Death Is Not Good Politics

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Many Republican governors have staked their political reputations on fighting vaccine and mask mandates. These state chief executives evidently believe a rather quixotic definition of freedom is good politics. But, the soaring hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19 in their states has led to plunging poll numbers.

Death, apparently, is not good politics!

Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have staked their political reputations on loud and public opposition to mandates intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Sure, there is some cachet among certain followers on the far right in opposing vaccine and mask mandates, but both leaders are paying a steep price with the general public for their opposition to commonsense public health measures. Abbott’s job approval rating has dropped from a high of 56 percent in April 2020 to 41 percent last month. DeSantis’ net approval rating has plummeted even more dramatically, falling 14 points between the beginning of July 2021 and late August. (Net approval rating calculates the share of voters who approve a politician’s performance minus the share who disapprove.)

Fixing precise cause and effect for a politician’s popularity is, of course, difficult. In the case of Abbott, there are many reasons why Texas voters may have soured on his stewardship over the last year or so. This past winter, Texas suffered an energy crisis when three severe winter storms caused the state’s power grid to fail. Abbott dithered in his response, choosing to blame renewable energy sources — which provide only a small fraction of the Texas’ electric power — for the crisis. Abbott’s popularity may be taking a hit as well from the severe rightward tilt of the state’s Republican Party. The GOP-controlled legislature has passed — and Abbott has signed — a draconian law virtually banning abortion, a measure that allows for the open carry of handguns without a permit, and a voting restriction law that suppresses minority voting. Texas is now a minority-majority state, so some or all of these laws may not have widespread public support.

It is hard to ignore the very public fights Abbott and DeSantis have waged against mandates, particularly against local school boards mandating masks for public school children and teachers, as a cause of their declining popularity. DeSantis has been outspoken in protecting what he calls “parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.” Apparently, the desire of other parents to ensure that their children are safe in school is not a concern of the governor.

A number of school boards in Florida pushed back against DeSantis’ ban on local mask mandates. More than half of the state’s students attend schools in districts that have ignored the governor’s ban. DeSantis countered by threatening to withhold the salaries of top school officials and school board members who defied him. DeSantis may be losing this fight. A Florida judge ruled this week that the state cannot enforce a ban on school districts mandating the wearing of masks intended to protect students, teachers, and staff from infection. Abbott, too, has suffered defeats in state courts over his ban on mask mandates in Texas school districts. 

For much of the past few months, Florida has been the epicenter of contagion from the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Texas has also suffered higher than average infection rates, with correspondingly high hospitalization and death rates. Florida’s vaccination rate mirrors the national average, while the rate in Texas is below the national average. Both governors have urged state residents to get vaccinated, but both oppose vaccine mandates. Most tellingly, in both Florida and Texas child hospitalizations from COVID-19 have risen, a statistic guaranteed to encourage more parents to demand their children attend schools where masks are mandated.

Both governors are up for reelection in 2022. Normally, both would be odds-on favorites to win another term since both Florida and Texas lean Republican. Besides, incumbency usually gives a candidate a boost of a few points, and candidates from the party opposite of the president frequently get a lift in midterm elections. But, given the two governors’ declining popularity ratings, normal may not be in play next year. And, a failure to win reelection would doom the presidential aspirations of both men.

Other Republican governors in red states have followed the lead of DeSantis and Abbott. Even Glen Youngkin, the gubernatorial candidate in the purple state of Virgina, has come out against mask mandates in the name of parental rights. And, in blue state California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s bid to survive a recall vote has received a boost because voters have recoiled from the opposition to mask and vaccine mandates by his chief rival, rightwing talk show host Larry Elder. Obviously, there are political incentives for Republicans to defy logic and public health guidelines. The political calculation for these politicians is clear: Their base on the far right believes mandates — even when enacted to protect the health and safety of children — somehow infringe on personal freedom. Angry shouting matches and violence have broken out at school board meetings and teachers have been attacked over the issue of mask mandates.

But, in shoring up their right flank and protecting against primary challenges, are red state governors — and other Republican politicians — courting problems in general elections? It is an axiom in American politics that candidates run to the extremes — the right for Republicans, the left for Democrats — in primaries, then tack to the center in general elections. Will that be possible for governors of states in which the electorate believes their elected leaders’ vociferous opposition to mask and vaccine mandates resulted in the unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths of thousands?

Being seen on the side of death is never good politics.

Posted September 10, 2021


Leave a Reply