Research published earlier this week has identified a link between COVID-19 infection and party affiliation in the United States. The study, authored by Dr Brian Neelon from the Medical University of South Carolina, analysed COVID-19 case, death, and testing rates from March to December of 2020 across all 50 US states and the District of Columbia.
The findings offer an interesting insight into the role of governor partisanship on the degree of severity of the coronavirus epidemic experienced by different states.
At the onset of the pandemic, Republican-led states had fewer per-capita COVID cases, deaths, and positive tests compared to Democratic states. This trend could be attributed to the fact that many points of entry for the virus into the United States were in Democratic-led states early in 2020, most notably New York. However, by late spring and early summer, all three metrics experienced a reversal with positive test, case, and death rates all becoming more frequent in Republican states by early May, June, and July respectively.
From that point, COVID-19 rates in Republican-led states continued to increase, maintaining rates greater than Democrat-led states through December and the end of the study. These outcomes are thought to be the result of state policies regarding the coronavirus that varied due to partisan differences among state leadership. Slower reactions by many Republican governors in response to the pandemic and earlier easing of stay-at-home orders are both thought to be contributing factors in elevated case rates.
These findings are supported by another study published in Nature towards the end of last year that examined the relationship between county political affiliation and physical distancing.
By using smartphone geotracking data collected from 15 million people across the United States, researchers found that Republican-leaning counties exhibited lower physical distancing than Democratic-leaning counties both in terms of general movement and in the use of non-essential services. This was characterised by a 14% greater reduction in movement in counties that voted for Clinton in 2016 compared to those that voted for Trump. Surprisingly, though researchers expected the partisan gap to decrease as the pandemic progressed it was actually found to increase over time.
This partisan divide was still evident after the data was adjusted for variables such as cases per capita, population density, income, wealth distribution, and racial and age composition. Furthermore, partisanship was found to be a stronger determiner of social distancing than even socioeconomic indicators and this reduced distancing has been linked to subsequent increases in COVID-19 infection and fatality.
The outcomes of both these reports suggest that partisan affiliation at both the state leadership and individual levels strongly influenced the spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States.
Further analysis of media viewership in the counties examined in the Nature study found that regions that consumed more Fox News as opposed to democratic leaning outlets such as MSNBC or CNN were found to be less likely to follow distancing guidelines. This has suggested a link between right-leaning media downplaying the virus, as seen in comments by Fox in early March that coronavirus was less dangerous than influenza, and Republicans not taking the disease as seriously.
A similar relationship is thought to exist in regards to political role models and the behaviour they signalled as appropriate responses to the pandemic. Former Republican President Donald Trump was documented dismissing COVID-19 as a hoax created by his critics and later openly flouted public health guidance by hosting large rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona.
As more findings regarding the interconnectedness of politics and the coronavirus pandemic emerge it seems increasingly clear that partisanship played a substantial role in the implementation of preventative measures, the transmission of infection, and ultimately, the death rates in the US. It thus comes as no surprise that the authors of both studies urge for future state policy and media reporting to be guided by public health findings rather than partisan ideology.