Association Between Partisan Affiliation of State Governments and State Mortality Rates Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Early View Original Scholarship
Health Disparities

Policy Points:

  • The increasing political polarization of states reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, when response plans differed sharply across party lines.
  • This study found that states with Republican governors and larger Republican majorities in legislatures experienced higher death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic—and in preceding years—but these associations often lost statistical significance after adjusting for the average income and health status of state populations and for the policy orientations of the states.
  • Future research may help clarify whether the higher death rates in these states result from policy choices or have other explanations, such as the tendency of voters with lower incomes or poorer health to elect Republican candidates.

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.

Age-Adjusted, All-Cause Mortality, by Republican Representation (%) in State Legislature


Woolf SH, Sabo RT, Chapman DA, Lee JH. Association Between Partisan Affiliation of State Governments and State Mortality Rates Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Milbank Q. 2023;101(4):0914.