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COVID-19 hits the red states

Since its outset, the geography of the coronavirus outbreak has shaped the politics surrounding it: COVID-19 first appeared in big, Democratic cities, and for months, polls have recorded lower levels of concern about the disease among Republicans and Trump supporters.

A lot of people made the mistake of assuming that blue-tinge to the pandemic was indelible. Something in urban life — mass transit, for example, or high-rise living — made city dwellers uniquely susceptible to the illness, many commentators said.

No doubt population density provides one factor that can help a virus spread. But as we’re now seeing, density isn’t the only variable that counts.

William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution in Washington, one of the country’s best-known demographers, has been tracking the geographic spread of the illness.

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For the last two weeks, he reports, the disease has increasingly moved into Republican territory.

Moving to red states

Frey tracks how many counties have “high prevalence” of confirmed COVID cases, defined as 100 cases per 100,000 population.

In late March, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans lived in a high-prevalence county, mostly in the New York and Boston metro areas. But by the end of last week, May 3, two-thirds of the U.S. population lived in such counties.

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In the past two weeks, much of the spread of the illness has taken place in majority-Republican counties, places like Kern and Kings counties in California’s Central Valley; Sangamon County in Central Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln spent much of his adult life; and small-town and rural counties across the South, parts of the West and the Midwest, especially in such states as North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa.

The illness has spread from blue states to red ones, and “within states, from bluer counties to redder ones,” Frey said.

Importantly, this spread isn’t the result of the moves in some of those states to reopen businesses. The spread of the disease started before most of the reopening, although increased commerce likely will speed the contagion along.

Some of the apparent increase involves greater testing. But not all. What we’re seeing is the inexorable logic of a contagious virus — it spreads. Mass transit provides a vector in some places, but the virus is not particular: Any human interaction will do.

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Early on, high-prevalence counties were mostly places that voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Now, however, the political split is almost even.

That doesn’t mean that Trump voters and Clinton voters are equally affected by the disease — counties are often large areas, as Frey notes, and within a county, some communities are hit harder than others. Low-income workers, many of them black or Latino, have much more exposure to the virus than those who can easily telecommute, and they’ve been disproportionately killed by it.

A survey this week by Civiqs Analytics, a Democratic firm, found that 17% of black and Latino Americans knew someone who had died of COVID-19, compared to 8% of whites.

But the growing geographic dispersal of the illness does mean that white Americans living outside major cities — the core of Trump’s support — are no longer isolated from it to the degree they were early on. They’re likely to become only more exposed in coming weeks.

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So far, that change has not shifted the partisan response to the virus: Public opinion tends to lag behind events.

Typically, opinion on major issues comes partly from people’s own life experience and in part from cues they pick up from leaders they respect.

Civiqs, which has tracked the response to the pandemic, found that the share of Republicans who said they were “extremely concerned” or “moderately concerned” about a coronavirus outbreak in their areas rose during March after President Trump embraced health warnings. That share dropped soon after Trump in late March began once again downplaying the illness and emphasizing the need to reopen the economy, suggesting at one point that the country could be back to normal by Easter.

Currently, only about a third of Republicans say they are concerned, compared with nearly seven in 10 Democrats and about half of independents. Even so, support for health measures like social distancing remains bipartisan, and the push for a rapid reopening of commerce is definitely a minority position.

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How the geographic spread of the illness will affect public opinion remains uncertain.

As the illness spreads further into Trump country — but Trump and other opinion leaders on the right continue to emphasize reopening business — Republican voters will likely be getting a lot of conflicting signals. How they resolve that dissonance will go a long way toward shaping the politics of the pandemic.

Meantime, as Chris Megerian reported, Trump has notably shifted his language about the crisis. Increasingly he’s been calling Americans “warriors” in the fight to reopen the economy and has suggested that a certain number of deaths in that fight will be inevitable.

Worst jobs report in history

Trump’s emphasis on getting back to business comes against the backdrop of a dizzyingly steep plunge in the economy. Friday’s jobs report, showing unemployment rising to 14.7%, was the latest evidence of the toll.

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Trump said Friday morning that “those jobs will all be back, and they’ll be back very soon.” Many economists doubt that.

“We’re all kind of sitting here wishing for things to get as normal as possible ... But we have no playbook for this.”

Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist National Retail Federation

It could be a long time before many consumers feel comfortable eating in a restaurant, going to a theater or flying on a plane. The virus may permanently change large swaths of the economy.

Economists at Stanford and the University of Chicago estimated that 42% of the lost jobs may not return at all, Don Lee wrote.

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“We’re all kind of sitting here wishing for things to get as normal as possible,” Jack Kleinhenz, the chief economist of the National Retail Federation said. “But we have no playbook for this. There’s no model out there we can turn to. We’re just challenged.”

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Republicans brace for losses

Just two months ago, Republicans were talking confidently about picking up seats in the House — perhaps enough to overturn the current Democratic majority — and holding their majority in the Senate.

