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September 14, 2023
Steven H. Woolf
Roy T. Sabo
Derek A. Chapman
Jong Hyung Lee
Aug 24, 2023
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Context: Increasing polarization of states reached a high point during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the party affiliation of elected officials often predicted their policy response. The health consequences of these divisions are unclear. Prior studies compared mortality rates based on presidential voting patterns, but few considered the partisan orientation of state officials. This study examined whether the partisan orientation of governors or legislatures was associated with mortality outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods: Data on deaths and the partisan orientation of governors and legislators were obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Conference of State Legislatures, respectively. Linear regression was used to measure the association between Republican representation (percentage of seats held) in legislatures and (1) age-adjusted, all-cause mortality rates (AAMRs) in 2015–2021 and (2) excess death rates during three phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, controlling for median household income, the prevalence of four risk factors (obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attack, stroke), and state policy orientation. Associations between excess death rates and the governor’s party were also examined.
Findings: States with Republican governors or greater Republican representation in legislatures experienced higher AAMRs during 2015–2021, lower excess death rates during Phase 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic (weeks ending March 28, 2020, through June 13, 2020), and higher excess death rates in Phases 2 and 3 (weeks ending June 20, 2020, through April 30, 2022; p < 0.05). Most associations lost statistical significance after adjustment for control variables.
Conclusions: Mortality was higher in states with Republican governors and greater Republican legislative representation before and during much of the pandemic. Observed associations could be explained by the adverse effects of policy choices, reverse causality (e.g., popularity of Republican candidates in states with lower socioeconomic and health status), or unmeasured factors that predominate in states with Republican leaders.
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The Milbank Quarterly is an editorially independent multidisciplinary journal that offers in-depth assessments of the social, economic, political, historical, legal, and ethical dimensions of health and health care policy.