Updated Mar 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The risks of coronavirus in Trump country

Illustration of a compress on a MAGA hat.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The demographics, work patterns and media habits of President Trump's base are putting many of his supporters at elevated risk for the health and economic impacts of coronavirus.

Why it matters: National surveys, including the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, found that Republicans and Midwesterners have been more likely to respond with less urgency than Americans who identify as Democrats or live in coastal centers.

  • Trump voters in the 2016 exit polls were more likely to be older, married, middle-income, less educated and live in rural areas or the suburbs rather than urban areas.
  • These factors could put them in danger even though most live outside of crowded cities with high infection rates such as New York and San Francisco.
  • Trump's response to the crisis and his messaging about its seriousness are important — especially after his early suggestions that the virus wasn't that bad and multiple statements that it's "under control."

The big picture: Senior citizens face higher risks from the virus than younger people. U.S. counties with the highest percentage of people 65 years and older tend to be very Republican areas that voted for Trump in 2016, according to the Brookings Institution's William Frey, who analyzed Census Bureau data for Axios.

  • All but one of the six states with the largest percentages of adults at higher risk from coronavirus voted for Trump in 2016, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report.
  • Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Alaska and Mississippi have the highest percentages of people without health insurance, according to the Census Bureau. All of those states voted for Trump in 2016.
  • More than half of voters 65 years and older voted for Trump in 2016.

Younger people with preexisting health conditions also face elevated danger compared with healthy peers. States with the highest rates of diabetes and hypertension are disproportionately Republican-leaning, per CDC data.

  • The six states with the highest shares of adults under 60 who are at risk for the coronavirus voted for Trump in 2016, according to the KFF report.

When it comes to work, people in blue collar jobs that are often difficult to do remotely — in fields such as transportation, construction, maintenance and installation — were far more likely to vote for Trump than for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to a CityLab study.

  • Blue-collar workers face financial hardships if they can't work because of sickness or losing clients who are trying to prevent the virus from spreading.
  • The other side: Though Trump won a greater share of middle-income voters, according to exit polls, Clinton won more of the lowest-income voters. And people in service industries, which are being hit hard by restaurant and event closings, were more likely to vote for Clinton, according to CityLab.

What to watch: For the 35% of Trump voters living in rural areas, social distancing may be easier, but there are clear downsides for treatment if infection occurs — and more hurdles to virtual communication.

  • "The good [news] is that with less population density, there are less opportunities for disease spread," Rebecca Katz, director of Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security, told Axios. "The challenge is that access to health care may be limited, with fewer ICU beds or ventilators."
  • Geography dictates the ease of being able to work, communicate and obtain information online. More than a quarter of Americans in rural areas do not have access to high-speed fixed broadband services, according to the latest report from the Federal Communications Commission. Only 1.7% of urban dwellers have that problem.

Between the lines: Disinformation and distrust in the media could be putting elderly people and some Republicans at greater risk as well.

  • Research has found that older populations tend to be most susceptible to falling for and spreading misinformation. On average, Facebook users 65 years or older post seven times as many articles from fake news websites as adults 29 and younger, a study found last year.
  • Republicans are less likely to trust media sources, and thus are more likely to place trust in just one news source: Fox News, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Fox's Sean Hannity, the highest-rated host in cable news, was criticized for initially downplaying the severity of the virus. The median age of a Fox News viewer is 65.

By the numbers: 76% of Republican respondents told Pew that they thought the media exaggerated the dangers of coronavirus, according to a new survey. Just 33% said the coronavirus was a major threat to Americans' health, compared to 59% of Democrats.

  • Republicans (53%) were also far less likely than Democrats (80%) to say they have followed at least one precaution — such as "social distancing" — to prevent coronavirus spread in a recent KFF poll.
  • Overall, elderly Americans and those living with people with serious health conditions were slightly less likely to have followed coronavirus recommendations compared to adults overall, the poll found.
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