Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division on April 2, 2020, in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
4 min

You would think that politicians who trafficked in conspiracy theories and misled Americans about the danger of covid-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines wouldn’t want to dwell on their record. Well, you would be wrong. Among the most brazen lies MAGA Republicans propagate is that compared with those “elite” blue states, red states responded to covid in a superior way that demonstrated the excellence of the right-wing approach to governance. In fact, when it comes to covid and other polices, red states have little to brag about.

No one has pandered to anti-vaccination, anti-science skeptics more than Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. He has gone so far as to set up a committee to go after vaccine manufacturers, the companies that saved millions of lives here and around the world.

In his speech Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, he was at it again. Touting his approach to covid, he declared, “When common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom throughout the United States and indeed throughout the world.” (By that he meant reversing parents’ and schools’ demand for masking in schools before vaccines were widely available, I suppose.)

So how did Florida do? As of Monday afternoon, it had the 12th highest death rate from covid and the eighth highest rate of infection. As of last month, it had the second highest number of cumulative child covid cases.

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But it’s not just Florida. Red states in general have had far higher death rates than blue states. Of the five states with the highest death rates — Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Mexico — GOP governors led all but New Mexico during the height of the pandemic. Governors who bucked the trend of covid denial led all five jurisdictions with the lowest death rates (Hawaii, Vermont, Utah, Puerto Rico and D.C.).

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s former governor (2011-2017) and now presidential contender Nikki Haley declared “wokeness” more dangerous than covid. Perhaps she’s not paying attention to her home state. South Carolina’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, positioned himself as a ferocious opponent of coronavirus vaccine mandates. The results were predictably awful. South Carolina is the seventh highest in per capita cases.

South Carolina and Florida are emblematic of the divide between red and blue states. As with murder rates, poverty, uninsured residents, poor schools and low age expectancy, covid numbers show that far from a model for the rest of the country, red states are distinguished by their failed policies and lousy statistics.

But people are voting with their feet, DeSantis claims. He cites as proof of success that more people are moving to his and other red states. Perhaps the nice weather has more to do with the influx of people than does red-state governance. The numbers from USAFacts are telling: “Florida, the state with the second-largest elderly population percentage, can attribute its numbers to net migration. From 2000 to 2020, net migration accounted for an increase of 1 million people to the now 65 and older group.” Two other warm-weather states (Nevada and Arizona) were the only ones with higher rates of net migration.

Taking credit for migration is nervy of DeSantis, given that “Florida is home to so many older residents because of its abundance of retirement communities in walkable cities, warm weather and lack of estate taxes. A study from the University of Florida estimates that by 2040, more than 25% of Florida’s population will be over 65,” as Consumer Affairs documents. Not exactly an example the rest of the country can or wants to follow.

Likewise, South Carolina is benefiting from migration from other states. But there, too, its over-65 population is soaring. The No. 1 reason for moving to South Carolina? Retirement. If you want an aging population with warm weather, South Carolina is the place for you. However, among college graduates, South Carolina ranks high for departures.

Weather and retirement, not policies, are the likely magnets for red states. The policies MAGA politicians tout — book banning, abortion bans, excluding discussion of race from history instruction — are uniformly unpopular.

Don’t get me wrong: The MAGA rhetoric, including covid denial, is wildly popular among the extreme base that dominates the GOP presidential primaries. But once the messages of vaccine denial and failed red-state policies are tested among voters in key states with much better records, the red-state gospel might very well fall on deaf ears.