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The Partisan Math of Florida’s COVID-19 Carnage

The Partisan Math of Florida’s COVID-19 Carnage

Ron DeSantis appears to be killing off his voters. He might not realize it.

In the early days of the pandemic, a narrative took shape that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting communities of color. As Adam Serwer documented last year in The Atlantic, Republicans seem to have dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic as soon they learned it was killing Blacks and Hispanics. However, since the first wave faded and the US became the developed world’s worst pandemic hotspot, death rates have begun to even out. White’s today compose 60% of the US population and 60.8% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths.

Since last summer, COVID has been evolving into a disease of white Republican politics. Today, it’s the Republican heartland of Dixie that leads the nation in COVID death rates. With Republicans blocking efforts at vaccination and mitigation, it’s worth wondering how this embrace of pandemic carnage might play out in raw political numbers. As Republicans depend especially heavily on elderly voters to retain their power in Florida, how might the pandemic alter electoral math there?

Republicans won the 2018 Governor’s race in Florida by about 30,000 votes. The Senate race was decided by barely 10,000. Death plays a fascinating role in Florida politics, as Republicans’ base there is constantly dying off. The GOP relies heavily on a pool of white retirees which, while growing many times faster than younger, more Democratic voters, is being constantly renewed by “gray freshmen” moving into Hell’s Lobby. Mess with that machine by raising elderly mortality rates, and the Republican machine is in trouble.

Whites died at a higher rate than other races in the first three waves of COVID in Florida. This owes to the concentration of elderly residents there, and that group’s overwhelmingly white demographics. In other words, slightly more Republican than Democratic voters died in the pandemic in its first three rounds. This new, far deadlier phase of the pandemic is almost exclusively a Republican plague, meaning a huge proportion of new Florida deaths will impact Republican voters. DeSantis may be miscalculating in ways that could impact Republicans for a long time to come.

The math is complicated.

Roughly half of Florida’s voting age population is over 54, and that population is about 56% white. As you would expect, that population gets whiter and more Republican with rising age.

The younger half of Florida’s electorate is only 46% white, and that percentage drops steeply in the younger cohorts. As one would expect, there is a stark racial and age divide in party affiliation, as only 30% of Floridians under 30 identifying with the GOP. Voters under 44 went for Gillum over DeSantis at roughly 60%, giving the Democrats about a 20 point margin.

Republicans in general tell themselves some bizarre stories about why people vote for them, but in Florida GOP power comes down to a very straightforward calculus. Florida stays just barely Republican because it imports aging white bigots at a pace slightly faster than their mortality. If Republicans were smart enough to understand that math, they’d be running as fast as they could to stop this virus.

We’re going to hear a lot in coming weeks about younger Americans dying from COVID-19. That’s not because the disease has necessarily become more deadly for them. We’ll be hearing about them because they are less likely to be vaccinated, so still susceptible to negative outcomes, and their stories will stand out more prominently now that overall death rates are dropping. The reality is that this pandemic remains far more deadly for older sufferers.

The core Republican demographic in Florida, voters over 54, are roughly 20 times more likely to die of a COVID-19 infection than the median under-54 voter. Voters over 65 are about 150x more likely to die than voters under 30. A little less than 80% of Floridians over 54 have been vaccinated, an accomplishment that may have inspired some complacency among Republican leaders. DeSantis went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that white Floridians got preferential access to the vaccine. It may not have worked.

The Villages is a Trump-loving white retirement community of about 50,000 residents. Less than 70% of area residents are fully vaccinated despite getting highly touted, preferential early access to the vaccine. Republicans can’t count on vaccines to protect their base. Vaccination rates are lowest in Florida in places won by Trump.

Though Hispanic vaccination rates have been about even in this over-54 demographic, rates among elderly African-Americans have lagged slightly. If this disparity is driving Republican indifference to the pandemic, then they’ve made they’ve made a mistake as stupid as it is vile.

The math problem that Republicans may have flubbed has to do with the high proportion of Florida’s elderly population which is white, and with the Republican Party’s enormous dependence on these voters. Even if vaccination rates among Black voters lag, the high concentration of white Republican voters in this high-risk elderly demographic means Republicans should have very different priorities.

