Vaccination has historically not been something that diverges along partisan lines in the United States. Until recently, both parties showed roughly equal rates of vaccine enthusiasm and skepticism alike, and Donald Trump’s administration was actually the one that launched Operation Warp Speed, which led to the rapid development of the extremely effective mRNA vaccines that were created by Pfizer and Moderna and rolled out under Joe Biden’s watch.
However, among the American people, COVID-19 vaccines quickly ended up becoming polarized among partisan lines, with Democratic rates of vaccine uptake significantly exceeding Republican ones. When combining the high efficacy of the vaccines with the stark asymmetry in uptake, something predictable began happening: the COVID death rate became higher among Republicans than Democrats.
In January 2022, we at Split Ticket decided to study this effect in detail. By looking at county level correlations between latent demographic groups and vaccination rates, we calculated that Trump voters were 2.87 times more likely to die of COVID than Biden voters were. This finding is broadly in line with those from other independent studies; the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a report on this topic late last year and found that the COVID death rate for Republicans in Ohio and Florida was 2.53 times greater than the Democratic one.
This raised a morbid question: could the asymmetry in death rates swing the results of elections? The answer, we said last year, was “almost certainly not” — the margin shift caused by would-be voters dying was significantly lower than some may have expected, and it would require many more deaths to approach anything resembling electoral significance. Essentially, races would need to be decided by an exceptionally tight margin in order for this issue to even come into play.
It is worth revisiting this conclusion in light of the recent elections, however, because we had some very close Democratic wins in November; for example, Catherine Cortez Masto beat Adam Laxalt by less than a percentage point in Nevada’s Senate election, while Kris Mayes beat Abe Hamadeh by less than 300 votes in the Arizona Attorney General race. In light of this, we decided to analyze the following question: Did their disproportionate refusal of the COVID-19 vaccine cost Republicans any major elections in 2022?
To answer this, we updated the estimates we assembled last year with the most recent data on excess deaths. This allows us to roughly approximate just how many extra votes Republicans lost per state due to their voters refusing the vaccination at higher rates than Democrats did. In essence, how many more Republicans died due to vaccine refusal than Democrats did, and how many votes did this cost the GOP?
We examined the closest battleground election results for statewide races, and we looked to see whether the number of net excess GOP voter deaths was higher than the raw Democratic victory margin. The results are displayed in the table below (due to an absence of state legislative data, we were only able to examine statewide election results).
Our findings suggest that out of the five closest statewide races in 2022, only one would have flipped if not for excess Republican deaths due to vaccine refusal: Arizona’s attorney general race, where Kris Mayes defeated Abe Hamadeh by 280 votes. Our estimate for Arizona is that the GOP directly lost approximately 2,700 net votes directly attributable to COVID deaths, suggesting that Republicans likely would have won this race if not for their own voters refusing the vaccine. In every other race, however, we find that the number of COVID deaths was simply not enough to directly cause a change in the statewide result. Excess deaths directly moved the needle by, at most, 0.11% in margin, and all other congressional or statewide Democratic victories were by a greater margin.
Of course, things cannot necessarily be viewed under such a narrow lens. Deaths are a deeply personal and traumatic matter for an individual’s family and friends, and it is possible (and even likely) that a death may have helped to convince the family members of a deceased individual to vote a certain way. Moreover, deaths have an economic and media-level effect as well, and they change the macro picture in more ways than we could ever hope to quantify in a simple analysis.
But in the case of the Arizona Attorney General election, the difference between Mayes’ slim victory margin and the excess GOP death number is so large that it is difficult to come to any other conclusion. Kris Mayes only won by 280 votes, and while the GOP have claimed that technical difficulties could have swung the race towards the Democrats, the evidence suggests that they would have won this race anyway if more Republican voters had simply gotten vaccinated.
Given that the best guard against COVID mortality remains vaccination, and given that Republican politicians are increasingly adopting baseless vaccine-hostile rhetoric, this partisan asymmetry may not disappear anytime soon. This could become a small problem for the GOP; elections are often decided by the finest of margins, and in those cases, every minor advantage can make or break an outcome. A refusal to get vaccinated may have cost Republicans the Arizona Attorney General election on its own, but unless the GOP does more to encourage vaccine uptake, this might not be the last such case.
It’s usually a good idea to try and keep your voters alive.
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