What this does not mean, though, is that the effects have been untouched by politics.
We’ve written before about how the most recent wave of deaths has overlapped with low vaccination rates — which itself overlaps with politics. Counties in which Trump’s margin was larger than Biden’s have seen disproportionately more unvaccinated residents. You can see that below: The number of unvaccinated residents generally increases from left to right, meaning from a bigger Biden margin in 2020 to a bigger Trump one.
It’s tricky to capture the correlations of politics, vaccinations and covid-19 deaths, but here’s one approximation. If we divvy up 2020 vote margins into four groups (preferred Biden by a margin greater or less than the median in Biden-voting counties; preferred Trump with the same split) and divvy up death totals into four equal-size groups, we can then overlay vaccination rates, from the most to least heavily vaccinated counties (as indicated by small-to-large circles). The result is this map.
Notice that there is no data for Texas. There are also several counties in California with small populations for which data was not provided to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the source of vaccination-rate data.
Vaccination rates are low enough in much of the South that the circles overlap. If we shrink them a bit, it’s easier to see the circles, though trickier to see the colors.
That’s the delta surge — disproportionately in counties that were more supportive of Trump last year. But that doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about the effects of partisanship on the pandemic.
We can view the effects of partisanship in another way. By grouping county-level data into roughly equal-size groups in terms of population, we see that the counties that were most supportive of Trump have also recorded the most deaths since the election.
This is useful because it allows us to evaluate a macabre question that has inevitably accompanied analysis of the effects of partisanship on vaccinations (and mask-wearing and distancing measures): Is it possible that there might be a political effect from Republicans being seemingly more affected by covid-19 deaths? Among those raising the point was a columnist for Breitbart who speculated that Biden was perhaps intentionally trying to see Republicans die of the virus … by advocating for effective vaccines, believing that such advocacy would spur a negative reaction. A baffling argument, but a creative one.
There’s only a relatively light correlation between 2020 margins and the percentage of each county that has succumbed to the virus. The county with the most deaths as a function of its 2020 turnout is one that supported Biden last year — Buffalo County, S.D. (The county that has seen the most deaths since Nov. 3 is, unsurprisingly, Los Angeles, but the toll is only a small percentage of the county’s total population.)
But that’s only because 10 deaths in the county represents a large chunk of a very small area. Across the country, counties that preferred Biden saw a number of deaths equal to an average of 0.3 percent of votes cast in the county in 2020. In counties that supported Trump, the average was 0.4 percent — 25 percent higher but only a subtle difference.
If we use the same groupings of counties as we did when tallying the number of deaths overall, we see a stronger correlation. Places that offered more support for Trump have seen a disproportionate portion of their voting and overall populations succumb to the virus.
That’s not a surprise. Overlapping voter turnout is just a grimmer way of looking at population-adjusted death tolls, a constant metric used in analysis of the pandemic. But it does suggest that any effects on elections would be subtle, given the relatively small number of people who’ve died compared with the size of the electorate. Happily.
What we can’t know, though, is who is dying. We know broad demographic categories — age, race — but nothing specific about those who’ve perished after contracting the virus. If we were to assume that the partisan split among those who died in each of the groups aligns with the county groups overall, just over half of those who died nationally since Election Day would have been Republican. That’s probably not a fair assumption, given the correlation between more-Republican places with higher rates of death and lower rates of vaccination. But, again, we have only so much data.
It’s admittedly grim to think about the effects of the virus in this way, if not callous. It is also a consideration that is perhaps unavoidable when seeing how the country’s stark partisan divide is appearing in the pandemic numbers.