Although rates of infection have been much higher among younger people in this fourth wave, deaths are still disproportionately hitting the elderly. Now that vaccine denial is becoming a standard Republican loyalty test, the remaining unvaccinated are becoming disproportionately white and Republican.

There are a little more than 3 million Florida voters over 70 and more than 75% of them are white. These voters made up almost a third of the electorate in Florida’s 2018 Election. It’s hard to get firm numbers, but from the rest of the exit polling profile, including data on age, race, education levels, and income, this pool of elderly white voters appear to have chosen DeSantis at about an 80% rate.

There were roughly 8 million votes cast in the ’18 race, almost evenly split between the two candidates.

About 28% of the 2018 electorate was over 70, or 2.25 million.

Of those 2.25 million voters over 70, about three quarters are white, totaling about 1.69 million DeSantis votes. *(That’s the proportion in the population, based on typical turnout their proportion among voters would probably be higher, likely around 1.8m).

In Florida, to date, the elderly account for 83% of COVID-19 deaths.

To put it another way, white voters over 70 appear to have accounted for well over 40% of DeSantis’ support in an election decided by barely 30,000 total votes.

To put it yet another way, for every ten Floridians who die of COVID-19, DeSantis probably loses about seven of his voters. This suggests that if Florida reached more than about 80,000 COVID-19 deaths, DeSantis would have lost enough voters to wipe out his 2018 winning margin. It’s unlikely that this toll would be reached. Florida has so far lost 40,000 dead to COVID-19.

The seven-day average of COVID-19 deaths per day in Florida, along with growth % by week had been:

8/1: Average daily deaths: 84 Rate of increase from last week: 67%
7/25: Average daily deaths: 57 Rate of increase from last week: 73%
7/18: Average daily deaths: 42 Rate of increase from last week: 64%

Then, the state’s Republicans administration fixed the glitch. DeSantis mandated a change in reporting that meant the rate of new deaths suddenly declined, despite towering infection growth and full hospitals.

Assuming for a moment that the real death rate continues to stay on pace with the number of infections already reported, the deaths per day for the three weeks after the data fix should look something like this before starting to level off:

8/8: 109
8/15: 174
8/22: 278

It’s impossible to know whether these numbers will reflect the unfolding reality. However, COVID-19 death rates in Florida have been rising more steeply in this outbreak than they did in the third, pre-vaccination wave over the winter.

Does this mean DeSantis is killing off his own voters? Though not exclusively, in general yes. Especially as we go forward from here, anti-vax populations will disproportionately get infected, and the broad spread of the virus will almost entirely impact the elderly. The elderly are disproportionately white, which in our screwed up political environment makes this group disproportionately Republican.

Are the losses enough to tip Florida’s partisan balance? No. Plus, Republicans might compensate for their losses among the elderly by convincing more Hispanics to become white. Their limited success in this effort gave them just enough of a boost in 2020 to hold Florida.

However, from a pure math perspective, it seems clear that at least in Florida, this strategy of ignoring COVID-19 is killing off more DeSantis voters than Democrats. Given Republicans’ tenuous hold on the state, this seems like poor politics on top of calloused policy.


  1. Not mentioned but shouldn’t be ignored- is the impact of climate change on Florida. Rising oceans and more frequent, dangerous gulf turbulence are going to be factors in demographic population shifts within Florida and along the entire Gulf Coast. Whether it’s fires in CA or wind and water problems in FL, old people don’t do evacuation and resettlement well. They’re the “one and done” crowd…

    If only democrats were a more shrewd opponent.

  2. I wonder about the “collateral damage” of delayed care, treatments and surgeries due to full hospitals and diversion of health care professionals. I assume it disproportionately effects the elderly but the young have emergencies too. I hope the CDC downstream tracks not just the Americans we lost to covid but those we may have lost or died prematurely due to delayed or inadequate care.

