a higher risk group — such as African-American, it may be particularly so.  Many states are pushing for mail-in voting for any resident as a way to assuage such concerns, a tactic that President Trump fiercely opposes.  He cites potential for “massive fraud,” although no evidence exists for this and many states, including ones controlled by Republicans, have allowed it without problems.  

The opposition to mail-in voting is less about safeguarding the integrity of the election and more about trying to control who ends up voting. 

Our reactions to the pandemic are very much splitting along party lines.  For example, wearing a face mask, as public health officials urge, is now seen as a political statement.  That brought North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, to tears in a recent press conference:

President Trump’s 2016 election hinged on razor thin margins in a few swing states. No matter the impact of COVID-19, he isn’t likely to win in hard-hit blue states like New York, California, or Massachusetts, but it might well make the difference in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, and could even make a difference in purple states like Illinois, New Jersey, or Minnesota.  How many fewer Democrat voters able/alive to vote would it take?

The strategy is not without risks.  Polls show voters give former Vice President Joe Biden a wide lead on ability to deal with the pandemic, and support for Trump among senior citizens — which had supported Trump in 2016 but who now at greatest risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 — is weakening.  Statements from Republicans like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggesting seniors were willing to die from COVID-19 as a trade-off for restarting the economy don’t help.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying President Trump or other Republicans want minority voters to die, and certainly not that they are intentionally trying to make that happen.  But, from a political standpoint, the pandemic is currently is hitting his supporters less hard, and there’s a political calculation may come with that.  Democrats cannot be blind to that.  

COVID-19 is the biggest health crisis in a hundred years.  It has caused perhaps the greatest economic crisis in ninety years.  It would be unfortunate if we allowed it to also cause perhaps the biggest political crisis in our nation’s history.  

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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  1. “I’m not saying President Trump or other Republicans want minority voters to die”

    Oh, but they do. As they also see Democratic states suffer more and inside jump for joy.

    The Republican Party lost it’s way beginning with Reagan and have steadily purged moderates to the point now that they scheme to deny voting rights (Party of Lincoln?) to people who would probably vote Democrat. Their messiah is a narcissist serial liar (among other things) who puppets Mussolini in both character and political ambition.

    Covid now is being used to divide Americans in hope that Trump will get another term from the bodies piled in the morgue.