Nov 3, 2020 - Health

Partisanship is a public health threat

Illustration of medical masks in the shape of a U.S. flag
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Who Americans voted for in 2016 is a strong predictor of how they reacted to the deadliest pandemic in a century, according to a new study published in Nature.

Why it matters: The coronavirus doesn't care who someone voted for; it infects and kills whenever it is given the opportunity. By doing less social distancing, Republicans are giving it more opportunities, with predictable results.

The big picture: "Partisan differences in physical distancing were linked to higher growth rates of infections and fatalities in pro-Trump counties than necessary," the authors write.

Details: Using the geotracking data of about 15 million people per day, the study found that counties that voted for President Trump in 2016 saw a 24% decrease in movement and visits to non-essential services between March 9 and May 29 of this year. Counties that voted for Hillary Clinton saw a 38% drop.

  • This partisan gap remained after factoring in variables like counties' coronavirus case counts, population density, income, racial makeup and age makeup.
  • The study also found that less physical distancing was linked to higher coronavirus infection rates 17–23 days later, and an increase in fatality rates 25–31 days later.
  • "These results imply that Trump-leaning counties could have curbed their infection and fatality growth rates if they had distanced to the same degree as Clinton-leaning counties did," the authors conclude.

Between the lines: Although the authors thought they'd see the partisan gap decrease as the pandemic got worse over the spring, it actually increased with time.

  • And stay-at-home orders only exacerbated the gap, as they were more effective in Democratic counties.
  • The partisan response is likely at least partially attributable to Americans' polarized media consumption. The study found that counties that consumed more Fox News than Democratic-leaning outlets like MSNBC and CNN had less physical distancing.
  • "Republican-leaning media downplaying the virus at the start of the pandemic may have signaled to Republicans that they should not take the virus very seriously, in turn potentially in part causing the observed partisan differences," the authors write.

What we're watching: It seems very unlikely that this dynamic has changed since the end of May.

  • And regardless of who wins the presidency, it also seems unlikely that pandemic partisanship — or Fox News — is going away any time soon.
  • That cake is baked.
Go deeper