TIGC takes a fresh look at the political arithmetic of Covid-19 and poses a rude question
With less than 14 months to go before Georgia’s 2022 statewide elections, TIGC has decided it’s time to tackle the obvious political question that other observers and commentators are too polite and high-minded to address, namely: Are Republicans killing their own voters?
This is admittedly tough to prove. But it’s difficult — nay, impossible — to compare the state’s Covid-19 performance with recent election results and not at least wonder. As of this past Friday, the 129 counties that sided with Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election had significantly higher Covid-19 case rates and death rates — and much lower vaccination rates — than the 30 counties that went for Joe Biden.
Some raw numbers: Covid-19 data published Friday, September 10th, by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) tells us that the Trump counties had suffered 1,077 more deaths than the Biden counties while vaccinating nearly 800,000 fewer people. Perhaps even worse for the Trump counties, their combined 14-day case rate — a measure of current rather than long-term trends — is a solid 41 percent higher than the rate in the Biden counties.
Of course, these numbers alone don’t prove anything. The virus is, as far as we know, politically agnostic, and neither death certificates nor vaccination records list political party preference. Further, it’s probably mathematically possible that an actual body count (an audit, perhaps, that compares death certificates with primary voting histories) would tell a different story. But a look at various bits and pieces of anecdotal data makes it difficult to conclude that Democrats are suffering a bigger Covid-19 hit.
Take, for instance, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley gave Trump his biggest Georgia margin — 90.9 percent of the vote — but, as of Friday’s DPH report, it had the fourth-worst vaccination rate in the state at 20.8 percent. This could be purely coincidental, but your humble scribe here at TIGC is skeptical of that. Of the 51 Covid-19 deaths Brantley had reported by this past Friday, 43 were white, and all but three were 50 or older.
It is, of course, possible to find counternarratives in county-specific data. As an example, dirt-poor and heavily-black Hancock County, which gave Biden one of his biggest margins (72.1 percent) also had the state’s worst Covid-19 death rate as of Friday. That said, Hancock Countians seem to be taking the hint: 42.2 percent had been fully vaccinated as of last Friday, according to DPH data, one of the state’s highest rates, especially among rural counties.
Indeed, any attempt to find county-level correlations between Trump-Biden vote splits and, say, case or death rates is doomed to failure — thanks to a host of other variables that come into play, including race, poverty and educational levels, probably among others.
But at a macro level, fairly clear patterns begin to emerge, as this table shows.
Against the backdrop of those kinds of numbers, you’d think Georgia’s GOP leaders would be doing more to promote vaccinations and other Covid-19 mitigation measures, including masking. While Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, has gotten vaccinated and publicly encouraged others to do so, it seems fair to say his support for anti-Covid policies has been less than full-throated. He has overridden attempts by local governments to impose masking mandates and other mitigation measures, and he’s up on Twitter today with (so far) three tweets attacking President Biden’s plan to require all businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure they’re vaccinated or at least tested weekly for the virus.
Kemp’s lack of enthusiasm on the anti-Covid front may have trickled down and infected the state’s bureaucracy. DPH has made a good bit of Covid material available to the media on its website and produced at least one television ad earlier this year, but it’s not clear how much play that ad got — or how effective it was. It does seem fair to suggest that the state-level effort left a vacuum that at least some local governments and health departments have felt compelled to try to fill.
As an example, Gwinnett County earlier this year launched a campaign built around “listening to moms” to encourage Covid-19 mitigation measures, including vaccinations, and has reportedly spent more than a half-million dollars on the campaign. It may be getting a decent return on that investment. While Gwinnett went through a Covid “hot spot” phase several months ago and has one of the state’s higher overall case rates, its Covid death rate is one of the lowest in the state and its vaccination rate, at 48.5 percent, ranked 6th best in the state as of last Friday. Its also the largest of the Metro Atlanta counties that was solidly Republican a decade ago but has shifted from red to blue since then: it went nearly 60-40 for Biden in the 2020 election.
TIGC won’t attempt to use these numbers to extrapolate over the next 14 months and estimate an impact on the 2022 elections, but it’s difficult to imagine that any of the state’s Republican politicians or operatives would find much good news — or comfort — in them. If the current 1,077-death difference between the Trump and Biden counties just happens to parallel the difference in voters lost by each party to Covid so far, that alone probably won’t spell the difference in next year’s elections.
But then you have to figure out how to factor in the difference in vaccination rates and recent Delta variant case rates — and layer that onto that the fundamental health differences between the state’s overwhelmingly rural Republican areas and its largely Democratic urban climes, including, specifically, higher rates of lethal comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes. Will those conditions, in combination with Covid-19, compound the premature death rates that are already higher in predominantly Republican rural Georgia?
Governor Kemp’s management of the state’s Covid plague may not quite rise to the level of criminal negligence or manslaughter. But it might yet turn out to be political suicide.
(Couple of notes on my methodology in this piece. In crunching the presidential votes, I’ve ignored Libertarian votes, as I usually do. In analyzing various pieces of DPH data, I’ve found that different units of the department use different population estimates to calculate the various case, death and vaccination rates. The vaccination rates published by DPH are pegged to 2018 population estimates, according to its own “Data Descriptions” published with the daily reports. It’s not clear to me what population estimates DPH uses to calculate daily case and death rates; the numbers don’t quite match any of the annual estimates I can find. In the interest of consistency, I have used 2020 population estimates pulled directly from the Department’s OASIS database (I haven’t had time to get into the actual county-level census counts yet). My use of the 2020 estimates produces slightly different case, death and vaccination rates than those shown on the various DPH reports. Also, many thanks to several Facebook friends who helped me crowdsource information about state and local Covid communications programs, especially old friend Terry L. Wells.)