Supporters of President Donald Trump react as he arrives to speak to a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Feb. 21, 2020, in Las Vegas. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Mass casualties from the coronavirus could upend the political landscape in battleground states and shift contests away from President Donald Trump, according to a new analysis.
Academic researchers writing in a little-noticed public administration journal — Administrative Theory & Praxis — conclude that when considering nothing other than the tens of thousands of deaths projected from the virus, demographic shifts alone could be enough to swing crucial states to Joe Biden in the fall.
“The pandemic is going to take a greater toll on the conservative electorate leading into this election — and that’s simply just a calculation of age,” Andrew Johnson, the lead author and a professor of management at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said in an interview. “The virus is killing more older voters, and in many states that’s the key to a GOP victory.”
Johnson and his colleagues Wendi Pollock and Beth M. Rauhaus projected that even with shelter-in-place orders remaining in effect, about 11,000 more Republicans than Democrats who are 65 and older could die before the election in both Michigan and North Carolina.
In Pennsylvania, should the state return to using only social distancing to fight infections, it could lose over 13,000 more Republican than Democratic voters in that age category.
The study is based on early fatality projections from CovidActNow.org that are orders of magnitude higher than what’s borne out so far in battleground states — a point some outside experts have seized on to inject a dose of skepticism in the study’s findings. In an interview, Johnson acknowledged the high numbers used for the study, but he contended it remains early and that easing of stay-at-home orders could spark more cases and deaths.
Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar on governance, said the effects are only large enough to affect outcomes in states that are very narrowly divided. But he concluded that the study made sense.
Trump supporters, especially in Greater Appalachia, tend to be older and heavier, traits correlated with underlying conditions that make Covid-19 more lethal, he said. Smoking levels — another leading indicator of vulnerability — also tend to be higher in red areas.
The analysis comes as Trump’s handling of the coronavirus is increasingly turning away seniors that buoyed him in 2016, when the cohort supported him over Hillary Clinton by 7 percent. Older voters consistently vote at higher rates and have broken in the GOP’s favor for the better part of two decades.
Seniors by significant numbers nationally prioritize defeating the virus over reviving the sputtering economy, a spate of recent polls shows. And Trump himself has started to acknowledge the impact of his policies on the older cohort.
In a tweet Wednesday, the president cheered on states moving to reopen. “Special care is, and always will be, given to our beloved seniors (except me!),” Trump added in his message. “Their lives will be better than ever … WE LOVE YOU ALL!”
He used similar language late last month, saying. “Seniors will be watched over protectively and lovingly.”
Researchers on the fatality study said they found the virus could also ravage Republicans across Florida and Georgia, where GOP leaders have been pulling back on aggressive defenses. The study looked at total anticipated deaths on a statewide basis, which accounted for spiraling projections of the virus in densely populated urban areas that are home to more Democrats.
Still, there are caveats beyond the death figures used: Researchers used national fatality rates because deaths by state were scant when they started. They similarly applied national percentages of voters by age, not state-by-state figures. But Johnson noted that could actually understate effects in places like Florida, where the GOP relies more heavily on older voters.
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