    The perverse relationship of those getting an avoidable disease and requiring all this care vs. those who did take precautions but needed services for other conditions will at some point cause a lot of anger and resentment. I haven’t a clue how that population(s) may play into the political calculus by State.

    1. Yes, I know someone who died because the surgery that could have easily saved him was delayed too long because of Covid hogging the hospital. Vaxxing was going on, but I don’t think that it was yet open to 12+. So I might not be able to point the finger of blame at the anti-vax crowd, but all the people who threw tantrums over masks? Yeah, those people all contributed in their own small and selfish way.

  3. So if I am reading this properly, every 10 deaths narrows the gap between the death cult and the sane people by 4 (7-3).

    But this equation does not factor in vote suppression. Say it is 9:1 the other way.

    If 10,000 die from Covid, that is 7,000 death cult votes gone, 3000 dem votes gone.
    Now, at the same time, if 5,000 votes are suppressed, that means 4,500 Dem votes, and 500 death cult votes. Which would even out the loss due to Covid.

    I obviously have no backup data on the vote suppression ratio. But there is no doubt it is heavily skewed towards dem voters being disenfranchised.

    You can bet the fascist party DOES have the vote suppression info, and has done the same Covid death math that you have Chris. I would bet my life savings that Florida’s vote ratios change very little. A whole lot less people vote, but the final results are the same.

  4. I feel like I’ve been waiting for a demographic shift in Texas and Florida for 20 years, but it never materializes. Between gerrymandering, voter suppression, social media manipulation, fortifying their numbers, and Democratic malaise in these red states I wonder if this will ever result in passing a demographic tipping point– assuming the republic itself survives.

    It will be interesting to see, WHEN another more deadly coronavirus (or influenza) variant breaks out, what will the reaction of the population be? So much knee-jerk skepticism now exists amongst the anti-science/anti-institutional crowd, that they will immediately announce it to be fake news or a fraud. Any remaining anti-vax’ers will either die or change their tune.

    1. We have to get through this one first. That’s proving more difficult than anticipated or necessary, given the resistance of a hefty percentage of Americans.

      Frankly, I’m far more concerned about the impact on elections from a more overt pervasion of voting rights. It seems that no matter how many white republicans die, the few who remain continue to find new devious ways to control outcomes.

  5. Another thing we need to consider is the demography of retirees in the years to come. First, the pool of retirees is going to be smaller in the coming decades than they’ve been used to. The 2020s will see retirees change from the last Boomers to the first Xers. Now at first that won’t be so bad for Florida Republicans, because early Xers weren’t that much smaller in numbers than Boomers, and they’ve been reliably very Republican. But that’s about the extent of the good news for the FL GOP. Time marches on and in about 15 years or so the pool of retirees is going to be considerably smaller and on top of that it’s going to be considerably more Democratic, as middle and later Xers tend to be. Time will tell how it all plays out, but demography will be a losing game for the GOP at least untill we get to the next major political realignment in about 40 years.

  6. As Mr. Spock would say fascinating. I am a Florida Cracker and my family has been in Florida for over a hundred years. Myself and my cousins are late sixties (me) to mainly seventies and one in her eighties. White , educated and much more progressive than our parents. And yes we are all vaccinated. That progressive part of white seniors are much less likely to die and will vote most likely Democrat in the next election. In our cohort we are a minority but a significate minority. That is another fact that will push the state more Democrat.

    I also have encouraged and help my Black and Hispanic friends to get vaccinated. Try to get more of the right wing white seniors I know to get vax. They have blown me off despite the death going on all around them. To me they are nuts.

    I have no problem sharing power with people that are not white. That has been happening in Orlando and Orange County for decades. Look at our corporate and government leaders locally. A diverse group. It will work out just fine. Two congresswomen representing Orlando, Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy both not white are blue dog Democrats. Conservative for real. Conservatism is not going anywhere as the state moves more Democrat. Yes older Cubans tend to vote Republican but the younger ones less so. The Puerto Ricans here tend to vote democrat and that group is growing.

    I think that the southern strategy is going the way that the Maginot Line went in WWII. But like the French Generals the GOP leaders are going to keep on doing what they did in the past until it does not work anymore.

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