# 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.

# Are COVID Deaths Changing the Electorate?

Given that COVID-19 has become intensely politicized, I started wondering – will the death patterns seen to date have an impact on elections in 2022 and beyond? On the one hand, we’ve heard that minorities are dying at higher rates, whether due to poorer medical treatment or more exposure to the virus (a lower rate of work-from-home). On the other hand, the number one factor in terms of COVID mortality risk (other than vaccination status) is age – and the older you go in the US population pyramid, the whiter the demographics become.

I decided to try cross-referencing two data sources in Georgia to see how COVID might have changed the electorate. Given that President Biden won GA by only 12,000 votes, here, even small shifts in the electorate could have meaningful results. The Georgia Department of Public Health breaks COVID deaths down by age and race, and 2020 exit polling data provides a (rough) guide to how different demographics voted.

We can do some simple math to gauge the impacts, weighting the deaths by Biden/Trump voting split to determine the total impact on the Red/Blue dynamic. Here is 2020 exit polling data by age and race from CNN – since black and white were the only racial categories measured, we’ll focus on these (the number of COVID deaths in other groups in GA is dwarfed by these two groups).

From the Georgia Dept. of Public Health, here are COVID deaths by race:

In absolute terms, the number of white deaths greatly exceeds all other groups, principally because the vast majority of Georgians (and Americans) over 70 are white.

Now let’s do the math. We’ll use a simple model – we’re just using the age groups by race, and the voting margins by age and race, to determine how many votes each side has likely lost due to death by COVID. COVID has resulted in substantial excess mortality in the US since March 2020, so most of these people would still be alive and voting. Here’s the spreadsheet.

Results:

GOP candidates are likely to lose 4,661 votes due to COVID deaths.

Democratic candidates are likely to lose 4,895 votes due to COVID deaths.

This leads to a swing of 234 votes in the GOP’s favor. This result is influenced by a few factors:

• While white deaths do substantially exceed black deaths in total, the black population of Georgia is experiencing substantial excess mortality – total deaths of black Georgians exceed that of white Georgians for ages 18-49, despite being roughly 1/3 of the population in that age group.
• Biden won Georgia by chipping away at Trump’s margin among white voters – while older black voters favored Biden 94-6, older white voters favored Trump by 72-28. Since COVID mortality is centered on the elderly, the lopsided voting patterns help cushion the GOP’s losses.

My prior assumption, when glancing at the Georgia Dept of Public Health graphs, was that COVID might have a non-trivial impact on GOP support, simply given the large number of deaths among older white voters. This analysis has ignored differential vaccination rates by political leaning – so it’s possible that going forward, this calculus might change, since conservatives appear most vaccine resistant. In Georgia at least, it appears that COVID deaths are not leading to much net change in the electorate. States with a more homogeneous white population might experience a more profound impact, since age would then be the only important variable.

# 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!