The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kristi Noem leans into her people-can-choose-to-die-if-they-want-to 2024 messaging

South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 11. (Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two different Republican governors with obvious designs on the 2024 presidential primary are leveraging their response to the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to bolster their conservative credentials.

One, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has successfully parlayed his balance of loose pandemic restrictions with Fox-News-friendly culture fights to consistently lead in (very) early primary polling, at least when former president Donald Trump isn’t included in the mix. The other, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, has attempted the same dance but without the same result.

That may be in part because she represents a small state with limited opportunities for national attention. It may also be that her state handled the pandemic particularly poorly, at least when measured on the metric of “not having people die.”

At times in the past, Noem has tried to spin South Dakota’s coronavirus numbers to her advantage. But over the weekend, she attracted attention on social media for simply shrugging about them.

Linking to a CNN article covering her speech at a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Texas on Sunday, Noem spun her state’s response to the pandemic as nothing short of ideal.

“South Dakota did not do any mandates,” she wrote on Twitter. “We trusted our people, gave them all the information and told them that personal responsibility was the best answer.”

That was largely a quote from the speech itself, in which she targeted DeSantis (though not by name).

“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states. That they didn’t close their regions. That they didn’t mandate masks,” she said. Insisting that she wasn’t “picking fights,” she told the hard-right audience that Republicans “need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct.”

What’s fascinating about this argument is that it’s actually immune to a seemingly challenging response — um, but a lot of people died — using a straightforward rhetorical trick: pinning those deaths on the personal choices of the dead. It’s like making driving under the influence legal and booze free, and touting how much confidence you put in the public to manage their own affairs. Except, of course, that a lot of people killed in the resulting car accidents might be dying from the personal decisions of others, just as many of those infected with the coronavirus in her state were probably infected while the pandemic was raging despite their own efforts not to be.

We can compare South Dakota’s results in battling the pandemic with a similarly sized state, Delaware. We’ll throw in Florida and its comparably sized state, New York, to better measure the DeSantis vs. Noem battle.

Certainly, South Dakota fares fairly well on raw infection totals: very few people live there. It’s like saying that South Dakota has very few mass murderers; it can only have so many. When we adjust for population, though, it stands out as having both endured a particularly high rate of infection and an unusually high number of deaths.

(The data include state-level adjustments to data that result in periodic spikes in death counts.)

Of the four states we’re considering, South Dakota had by far the most cases on a per capita basis. It trailed only New York on deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

But that’s largely because New York was hit hard by the virus at the outset of the pandemic, before doctors had a robust understanding of how to treat it, before therapeutic medicines were broadly available, and while the country was suffering from shortages of material and resources. If we look solely at the last year, South Dakota again stands out. New York and Delaware track about equally.

This is admittedly arbitrary, setting a marker before South Dakota’s massive surge in cases. Since the beginning of the year, it has seen fewer deaths per capita than the other states and the United States overall. South Dakota’s seen about 62 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared with 78 or 79 deaths in the other states.

But it’s also likely that South Dakota will continue to outpace the other states simply by virtue of the fact that its residents have been less likely to be vaccinated against the virus. Since April, the number of vaccine doses administered in Noem’s state has increased far more slowly than other states.

This is very much an example of South Dakotans choosing how to approach the pandemic. Fewer of them are choosing to be vaccinated, meaning that more of them will continue to be at risk of infection. Happily, more than 90 percent of seniors in the state have been vaccinated, the group most at risk of death from covid-19. But the relatively low rate of vaccinations more broadly in the population means that it’s more likely that new outbreaks can occur there.

Noem’s pitch to 2024 voters, it seems, is that true leadership is letting that happen, not introducing measures aimed at preventing it. It is, to some extent, a natural extension of a conservative small-government philosophy: If people want to put themselves at risk from the virus, who are we to stop them?

The personal freedoms of those put at risk by new outbreaks through no fault of their own were not mentioned in Noem’s speech.