President Donald Trump is pushing to reopen the U.S. economy quickly as his core supporters are hit harder by job losses than by the coronavirus.
The balance between lives and livelihoods during the pandemic has been experienced very differently across the partisan divide. In states Trump won in 2016, 23 people have lost a job for every 1 person infected. In states Democrat Hillary Clinton won, 13 people have lost a job for every person infected.
Put another way, in Trump country, the virus’s greater pain has been economic, which helps explain why support for a swift reopening is so much more intense there.
“Basically, if you’re in a red state, you’re less likely to know someone who died or has been infected,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who worked for a pro-Jeb Bush political action committee in 2016. “It just happens to line up with people’s political tribes, and then you’ve got Trump pouring gasoline on it.”
The question now is whether the president could face a backlash as the geographic locus of the pandemic shifts red. Confirmed Covid-19 cases rose 46% faster over the past two weeks in states that Trump won in 2016 than in the rest of country. If infections spike once lockdowns are lifted, Republican voters could blame GOP candidates who pushed for reopening.
Trump’s push to restart the economy, from hair salons to restaurants to churches, is buoyed by blue-collar voters whose jobs can’t be done from home and are more worried about the state of the economy than about an illness that’s largely invisible to them.
Those without a college education have been hit hardest by the Covid-related downturn, with an April unemployment rate of 16.3%, about double that of 8.2% for those with four-year degrees.
Meanwhile, black and Hispanic Americans, who heavily vote for Democratic candidates, have been much more likely to die from the disease in places like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Washington DC.
It was the high death rate in largely Democratic urban areas that drove states’ initial lockdown orders, said Gregg Murray, a professor at Augusta University in Georgia, who examined the decisions. Since deaths from coronavirus typically lag infection by several weeks, that suggests it will take some time for the public mood to shift as the virus surges in new areas.
“What we know from a lot of psychology research is mortality — and humans recognizing their mortality — has a huge effect on people’s behavior,” Murray said.
Swing State Impact
More people have contracted the virus in densely populated Democratic states than in more rural Republican states. The average number of confirmed coronavirus cases in states Clinton won in 2016 was 7.4 per 1,000 residents on Tuesday, against 2.9 per 1,000 residents in states that Trump won.
But the gap is narrowing. Confirmed cases grew 32% in Trump states from May 7 to May 21 versus a 22% increase in states Clinton carried. New York and New Jersey, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., are weeks past their worst in terms of new cases and deaths.
The impact of the pandemic and the recession in battleground states is reshaping the 2020 election, especially in the decisive swing states. Trump has been forced to abandon his plans to argue that he would continue to preside over a roaring economy, and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has made Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis the centerpiece of his campaign.
Michigan and Pennsylvania, crucial swing states, have been hit hard. They each have 5.4 confirmed cases per 1,000 residents, mostly in urban and suburban areas that tend to vote Democratic. The U.S. average is 4.8 per 1,000 people.
But infection rates in other battleground states like Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida are relatively low while job losses are high, suggesting voters there might favor policies that move toward a quicker reopening.
State reports of coronavirus cases are compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Job-loss calculations come from states’ initial and continuing unemployment insurance claims covering the week ended May 16.
Diana Irey Vaughan, a county commissioner in Washington County, Pennsylvania, said the response can’t be one-size-fits all.
“A lot of politics is local,” said Irey Vaughan, a Republican. “I hear from constituents days, nights and weekends. It’s probably 20-to-one — 20 saying, ‘Get us back to work’ versus one ‘I’m afraid for my safety.’”
Vaughan’s county, southwest of Pittsburgh, had 130 confirmed cases and five deaths from coronavirus, with an infection rate 8.6 times lower than the state average.
“I think this is causing a bigger divide between Democrats and Republicans over the philosophy about the role of government,” Irey Vaughan said. “I have never experienced such emotion from constituents as I have over the last few weeks.”
An older population and greater incidence of obesity and chronic health problems like diabetes in rural areas is likely to make the virus more deadly as it spreads in pro-Trump regions, according to an analysis by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.
More than 26% of the population outside metropolitan areas is 60 or older compared to 21% of the population in cities and suburbs, according to the analysis. Access to medical care is also lower in some rural areas.
“The big political question is: Will we have a second wave in these red counties?” Murphy said. “That could be bad for Trump. There could be a sad and ironic finish to this.”