The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Coronavirus is invading Red America, new data show. That’s ominous for Trump.

President Trump speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The political geography of our pandemic is shifting. And that’s bad news for President Trump.

I don’t mean that this is bad news for Trump’s reelection chances, though that might prove the case. Rather, the point is that this evolution could further undermine Trump’s argument for reopening the economy quickly — in a way that exposes the underbelly of that argument in a highly unflattering way.

A new analysis from demographer William Frey finds that coronavirus is now spreading into whiter and more Republican-leaning areas of the country. Despite initially being concentrated in blue and urban areas, it has slowly extended into new parts of the Midwest and the south, into outer suburbs and small metropolitan areas, and into parts of the country carried by Trump.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

“Coronavirus is becoming more evident in Red America than it was a few weeks ago,” Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me in an interview.

Frey focused on counties with more than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents. He found that as coronavirus has spread, the total number of such counties has grown from 59 at the end of March to over 700 as of mid-April.

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Tellingly, the makeup of these counties has evolved, Frey found. At first, the overwhelming majority of their residents were heavily concentrated in the northeast, mostly around the New York metropolitan area. Nearly two-thirds of voters there picked Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

But now, things look quite different. As of mid-April, the majority of residents of counties that have just become high-coronavirus areas are in the South, Midwest and West. Under half reside in urban cores; more than half live in suburban, outer-suburban, small-metro and rural areas. Nearly half of those counties’ voters picked Trump in 2016.

“A lot of people think high-covid counties are distinctly different than most of the rest of the country — that they’re more urban, they’re more Democratic, they have more racial minorities,” Frey told me.

“But in fact, the areas that have reached this high-covid status over the last three weeks are looking more and more like the rest of America,” Frey said.

Frey noted that some of these new-covid counties are concentrated in places that could matter in the 2020 races, such as the Detroit suburbs, northern Michigan, central Florida and rural Georgia. Others include counties in Colorado and Nevada. (See Frey’s map for more.)

If this continues, it could badly complicate the debate over social distancing for Trump. As Frey noted, the perception that high-covid counties are overwhelmingly urban and Democratic “underlies a lot of these protests that are going on,” because the general sentiment among protesters is, “We’re not like that.”

But now, Frey continued, coronavirus is “coming to places where these protesters are probably living — far-out suburbs, small metropolitan areas, rural America.”

The political geography of covid-19

The political geography of coronavirus is the crucial subtext to our national argument over how to reopen the economy. The organizers of the anti-lockdown protests have worked to create the impression of a groundswell of populist rage at elites shutting down the economy in parts of the country far less impacted by the virus, to protect heavily impacted areas.

Those elites, of course, are mostly Democratic governors, relying on scientists who shouldn’t be trusted. As Tucker Carlson put it, the idea that quarantines are necessary to save lives is “a lie,” because “there is no scientific record to consult.”

At times these political-geographic fault lines have been made explicit. The New York Times recently observed that in Michigan, protesters from rural areas are “nearly all white,” with some “hoisting Trump signs and Confederate flags,” even as the vast majority of those afflicted and dying are “concentrated in heavily black and Democratic Detroit.”

Trump himself crudely nodded to this when he mused about quarantining off East Coast blue states, as if to protect virtuous Red America — often described as “Real America” by his propagandists — from infestation by an export from diseased Blue America.

As Ed Kilgore noted, Trump and his followers are relying on such sentiments to fuel the anti-lockdown protests, by blaming “social and economic restraints that are still in effect in much of the country on cities, many of them heavily black, where the coronavirus has been most destructive.”

But as I keep arguing, if Trump thinks this will be the gasoline for his new culture war, it probably won’t work. Polls show that even voter groups in his base — seniors, blue collar whites, rural voters — tilt against reopening quickly.

As sociologist Theda Skocpol told Vox’s Sean Illing, the “conditions” just aren’t there for this to become a genuine popular uprising, because “most Americans can look around and see what’s happening,” and “they see people dying and suffering.”

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This new geographic analysis underscores the point. It shows that coronavirus is further blurring the political-geographic lines Trump and his followers hoped to exploit.

“More people are going to understand that they need to be protected from this virus — that they are not shielded from it, that they are not in another part of America,” Frey told me.

“As soon as they understand this more, they’ll become more dissatisfied with Trump’s view of trying to open up America,” Frey concluded. “This is ominous for him.”

Read more:

Danielle Allen: The three key ideas at stake for a post-coronavirus future

Bill Gates: Here are the innovations we need to reopen the economy

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s reopening gambit bombs

Leana S. Wen: 7 things the administration is getting wrong about testing

The Post’s View: The government’s inefficient delivery means relief will come too late for many Americans

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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