Monday, November 21, 2022

The COVID effect: Did the virus kill Republican midterm chances?

 Okay, hear me out. Back during the pandemic, I had a thought. As I watched Republican politicians and pundits eschew masks and social distancing and vaccines, I wondered, “Could this have an effect on future elections?”

After all, COVID-19 was a disease that generally hit older patients harder and the over-65 set is a major part of the Republican base. As I watched Republicans demonize masks and the vaccines, it occurred to me that they were killing off a lot of their own voters with misinformation and conspiracy theories.

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As an example, back in the early days of the pandemic, in April 2020, I pointed out in The Resurgent how a prime driver of the viral spread of COVID was religious services. People sat close together, unmasked, and sang hymns in enclosed rooms, all of which helped the virus to spread. Later on, this attitude progressed to political rallies and a business-as-usual attitude that gave the virus plenty of new hosts.

And a lot of these hosts died. Asymptomatic cases make it difficult to figure an accurate mortality rate, but suffice it to say that, prior to the approval of COVID vaccines, if you became symptomatic there was an all-too-high possibility that you would end up in the hospital. If you went to the hospital with COVID, there was a decent chance that you would leave feet-first in a body bag.

The consensus now seems to be that pre-vaccine mortality rates for COVID were 10 percent or higher. Globally, WHO estimates that over the course of the entire pandemic about 3.4 percent of the reported COVID cases resulted in death. Those aren’t great odds. Few of us would get on an airplane if it had between a 3 and 10 percent chance of crashing.

Back in the early days of the pandemic, there may have been little difference in fatalities between Democrats and Republicans. Masks were an imperfect defense (when medical masks were even available) and even people who were careful could let their guard down at the wrong time.

After the vaccines became available, however, dying of COVID became more of a matter of self-selection. Contrary to what many people listening to Republican media outlets were told, even the initial COVID vaccines were very effective at preventing death or hospitalization. This remained true as the disease mutated into different strains. There is a wealth of data, the CDC charts below are just one example, that shows that those who were vaccinated, especially with a booster, were much less likely to get sick, get hospitalized, or die from COVID than vaccine refuseniks. (If you say, “But what about deaths from vaccines, read the next section.”)

The figure is a two-panel line graph illustrating the weekly trends in age-standardized incidence of COVID-19 cases (during April 4–December 25, 2021) and deaths (during April 4–December 4, 2021) for unvaccinated compared with fully vaccinated persons overall and by receipt of booster doses in 25 U.S. jurisdictions as well as the national weighted estimates of variant proportions.

And by this time, getting vaccinated had gotten political. In January 2022, the Kaiser Foundation found that partisan affiliation was the strongest predictor of COVID vaccination status in the US. On average, counties that voted for Biden had a vaccination rate that was more than 10 points higher than counties that voted for Trump.

This may be medical science, but it isn’t rocket science. We would expect (unless we buy into anti-vax conspiracy theories) for counties with lower vaccination rates to have higher COVID death rates. That’s exactly what the New York Times found when it examined the data.

Blue counties jumped out to an early lead at the onset of the pandemic for obvious reasons. We all remember how coastal cities and states were hit hard in the opening days of the pandemic.

But even before vaccines were introduced, red counties had taken a lead in the death toll. After widespread vaccinations, deaths in red counties continued a meteoric rise while rates slowed in blue and purple counties.


Another more recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research released in September 2022 used voter registration data from Ohio and Florida to determine that excess deaths for Republicans were 76 percent higher than for Democrats during the pandemic years. The small gap early on widened after the introduction of vaccines and was concentrated in counties with low vaccination rates.

There are real-world consequences to this data. If Republican voters are dying in higher numbers than Democratic voters, it could conceivably affect the outcome of some elections.

The disparity in death rates would not make a difference everywhere though. States where Democrats usually win would not be affected by higher death rates among Republicans. Likewise, in states where Republicans have large margins of victory, the disparity is probably not going to be enough to make a difference.

But what about swing states and districts?

By definition, swing states and districts are places where neither party has a large advantage. Also called battleground states, elections in these areas are often close. It is in these places where the outcomes can hinge on one or two percentage points that the COVID effect would be expected to matter.

One interesting piece of data comes from World Meters. I used this site a lot to track COVID statistics during the pandemic, but I had not visited it in quite a while.

As I was thinking about this piece, I reasoned that per capita deaths, that is COVID deaths adjusted for population size, would probably be a good indicator of how likely the death rate would be to affect elections. Where COVID deaths represented a higher share of the population, those missing votes would likely carry greater weight in shifting electoral outcomes.

So, I checked World Meters for the latest per capita COVID death rankings for the 50 states. While red states dominate the top 10 entries on the list (Mississippi was number one), number two on the list was Arizona, the setting for a great many very close upset races. There were other battleground states that ranked high on the list as well. These include Michigan (8), Georgia (13), Nevada (16), and Pennsylvania (17). At number 12, Florida bucked the trend, but the Sunshine State has been trending more and more red in recent cycles.

