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Joe Biden’s campaign bet on the idea that the 2020 election would hinge on President Donald Trump’s response to a pandemic that has killed nearly 240,000 Americans and ravaged the nation’s economy.
In the months leading up to the election, in virtual campaign events, TV ads, and debates, Biden made COVID-19 central to his message, contrasting Trump’s mishandling and denial with his own acknowledgment of the losses Americans were suffering.
Biden won a decisive majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College — but the simple narrative that the devastation caused by COVID-19 would clearly swing votes his way doesn’t seem to be true, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of county-level results. How hard the pandemic hit locally didn’t obviously hurt Trump.
By Election Day, around 1,000 Americans a day were dying of COVID-19 while the national unemployment rate stood at 6.9%. To examine how the virus’s death toll and the economic crash influenced the election, BuzzFeed News looked at cumulative COVID-19 death rates by county and the surge in the unemployment rate triggered by the pandemic, analyzing how these factors influenced whether voters swung away from Trump between the 2016 and 2020 elections, based on vote counts reported by Decision Desk HQ.
Together, COVID-19 deaths and unemployment had surprisingly little influence over the swings that happened at the county level. If anything, Trump did better in counties where more people have died of COVID-19.
Relationship between swing and COVID-19 deaths
Biden’s campaign wasn’t alone in expecting COVID-19 deaths to hurt Trump.
On the Friday before the election, a team led by political scientist Christopher Warshaw of George Washington University published a study suggesting that each doubling of COVID-19 fatalities at the county level would make voters about 0.14% less likely to vote for Trump. At the state level, the researchers estimated that a doubling of COVID-19 deaths would dent Trump’s support by 0.37%.
Those might sound like small margins, but Warshaw and his colleagues pointed out that they could be enough to swing key states, concluding: “We find that COVID-19 has led to substantial damage for President Trump.”
After the election, Warshaw said it was too early to tell whether his team’s conclusion needed to be revised. “I don’t have any more perspective as of yet,” he told BuzzFeed News. “When there’s final data on county-level voting patterns, we’ll certainly assess them.”
It will likely take months of careful research to understand exactly what made voters decide whom to vote for in 2020. “Ascertaining the effect of the pandemic will take a lot more research than a few descriptive observations,” warned Gary King, who heads the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University.
While it’s possible that experts will find that COVID-19 did play a role in how people voted, it’s clear that the simple narrative that Trump would be punished in places hit especially hard by the pandemic doesn’t stand up.
Some of the factors involved in swings at the local level may be specific to particular places. Biden’s surprisingly poor showing in Miami-Dade County in Florida, for instance, may have been driven in part by the Trump campaign’s portrayal of Democrats as “socialists” — an alarming description for the county’s large population of voters whose families fled the socialist regime in Cuba.
And many counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates swung toward Trump.
Black-majority counties in rural Georgia, for example, have been devastated by COVID-19. These communities have also had to contend with barriers to voting, including a lack of accessible polling places and the closures of rural hospitals. “How do you make the space and time to cast a ballot with all of these competing issues that are creeping into your life?” said Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director for the advocacy group All Voting Is Local.
In these hard-hit counties, the vote swung slightly to Trump. Voters in the Georgia counties that shifted heavily to Biden and carried him to clinch a majority of votes across the state were mostly in the cities of Atlanta and Savannah, plus their suburbs, which had lower rates of COVID-19 deaths.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a region where Democrats had hoped to win big among Latinos, COVID-19 death rates have also been very high. But these border counties actually swung strongly toward Trump since 2016. Texas Democrats focused on turnout in the suburbs rather than investing more resources in the Rio Grande Valley. Trump’s message that Democrats would push unnecessary lockdowns that would hurt the economy may have resonated with voters more strongly than they had anticipated.
How surging unemployment influenced the relationship between COVID-19 deaths and swing
Rising local unemployment resulting from pandemic lockdowns also doesn’t seem to have strongly influenced the swing compared to 2016 overall. But our analysis suggests that in counties with bigger surges in unemployment, higher death rates may have swung voters toward Trump more heavily. Many of these counties are large, mostly Democratic urban areas.
“Voters start with the conclusion they want and work their way backwards to the evidence they choose to support that conclusion.”
Some experts were not surprised by these trends. “Casualties mobilize people to vote,” Michael Koch, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who has studied how wars affect election turnouts, told BuzzFeed News, suggesting that is what drove the historic number of votes cast in the 2020 election. But whether voters swing behind or punish an incumbent in a crisis is a complex equation, he said.
Trump spent much of his campaign arguing that if Biden won, he would “lock down” the country, and blaming Democratic governors for their states’ restrictions and economic slowdowns. Attitudes to the pandemic response seemed to harden along existing partisan lines, with Democrats blaming Trump for the death toll and Republicans backing his push for states to reopen their economies. “We are seeing motivated reasoning here,” Koch said. “Voters start with the conclusion they want and work their way backwards to the evidence they choose to support that conclusion.”
Given this partisan split, a huge challenge for Biden will be to mobilize the nation behind the message that rebuilding the economy and controlling the virus are not opposing goals.
“I think Biden missed the opportunity to explain that the economy is the number one priority and that getting people back to work is a goal, but that this requires controlling the virus,” Carlos del Rio, a specialist in infectious diseases and global health at Emory University in Atlanta, told BuzzFeed News. “It is not either/or. It is both together.” ●