Are COVID Deaths Changing The Electorate? Wisconsin Edition

I just wrote about a detailed calculation of COVID deaths and their potential electoral impact in Georgia, my home state. One factor that causes COVID deaths to have little political impact in Georgia: the state has a large black population which is disproportionately impacted by COVID, and this balances out deaths (politically speaking) among the older white population.

What about if we look at a swing state like Wisconsin, which is 87% white per the Census Bureau?

White deaths roughly approximate the white share of total population in Wisconsin.

This ought to mean that COVID would push the Wisconsin electorate leftward, correct?

Here are 2020 exit poll results for white voters in Wisconsin, and 2020 exit poll results for black voters in the Midwest (black Wisconsin voters weren’t available as a subset):

President Biden won Wisconsin precisely because he lost the older white vote by a relatively small margin.

Let’s do some simple math:

8064 deaths * 86.5% white = 6975 deaths

6975 deaths * (10% Trump margin amongst age groups at risk) = 698 net loss in Trump voters

8064 deaths * 7.7% black = 621 deaths

621 deaths * (62% Biden margin among black voters in Midwest) = 385 net loss in Biden voters

The Wisconsin GOP appears to have lost 300-350 net votes due to COVID thus far. It’s possible that this understates the impact, since the white voters that died post vaccine-era are increasingly represented by GOP voters (since they are more likely to refuse vaccination). But 80% of COVID deaths in Wisconsin occurred prior to general vaccine availability (prior to 1/31/21), lowering partisan effects due to vaccine hesitancy. Even if we assume a 20% Trump margin among white voters that died post 1/31, this only increases the GOP’s net vote loss to 500 votes (add 1/5th of the white vote * additional 10% margin).

The impact of a 500 vote swing could be meaningful in states where politics is a game of inches these days – but we can’t overstate it. Voters’ overall reaction to how the pandemic has been handled is by far the larger factor in how COVID impacts American politics.

Why Delta Might Be a Good Variant

I’m no epidemiologist, but it occurred to me that there might be a silver lining with the COVID-19 Delta variant.

  1. Delta is explosively contagious, with an R0 between 6 and 9. This means that the average infected individual is expected to transmit Delta to 6 and 9 additional people (versus 2.5 for COVID-19).
  2. This means that it just rips through populations. Because it can be transmitted by the vaccinated, it can travel deeper across the population as well.
  3. But so far is has not been found to be more lethal than the original, except to the extent that it crushes hospital capacity with its surge.
  4. Think about the virus’ evolutionary goals. It doesn’t actually care whether people live or die – the variant that spreads best dominates. If Delta manages that, while letting the vaccinated largely be unharmed, then it could become the pandemic’s endpoint.
  5. Why? Delta might crowd out new variants if it gets around and becomes the primary endemic version. To defeat Delta and take its dominant position, the next variant would have to be even better at spreading.
  6. Of course that is possible, but if Delta already can be spread by the vaccinated, it’s possible that is has already maximized the population growth prospects for this kind of virus in humans. The vaccinated can carry a Delta population in their nose without realizing it.
  7. Ironically, if any current vaccine were perfect, it would leave an attack surface for the next variant – conquer the vaccine. Perhaps the optimal vaccine simply allows us to live with the Coronavirus and welcome it to the family of standard household colds?
  8. And so perhaps Delta has evolved to be well suited to our current vaccines, able to maximize its reproduction. If we are lucky, it will crowd out any more lethal strains – marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic. There’s some indication that this might be happening, as Lambda has been present for some time, but has yet to grow in the US to extent that Delta has.
  9. This all assumes that vaccination efforts eventually meet with success and cover the overwhelming majority of the human population.

This could be wishful thinking – new variants will either validate or make a mockery of it soon. But the explosive growth and subsequent subsidence in COVID Delta cases in the UK and India give me room for hope!