Let’s focus for a moment on Arizona. The Grand Canyon State reported 31,613 deaths from COVID. Obviously not all of those deaths are Republicans, so let’s exclude the 17,939 deaths that occurred prior to July 1, 2021. That leaves 13,674 largely unnecessary deaths in the vaccine era. Let’s be generous and assume that only half of those were Republicans. That’s 6,837 potential votes that could have easily put Blake Masters and Kari Lake over the top.

This is where the theory gets hard to prove. I'm an unpaid blogger without access to the data that could prove or disprove my hypothesis. Also, my eyes glaze over at the prospect of digging through this data and applying it to even the battleground races.

Instead, as Will Rogers said, I’m the idea man. I’ll let someone else sort out the details. To that end, maybe the wonks at FiveThirtyEight or Freakanomics can crunch the necessary numbers. If you’re interested in this topic and follow these two organizations, send them this link. Maybe it will pique their interest.

On the surface, there is a strong circumstantial case to be made that Republicans literally killed off the voters that would have given them the edge in the midterms, but COVID deaths would have been only one of several factors at play. Despite the loss of critical voters, Republicans could have still carried the day in some races if they had picked better candidates, if the Supreme Court had not overturned Roe, or a hundred other minute details that changed how small slices of the electorate voted.

There are also unknown knowns, to use Don Rumsfeld’s phrase. For instance, political affiliation is not an immutable characteristic. How many of the dead would have changed parties based on events of the past few years? How many of the deceased Republicans would not have voted for the underwhelming MAGA candidates? There is no way to know for sure but professional researchers can make educated guesses.

No matter how many Republican voters died during the pandemic, the GOP could have used their votes on November 8. It would not have taken many more votes to shift the outcome of a great many races.

The Republican Party paid the price for ignoring what should be a cardinal rule of politics: Don’t kill your base.

BUT WHAT ABOUT VACCINE SAFETY? For those who will argue, “yes, but the vaccine can also kill you,” I’m going to head that argument off at the pass.

Per the CDC website, from December 14, 2020, through November 9, 2022, the VAERS vaccine reporting system received 17,392 preliminary reports of death (0.0027 percent) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Astute readers will note that 0.0027 is smaller than the 3.4 to 10 percent range typically assumed to be COVID’s mortality rate. Much smaller.

But that’s only part of it. VAERS is a system that tracks correlation, not causation. The incidents listed in VAERS are not necessarily caused by vaccines even though they occurred after vaccinations.

For example, last year about this time, I was out running and tripped, leading to a bad fall. I broke my nose and skinned my knees almost to the bone among other injuries.

My accident is relevant because I had gotten a COVID booster a few days earlier. At the time, I was getting daily text updates from the V-safe After Vaccination Health Checker. These periodic checks would ask about symptoms in the days and weeks after vaccination.

Did I have body aches? Absolutely. Was it related to the vaccine? Absolutely not, but the simple checker only asks whether the symptoms exist, not whether they were caused by the vaccine or something else.

So the already low instance of adverse reactions after vaccines needs to be lowered a lot more to account for people who got sick, injured, or killed by something other than the vaccine.

The bottom line here is that, despite what you may have heard, the COVID vaccines are extremely safe and very effective. The risk is much lower with the vaccines than with the virus.

And no, the vaccine didn’t make me fall down.

MISSILES KILL 2 IN POLAND: There was an uproar yesterday when two missiles reportedly struck a site in Poland about 15 miles from the Ukrainian border, the AP reported. The missiles struck an area where grain was drying.

Russia denied responsibility for the attack, but the incident occurred as Russia was launching a massive missile barrage against Ukraine's energy facilities.

The Washington Post reports today that the missiles apparently did not originate in Russia but were likely Ukrainian air defense missiles that went astray. Even though the missiles were not Russian, NATO still blames the Putin regime since they were launched to defend against a Russian attack.

2020 LOSER ANNOUNCES NEW CAMPAIGN: In the earliest that I can ever remember a presidential campaign being launched, the loser from 2020 has indicated that he will try again.

I have a lot of Trump supporters who are my friends on social media, but the announcement seems to have gone over like a turd in a punchbowl. I went to the pages of some of my most zealous Republican friends this morning and none of them had posted anything about Trump’s announcement. Zero. Zilch. This is anecdotal data, but it is data.

Trump’s announcement seems to have energized his opposition more than his supporters. My assessment is that he is weak and fading. He still won’t be easy to beat in the Republican primary, but he faces long odds in becoming president again.

TWEET OF THE DAY; If you watched Trump’s announcement speech at home, you could and probably did turn it off. I didn’t make it to the end, but the YouTube video is an hour long.

Apparently some of the attendees were ready to go to bed as well. A Twitter video shows members of the crowd heading for the exits, where they were reportedly not allowed to leave until the speech was over.

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