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.
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:
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.