A Tale of Two Pandemics

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One of the more interesting questions arising from the coronavirus pandemic is “Why are Republicans less worried about it than Democrats?” This is something that has been demonstrated in multiple polls. There is probably no perfect explanation, but one little-discussed possibility is that this is not so much about Republicans versus Democrats as it is about the way the pandemic is playing out in different areas of the country. I’ll illustrate this with two anecdotes:

  • At the beginning of the lockdown, I posted a complaint on my Facebook page about the rainy weather in central Ohio, where I live. A friend from New York City asked, incredulously, “How much are you planning on going outside?” 
  • When I drove a few days ago to pick up my prescriptions, I found myself staring at the keypad where you enter your credit card PIN and debated whether to drive home and get something to wipe it down first. After all, a lot of people have touched that keypad.

The coronavirus is experienced in a fundamentally different way in densely populated urban areas than it is in exurban areas. Consider my friend’s question.  The answer – aside from the fact that plentiful sunlight elevates moods, something badly needed right now – is that in non-urban areas, social distancing doesn’t necessarily change one’s life much. It’s perfectly possible for kids to play in spacious backyards, waving to friends as they walk by. 

If we walk dogs and encounter other people on the sidewalk, it’s relatively easy to step out into the street and exchange pleasantries as they pass by. One can pick up takeout, get dry-cleaning, retrieve prescriptions and so forth while interacting only with the person at the register. For many people in these parts of the country, social distancing is largely a nuisance, and it is possible to go through a day that feels fairly normal without even thinking of the virus as anything but a distant phenomenon; the number of foreign surfaces one touches is minimal.

So why was my friend so flummoxed at the possibility I’d be spending a lot of time outside? For the average city dweller, the feelings I experienced in my second anecdote are likely regular occurrences. It is difficult, for example, to socially distance in an elevator. Going into the street to avoid someone on the sidewalk can be a risky proposition. Taking children outside often involves going to a public playground. You might safely distance yourself from others in mass transit, or an Uber, but who was sitting in that seat before you? And every trip involves touching a large number of foreign surfaces, sometimes because one must but other times inadvertently.

This is likely why New York City is being hit so hard by the pandemic compared to other large cities; and it also probably helps explain the partisan divide to some degree. If you live in the type of densely populated urban areas where coronavirus fears are at the forefront of your mind as you go about your daily business, you’re also disproportionately likely to be a Democratic voter. On the other hand, voters in rural and exurban areas are more likely to be Republican, and are simply experiencing a different reality right now. This is always the case, in many ways, but the contrasts are particularly salient right now.  As the fallout from the coronavirus continues, these differences are only going to become more pronounced.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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