The pandemic has changed all that.

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Trump’s handling of the pandemic has drawn negative responses from voters, and the collapse of the economy has neutralized his strongest positive argument — at least for now.

Beyond that, as Janet Hook wrote, the crisis has put Republican candidates in a severe financial bind: GOP lawmakers in recent years have relied far more than Democrats on high-dollar fundraisers. The pandemic has shut those down, while the Democrats’ online fundraising machine has continued to thrive.

In competitive races across the country, Democratic candidates for the Senate far out-raised their Republican opponents in the first quarter.

The result: Republican strategists fear the Senate is slipping away from them, Hook wrote. Republican-held seats in Maine, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona are now toss-ups at best, and Montana has become competitive.

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On the House side, the picture for the GOP is even grimmer. David Wasserman, the House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who is widely followed by strategists in both parties, wrote this week that Democrats were as likely to pick up more House seats as Republicans and that the GOP path back to a majority “now looks slim to non-existent.”

On the presidential front, Joe Biden continues to hold a small but steady lead over Trump in national polls.

Biden’s standing so far does not appear to have been affected by the accusations of sexual assault leveled by Tara Reade, who briefly worked in his Senate office in 1993. Reade gave her first on-camera interview, released Thursday, to Megyn Kelly, but provided no additional evidence for her accusation that Biden assaulted her in the hallway of a Senate office building that year. Biden has denied that any such encounter took place.

Right now, the current election year is starting to look like 2008, a good year for Democrats. But the dramatic changes over the last two months stand as a reminder to both sides of how much could still change between now and the election.

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Coronavirus and Congress

House Democrats aren’t waiting for Republican agreement as they move toward another economic recovery bill. As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, this time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) plans to bring a bill to the floor that reflects Democratic priorities — money to help state and local governments, expanded aid to individuals and more testing — and then negotiate with the White House and Senate Republicans rather than negotiating before a vote, as they did with the previous rounds of help.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says his top priority for a new round of legislation is a provision shielding businesses from lawsuits by workers or consumers who claim injury from COVID-19. That pledge has set off a lobbying frenzy for a litigation shield, Haberkorn wrote.

What sorts of injuries could be sources of litigation? Del Wilber reported that hospitals are preparing for a wave of mental health disorders among healthcare workers, many of whom are reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Another issue that Congress will likely debate: The future of the postal service. As Evan Halper reported, Democrats are discovering that the issue has become a surprisingly potent one for them.

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What’s it like to cover Congress amid the crisis? Sarah Wire offered a firsthand view of masks, hallway contortions and apologies for the crying baby in the background of telephone calls.

An AI bot that deciphers Trump

If, like many Americans, you have trouble untangling what Trump says, Margaret, the AI computer bot, may be able to help.

Noah Bierman brings us the story of Margaret and her creator, Bill Frischling, who has amassed a vast database of Trump’s speeches, news conferences and other statements, written or verbal, going back to his first published letter to the New York Times in 1976.

Using Margaret’s algorithms, Frischling thinks he can pretty reliably tell when Trump is lying, Bierman reports. (And, no, it’s not as simple as the old joke about Hollywood agents.)

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Dropping the Flynn prosecution

Michael Flynn, who was, very briefly, Trump’s first national security adviser, has publicly admitted to lying to the FBI, pleading guilty twice to that charge.

Nonetheless, the Justice Department on Thursday, abruptly moved to drop the Flynn prosecution, saying that continuing it would not be “in the interests of justice,” as Chris Megerian and Del Wilber reported.

Atty. Gen. William Barr said he made the final decision. Barr’s argument is that the FBI didn’t have grounds to question Flynn, so the fact that he lied to them wasn’t material to a legitimate investigation and therefore shouldn’t have been prosecuted.

Democrats — and some Republicans — scoffed at that, saying the move was a further step toward politicizing prosecutions.

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Ultimately, federal District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who presided over Flynn’s case and accepted his guilty pleas, will have to review the matter. He could probe the question of undue political influence.

The threat of politically influenced federal prosecutions formed the backdrop at the Supreme Court Thursday as the justices unanimously overturned the convictions of two associates of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the now-infamous case of closed traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge.

As David Savage wrote, Justice Elena Kagan’s ruling for the court said that what the two had done was an “abuse of power,” but that “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”

The ruling was the latest in a series of cases over the last decade in which the justices have narrowed the scope of federal anti-corruption laws. The justices have consistently said they’re concerned about allowing U.S. attorneys, who are presidential appointees, to become free-ranging ethics officers with broad purview to shape the policies of state and local governments.

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The high court for the first time ever is conducting oral arguments remotely. This week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a case from a hospital as she recovered from a gallbladder procedure. Ginsburg bluntly challenged a Trump plan to limit birth-control coverage under Obamacare, Savage wrote. Overall, the justices seemed closely divided on how to resolve that case.

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