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Opinion The coronavirus is invading the battleground states

A man opposed to the stay-at-home order protests at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on April 30. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The political geography of our pandemic keeps shifting — and now the coronavirus is invading the battleground states in ways that could upend the 2020 presidential race.

William Frey of the Brookings Institution, who is one of the country’s best-known demographers, has been tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus by county each week.

The last time we checked in on Frey’s data, he had found that the virus had spread into outer-suburban and small-metro counties, and counties carried by Donald Trump in 2016. That undermined the conventional wisdom that the coronavirus has been almost entirely the scourge of Democratic-leaning urban areas.

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Now Frey is back with a new installment of data, which he shared with this blog.

Frey’s new top-line finding is that since March 29 — that is, in the past five weeks — some 1,103 counties across the country have newly achieved what Frey calls “high-covid status,” and 813 of them voted for Trump in 2016, while 290 voted for Hillary Clinton.

In Frey’s analysis, a high-covid-status county is one in which 100 or more cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed per 100,000 residents.

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And so, the fact that 813 of 1,103 counties confirmed in recent weeks as high-covid went for Trump shows some serious continuing spread into Red America.

But the breakdown in battleground states is particularly notable for its political implications.

Here’s what Frey found. Since March 29, Michigan gained an additional 31 high-covid counties overall; Florida gained an additional 28; Pennsylvania gained 31; North Carolina gained 40; Wisconsin gained eight; and Arizona gained five.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a much greater concentration of covid spread in battleground states and red counties,” Frey told me. “This is especially recent in these areas.”

Frey noted that many of these new swing-state, high covid counties are red-leaning ones. “The majority of the new counties in the battleground states voted Republican in 2016,” said Frey, who bases these calculations on data from the New York Times and the census.

Notably, the Times just reported that internal administration predictions suggest that the daily death toll could double by the beginning of June.

“Chances are that the spread will continue in those areas going forward,” Frey told me, though he said he was not projecting this himself.

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Separately, as a public health matter, the fact that Florida gained so many additional high-covid counties is striking, because the state is set to partially reopen this week.

And as a political matter, the spread of the coronavirus in battleground states — particularly in red-leaning counties in them — could work against Trump, in part because of the national battle we’re seeing over reopening.

As McClatchy’s Dave Catanese reports, some Republicans believe the coronavirus crisis is turning the 2020 presidential election into a referendum on Trump’s handling of it, which Joe Biden has eagerly embraced with a steady stream of criticism of the incumbent:

Trump and Biden begin a general election in an unprecedented environment of dual anxiety over the nation’s health and economy.
“If a majority believe that we got through this, they’re not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he’s in good shape,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough.”

Making this potentially worse for Trump, he is urging states to reopen quickly. He has aligned himself with the anti-lockdown protests, which seem motivated by a kind of neo-Social Darwinist ideology that almost certainly won’t wear well in swing states if cases continue to mount in them.

Note, for instance, that Trump has championed the cause of armed protesters in Michigan. Yet now an additional 31 counties in the state are high-covid, which could boost the stance held by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who extended the state of the emergency there in the face of protests — and Trump’s criticism.

“As more people have friends and relatives who may be affected by the virus, they may turn toward a more moderate and less divisive approach than we’re hearing from the White House,” Frey told me. “More people may be open to Democratic perspectives on this.”

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)

Read more:

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

The Post’s View: The path to reopening is clear. Our national strategy is not.

Greg Sargent: Trump’s support for right-wing protests just got more ugly and dangerous

Jennifer Rubin: The protesters aren’t the only ones on the wrong side of lockdowns