A recent analysis of the relationship between state political leadership and COVID-19 public health outcomes reveals an unsurprising fact: States led by Republican governors had higher COVID death rates than those run by Democratic governors.
Julie VanDusky-Allen, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boise State University, and Olga Shvetsova, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Binghamton University, write in The Conversation “the more stringent policies typical of Democratic governors led to lower rates of infections and deaths, compared to the the pandemic responses of the average Republican governor.”
As political scientists and public health scholars, we’ve been studying political responses to the pandemic and their impacts. In research published in the summer of 2020, we found that “sub-governments,” which in the U.S. means state governments, tended to have a bigger impact on the direction of pandemic policies than the federal government. Now, as data on last year’s case and death rates emerge, we’re looking at whether the political party in the governor’s office became a good predictor of public health outcomes as COVID-19 moved across the country.
To compare and chart our state-by-state COVID-19 policy stringency data, we’ve developed our “Protective Policy Index.” To calculate this index, we took into account the types of policies state governments adopted over the course of the pandemic, such as school closings, lockdowns and mandatory mask mandates. We combined the adopted measures for each state over time to calculate the index.
Higher values of the index indicate states adopted more stringent measures.
When we charted the policy responses of Democratic and Republican governors between May 1 and July 31, 2020, they revealed that heading into May, states led by Democrats generally took more stringent measures than those led by Republicans.
Over the next eight weeks or so, as Democratic-led states began to slowly reopen, they continued to maintain more stringent measures on average than Republican-led states. By July, Democratic governors began to roll back their reopenings amid some signs of a new pandemic wave, while Republican-led states largely maintained the same level of stringency.
Having established this information, VanDusky-Allen and Shvetsova were able “to explore whether there was a relationship between COVID-19 policy stringency in different states, and their rates of pandemic cases and deaths,” they write.
A study released in March revealed that case and death rates were higher on average in Republican-led states in the second half of 2020. To analyze the effects of Democratic and Republican state leadership, the researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on state COVID case rates from June 1 to July 31, 2020, and estimates of excess mortality rates from June 1 to August 31, 2020.
Next, to study the relationship between the stringency of a state’s pandemic responses and its rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, we mapped each state’s rating on the Protective Policy Index to the same CDC data. The results show that more stringent policies were generally associated with fewer cases and deaths.
All of these findings, in conjunction with those of our own research, suggest that amid the current deep divide in U.S. politics, it’s possible to forecast public health outcomes based on whether a state is led by a Republican or a Democrat. For large chunks of time in 2020, states led by Republicans overall had higher average case and death rates from COVID-19, in part due to their state governments adopting less stringent policies to quell the virus. It is important to note, however, that not all states fit perfectly into this pattern. For example, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, adopted relatively stricter measures and this likely led to better health outcomes.
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