Democratic Counties Keep US Economy Afloat as Delta Variant Surges in Unvaccinated Communities

With Covid-19 cases once again rising across the country, the U.S. is struggling to curb the latest, delta-driven surge, as hospitalizations and deaths have steadily climbed. But at least so far, the economy has proved highly resilient. There are many reasons for this, ranging from generous stimulus checks to the Federal Reserve’s commitment to buying bonds and holding interest rates low.

But some interesting new data on the overlap of electoral politics and economic dynamism suggest another reason: The geography of America’s economic engine is heavily concentrated in counties that Joe Biden won in 2020. These counties are much more heavily vaccinated than the rest of the country and thus better able to withstand the economic effects of Covid’s delta variant.

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The shift of U.S. economic production toward blue counties predates the arrival of the coronavirus. After the 2016 election, Mark Muro, the policy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Project, found that the 472 counties Hillary Clinton won produced 64% of the country’s economic output, while the 2,584 counties Donald Trump won contributed just 36%. That was a significant jump from the 2000 election, when the blue-red county economic split was 54% to 46%. Muro dubbed this divide “high-output America” vs. “low-output America.”

Last year, after Biden defeated Trump, Muro looked again and found that the economic output divide has grown even more pronounced. The 520 counties Biden won account for fully 71% of U.S. gross domestic product, while the 2,564 that Trump carried produced just 29%. In other words, America’s economic engine is bluer than ever.

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The partisan lean of these 520 economically vital counties has almost certainly helped to protect U.S. growth because Democrats are much more likely to be vaccinated than Republicans. To pinpoint the difference between high-output and low-output America, I asked Muro to compare county-level vaccination data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for blue and red counties. He found that the average share of fully vaccinated people, age 12 and above, in the Biden-voting counties that produce 71% of GDP was 61%, as of Aug. 22, while the share in Trump-voting counties was 46%—a gap that’s grown substantially since April, when vaccination rates in high-output and low-output America were almost the same.

Full vaccination rate by county presidential result
Full vaccination rate as of Aug. 22, age 12 and above, by county presidential result in 2020.BROOKINGS INSTITUTION ANALYSIS OF DATA FROM KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION, CDC, AND TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICES

“At this point, reduced vaccination rates align very much with 2020 Trump voting across counties, and that—it turns out—aligns very closely with weaker economic performance,” Muro says. “The irony is that low vaccination rates are likely to slow economic recovery.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the delta wave has hit red America hardest. Nine of the top 10 states with the highest cumulative seven-day case rate per 100,000 residents as of Aug. 22 voted for Trump: Mississippi (840), Louisiana (756), Florida (700), Alabama (525), Tennessee (511), Arkansas (511), Kentucky (511), South Carolina (490), and Alaska (455). Nationally, there were 308 cases per 100,000 people.

The divergence in Covid cases and the effect on economic activity in red and blue counties may be attributable to more than just low vaccination rates. The nature of work in Biden counties vs. Trump counties probably also plays a role. High-tech workers in economic powerhouses such as Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties in California are far better able to shield themselves from infection than, say, meat and poultry processing workers in plants in Iowa or South Dakota. 

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Still, says Muro, “these gaps likely mean that blue America may be gaining another economic advantage over red America this summer, as blue areas better fend off the delta variant while red ones struggle with it.”

relates to Vaccinated Democratic Counties Are Leading the Economic Recovery
Percent of residents age 12 and above who are fully vaccinated, and Biden share of the vote, by county. (Note: Hawaii, Alaska, and some small cities and counties are excluded because of data limitations and privacy. Bubble size represents population in 2019.) BROOKINGS INSTITUTION ANALYSIS OF DATA FROM CDC, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICES, AND DAVE LEIP’S ATLAS OF U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS. 

From a strict output standpoint—leaving aside the terrible human cost of Covid—the U.S. is fortunate that so much of its economic activity is concentrated in counties that tend to have high vaccination rates. Biden counties are also far more populous. But there’s potentially good news for Trump-voting counties, too, on both the economic and public-health fronts. As delta has surged, vaccinations are rising to levels not seen since the spring—on Aug. 19 a million doses were administered. And as a recent Bloomberg analysis showed, the sharpest rise in new vaccinations is coming in the red areas that have lagged behind Biden counties.

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America isn’t out of the woods yet. As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has noted, “It’s not yet clear whether the delta strain will have important effects on the economy. We’ll have to see.”

But along with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine, which is expected to spur new vaccination mandates, rising vaccinations should help make all of the U.S. economy—high-output and low-output regions—better able to withstand Covid’s lingering effects.

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