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Yael Hochberg

The politics of social distancing

Not really a surprise.

People in parts of the country that voted for President Donald Trump have worried less about COVID-19, especially as the new coronavirus was first emerging in the U.S., a new study out of Rice University found.

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“Even when — objectively speaking — death is on the line, partisan bias still colors beliefs about facts,” the study said. “Relying solely on compliance with voluntary suggested measures in the presence of different political views on the crisis may have limited effectiveness; instead, enforcement may be required to successfully flatten the curve.”

Counties with the most Trump voters saw far fewer Google searches about the virus, and social distancing was 40 percent less prevalent in those areas than in other counties, according to Rice Business professor Yael Hochberg, who co-authored the study.

The study used internet search data, as well as smartphone data to analyze average daily travel distance and visits to non-essential businesses over the last several weeks. It found that searches were low and travel was common in Trump country, especially in the early weeks of the outbreak.

Even as states began to issue stay-at-home mandates, the study found that counties that went for Trump in 2016 were slow to begin social distancing. Daily travel distance in those counties dropped by less than 7 percent, compared to a more than 9-percent drop in daily travel in counties with fewer Trump voters.

“Only when the federal order to ‘slow the spread’ arrived from the White House do high Trump counties begin to catch up,” the study said.

I’ve searched all around and I can’t find even a news release about this study, so I can’t give any judgment on its merits. I’m sure we’re all inclined to believe it, and there’s plenty of anecdotal data in the news in support of the general concept, but that’s as far as I can go at this time. Make of this what you will.