Ever since COVID-19 hit American shores, there’s been a partisan split on how to handle the virus.
Pew Research Center has been documenting the divide: About three-quarters of Democrats “wore a mask all or most of the time”, compared to about half the Republicans (76% to 53%, including those who lean Democratic or GOP). Conservative Republicans were least likely and liberal Democrats most likely to wear masks.
In June 2020, 61% of Republicans told Pew “the worst [of the coronavirus outbreak] is behind us,” while 76% of Democrats felt “the worst is still to come.” In October, 63% of Republicans thought “the outbreak has been made a bigger deal than it is” (vs. only 14% of Democrats). And nearly four times the Biden supporters, compared to Trump’s, said “the coronavirus will be very important to their vote” (82% to 24%).
That partisan gap, though narrowing, has been around long enough and stayed wide enough that we should be able to detect different infection rates between the two parties. “In other words,” as FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writes, “do our politics risk making us sick?”
A political petri dish
Consider a small, completely unscientific, and extremely biased sample: the U.S. Congress. Our senators and representatives are in no way representative of the rest of us: They’re 22% whiter, 54% older, 93% more male, and 900% richer.
But they share traits that make them good study subjects. They publicly declare their party. They can access quality health care and frequent testing. For endless, boring, bureaucratic hours, they sit together indoors. Some even sleep together, that is, in the same building. Also, the parties tend to segregate across aisles and in caucuses, which could amplify the effects of their differing COVID beliefs and behaviors.
Science trumped politics in 2020. The Grand Old Party contracted 75% of congressional COVID-19 cases.
|1Positive for coronavirus antibodies.|
Sources: NPR, GovTrack.us, Reuters, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Louisville Courier Journal, Indianapolis Star, Politico, AP, KCCI, NY Post, KMJ, The Hill, AJC, CNN, Seattle Times, KGET. Sen. Loeffler (R-GA) is not listed because her initial test result may have been a false positive.
By summer we’d developed a decent understanding of how to squash the bug and how it spreads. Since then, the COVID-positive partisan schism has grown even wider. From June to November, 80% of the infected were Republican.
The pace picked up at year’s end: More than half of the total cases were in November and December — 78% were in the GOP.
Florida’s seven cases make it, by far, the most congressionally COVID state. Tied for second is Georgia and Illinois, with four each.
The state of mandates
The New York Times recently graphed a clear correlation: States with more COVID containment measures averaged fewer cases and hospitalizations. As Governors are ultimately responsible for statewide public-health mandates, I added one more factor to NYT’s graph: the political party of the governor. The chart below gives us another way to view the effect of politics on pandemics.
COVID Response of Governors (Republican/Democrat)
(as of 2020-11-16,
Of the more-successful 19 states, those with fewer than average per-capita hospitalizations and more than average containment measures (bottom-right quadrant above), 14 had Democratic governors. Of the less-successful 14 states, with more hospitalizations and fewer measures (top-left), 11 had Republican governors.
It’s hard to find a more extreme test of our tribal political attachments than the current pandemic.Republicans And Democrats See COVID-19 Very Differently. Is That Making People Sick?, FiveThirtyEight
Thus, from all the above data, we can safely conclude… absolutely nothing. Too many variables, too biased a sample. It’s up to researchers far more skilled than I to discover whether party affiliation affects infection rates.
But perhaps this post can help start that statistical and cultural conversation. It’s a conversation we really need to have.
Thanks to Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding for editing. Sources for the 116th Congress demographics are the Congressional Research Service, Pew Research Center, USA Today, and Wikipedia, which was also the source for the U.S. demographics.