The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The obvious problem with blaming coronavirus deaths on Joe Biden

Registered nurse Nikki Hollinger cleans up a room after the death of a covid-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 9. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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Last Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered a cynical argument against President Biden. After attacking Biden’s proposal that employers mandate either vaccination or weekly testing, McCarthy offered a deeply misleading bit of data.

“I know President Biden promised America that he could handle covid,” McCarthy said. “More people have died from covid this year than last year.”

Over the weekend, Donald Trump made a similar argument at an event held at his private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago.

“They’ve lost more people to coronavirus this year — or, as I call it, the China virus,” Trump said to laughter. “This year, they’ve lost more people this year than they did last year. And we have the vaccines and we have the therapeutics and we have the Regeneron and we have all the different things, and they lost more.”

This is true. But those statements, suggesting that Biden has done a worse job handling the pandemic than Trump did, depend on several misleading bits of data. They also ignore the fact that coronavirus deaths in 2021 have disproportionately occurred in more-Republican areas.

If we look at the number of deaths per month, we see that latter point clearly. At the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, most of the deaths were occurring in counties that ended up voting for Joe Biden in that year’s presidential contest. More recently, though, more deaths have occurred in Trump-voting counties, for four months in a row.

But remember that there are 50 percent more people living in Biden-voting counties. When we adjust for population, as in the bottom graph below, we see that the rate of covid deaths in Trump-voting counties is far higher than in Biden-voting ones.

The numbers are clear. Even attributing the high death toll in January to Biden (despite his being president only for the last 12 days of the month, and despite those deaths resulting from infections weeks prior), we see that the per capita toll in 2020 was roughly equivalent by party — and in 2021 not at all.

2020 deaths
Per 100,000
2021 deaths
Per 100,000
Voted for Biden
Voted for Trump

There are several probable reasons for this. One is that the surge in cases that accompanied the arrival of the delta variant this summer was largely centered in the Sun Belt, where heat was more likely to push people to indoor air-conditioning. Even considering that, though, the toll of the pandemic was worse in Trump-voting areas. That is certainly in part because of increased vaccine hesitancy among Republicans, something that the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has been tracking for months. In October, the KFF found that partisanship was a much bigger factor in vaccination than race or income.

You can see that in the KFF’s November data, too: Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to report having been vaccinated.

Notice how that graph also debunks one of the other favored talking points on the right — the idea that Black vaccine hesitancy is comparable to Republican hesitancy. In reality, White Republicans (which is nearly all Republicans) are much more likely to object to vaccinations than Black respondents. The reason White vaccination rates have been higher than Black rates is largely because of White Democrats.

Something similar is happening in state-level case counts. At the moment, most states are seeing fewer new infections than they did a year ago, good news that is also probably tied to vaccination rates. (In the Sun Belt, it may also be a function of having just seen the delta wave pass by.) The places where that isn’t true are largely in the Northeast, where colder temperatures are again moving people inside. But in nearly every state that has at least one county that voted for each presidential candidate, it’s counties that voted for Trump that are seeing higher per capita rates of infection.

As I noted last week, the post-Biden period of the pandemic has consistently seen redder parts of the country being hit with higher new case totals and more covid-19 deaths. But this is often hard to pick out of the available data. It’s often the case that the negative partisan effects are masked.

The irony, of course, is that both Trump and McCarthy have or are fostering the sort of skepticism that’s contributed to that divide, a divide that NPR links to rampant misinformation about the virus. That might include McCarthy’s dismissal of Biden’s vaccine proposal as a mandate that’s costing jobs, when the proposed rule for private employers has been mired in court. It certainly includes Trump’s repeated comments about the virus — including his downplaying the urgency of vaccination — both this year and last.

So Trump blames Biden for the state of the pandemic, a state that’s aggravated by Trump’s own rhetoric and by the resistance of his base.