When several Republican governors initially refused to implement social distancing orders, they invoked a sort of red state exceptionalism. "South Dakota is not New York City," Gov. Kristi Noem quipped in early April. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey agreed, asserting: "We are not California."
That sentiment also appears to have trickled down into more conservative-leaning regions of the country, particularly more rural and some suburban areas of the South and Midwest. But a new data analysis shows that the very areas of the country where the coronavirus was initially slow to spread are now experiencing a notable uptick in cases.
"There is a stereotypical view of the places in America that COVID-19 has affected most: they are broadly urban, comprised predominantly of racial minorities, and strongly vote Democratic," demographer and Brookings Institution senior fellow William Frey writes in a post on his new analysis. But during the first three weeks of April, Frey adds, "new counties showing a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases are more suburban, whiter, and voted more strongly for Donald Trump than counties the virus hit first."
Frey examined the counties with more than 100 confirmed cases per 100,000 residents and found the total number of those counties had increased nearly 12-fold over the last couple weeks, from 59 at the end of March to 717 by mid-April.
Initially, Frey notes, these high-prevalence coronavirus counties were "heavily concentrated" in the Northeast, especially around New York City. But from March 30 to April 5, the high-prevalence counties moved into the Midwest and the South. By April 6 to 12, the virus prevalence increased "dramatically, especially around Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., as well as many smaller metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties." And in the Northeast and Midwest, the virus spread beyond the urban areas into more suburban areas and smaller metropolitan regions.
In essence, the high-prevalence areas are beginning to be spread more evenly between counties that voted for Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016. As of March 29, voters in high-prevalence areas leaned strongly Democratic, with Clinton holding a 62%-34% advantage over Trump. But by April 13-19, voters in high-prevalence counties only favored Clinton over Trump by by 10 points, 52%-42%.
The change in political leanings of constituents in high coronavirus areas could pose political problems for Trump, particularly as he tries to ramp up his "reopening" effort. Frey told Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent that the perception of coronavirus mainly plaguing urban and Democratic areas of the country “underlies a lot of these protests that are going on.” Even though those anti-lockdown agitators represent only a fringe minority of the country, the sentiment they're feeding off of is the notion that "we're not like that," Frey noted.
But that perception could change rather quickly. The coronavirus, Frey said, is “coming to places where these protesters are probably living — far-out suburbs, small metropolitan areas, rural America.”
The darker areas below show the counties that initially had a high prevalence of confirmed cases. The lighter regions depict the counties that have newly become high-prevalence areas.