American Regionalism: Convergence on COVID-19


America’s many regions are once again in the news given the Coronavirus pandemic with various states forming groups – such as the Western States Pact of California, Oregon, and Washington or the eastern “COVID corridor” centered around New York – to manage and mitigate the response to and impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. As such, considerable chatter has once again emerged about the socio-political differences among our nation’s regions.

Yet if you actually survey opinion, it turns out that our many regions are remarkably politically and attitudinally similar than might be commonly expected. So while many in the media focus on the extreme ideas and the polarizing actions of some leaders including the President, recent data from the Pew Research Center on COVID-19 strongly shows that opinion in our regions — as opposed to statements from politicians — about the pandemic have converged more than diverged.

First and foremost, some regions do lean more liberal and conservative but this does not mean most living in these areas are on the political extreme. This becomes immediately apparent when approval of Donald Trump is queried. 45% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling his job as President and of the nine geographic Census Bureau defined subdivisions in the country, most regions are within four or five points of that average including East North Central at 50% which includes five the very mixed states such as Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. At the low end of the approval range are the liberal leaning areas of New England (40%), the Mid-Atlantic (41%) and the Pacific Coast (37%) and the high end at 54% is East South Central which consists of conservative states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. While no region is extremely polarized, there are real Presidential approval differences between Alabama and Mississippi, on one hand, and Connecticut and New Hampshire, on the other. These differences often dominate the news largely because Trump himself is extremely polarizing and deliberately divisive.

That being said, going a bit deeper presents an appreciably different, and far less divergent, regional story when applied to this public health emergency. When asked if COVID-19 is a serious crisis, the national average across all regions is 67%. 8 of the 9 regions are within a few points of the national average; the exception is the low populated Mountain region which includes 8 largely open states such as Idaho, Wyoming, and New Mexico where 59% of whose residents state that the outbreak is break is a significant crisis and this figure is lower than average but not a position that is in opposition to the rest of the nation. the other direction. Importantly, 74% of those in Mid-Atlantic region, which includes the epicenter of New York and is often considered a liberal area, believe that the pandemic is crisis but so do the conservative areas of the South Atlantic which includes Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas at 68%.

Going further, the survey presents a battery of items asking if the respondents would be comfortable partaking in particular activities and the parity is considerable. For instance, when asked about attending a crowded party, not one region had a figure greater than 12% of its population comfortable with this behavior. That 12% figure was in the Mountain region and was the highest figure while the lowest were 4% of those in the Mid-Atlantic region with a national average of just 9%. In fact, while many attacked conservative Florida for opening up and having packed beaches, liberal LA and California just did the same thing; the beaches were packed before the state decided to force their closure.

Finally, Pew has a battery of 7 items that ask Americans to consider some steps that have been announced in some areas to address the coronavirus outbreak – in general do you think each of the following have been necessary or unnecessary – and there is remarkable parity across the board. For instance, on the question of business closures outside of essential services like pharmacies and grocery stores, 71% of Americans believe that this was a necessary step to promote communal safety. Once again, there was significant parity. Seven of the nine regions were within a handful of points from that measure while the Mountain region was less concerned at 62% and the Mid-Atlantic and New York were most concerned at 79%. Even with these two outliers, there is a clear clustering of support and no polarization on these measures whatsoever.

Similarly, shutting down international travel rated as an absolutely necessary step with over 91% of respondents in all nine regions agreeing that such a move was critical. High percentages also agreeing with the need to stop large gatherings – 81% or more in all regions – and over 90% of those in each region supporting postponing or cancelling major sporting or entertainment events. Closing down schools – which has been felt heavily nationwide but eliminates quite a bit of contact between families and communities – has almost uniform support at 90% being the national average. 84% of those in the Mountain and 85% in the West North Central regions being at the bottom and new England and the Mid Atlantic being at the top at 93% and 92%, respectively. It is hard to believe that the ideological polarization around Donald Trump is really having an impact here.

In short, regional reactions and attitudes are not particularly split in this Corona era. While it is absolutely true that COVID-19 has ravaged varied regions of the United States at different levels of intensity, data from the Pew Research Center makes is unambiguously clear that our nation’s regions – even when some lean liberal or conservative – are uniformly concerned about COVID and want to take clear and real steps to slow its devastating impacts on our country’s health and economy. Narratives that suggest otherwise lack appropriate context and are simply irresponsible. While Donald Trump, some governors, and many the media may want to play into the idea that the country is being torn apart regionally, the data shows that those who live in the varied regions are not interested in playing politics with a pandemic when it comes to combating COVID.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Circe Denyer, Public Domain.