Trump voters are less likely to practice social distancing in pandemic, sociologist claims


A new analysis of nationwide cell phone location data suggests that counties which voted for President Donald Trump in higher proportions are less likely to practice social distancing measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The location analysis, by Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey for Vox, also found that attitudes toward climate change are ‘one of the strongest and most robust predictors of social distancing behavior.’

In parts of the country, a recalcitrant minority of people continue to openly blow off stay-at-home orders, defiantly congregating for recreational events in the midst of the pandemic that has infected more than 500,000 Americans and killed at least 18,798.

In New Mexico, at least 31 off-road enthusiasts gathered last weekend by the ‘Welcome to Las Cruces’ sign for a photo, which was posted online with the dismissive remark ‘If you got it, you got it,’ according to the Las Cruces Sun News.

A ‘scorecard’ from Unacast shows state and county-level data on how much people have reduced their outdoor movement during the coronavirus pandemic

In New Mexico, at least 31 off-road enthusiasts gathered last weekend by the 'Welcome to Las Cruces' sign for this photo, which drew fury after it was posted to Facebook

In New Mexico, at least 31 off-road enthusiasts gathered last weekend by the ‘Welcome to Las Cruces’ sign for this photo, which drew fury after it was posted to Facebook

The Facebook post presenting the photographs read: ‘Social Distancing Mtherfkers! And if you don’t like (it) ur staying hm ok bye!’ with emojis simulating hands raising their middle fingers. 

New Mexico has been under a statewide stay-at-home order since March 23, currently scheduled to last until the end of April.

According to Sharkey’s analysis of location data, ‘politics and civic engagement bear a strong relationship to social distancing behavior.’ 

Sharkey’s analysis relies on aggregate location data complied by Unacast, an advertising company that has recently emerged as one of the top sources of information about how much people continue to move about in the pandemic.

Unacast gives each county in the U.S. a letter score of A through F based on how much people have reduced their movement and non-essential travel during the pandemic, with ‘F’ representing the least change in outdoor movement. 

Sharkey used a statistical analysis of the letter grades from Unacast to compare them with other 

‘Counties with larger populations, with more educated residents, and with higher percentages of white and Hispanic residents tend to receive higher grades on social distancing, while the age structure, the median income, and the unemployment rate are no longer associated with social distancing behavior,’ Sharkey writes.

He continues: ‘grades fall with the percentage of the county voters who cast a ballot for Trump in 2016.’

The chart above shows the average Unacast 'scorecard' of counties broken into three groups: the bottom (blue), middle (green) and top (yellow) cohorts based on the percentage that voted for Trump (left) and the percentage that don't believe in man-made climate change

The chart above shows the average Unacast ‘scorecard’ of counties broken into three groups: the bottom (blue), middle (green) and top (yellow) cohorts based on the percentage that voted for Trump (left) and the percentage that don’t believe in man-made climate change

A Unacast chart shows the changed in non-essential visits since the pandemic began, with daily new cases in the US shown in grey bars

A Unacast chart shows the changed in non-essential visits since the pandemic began, with daily new cases in the US shown in grey bars

‘Lastly, even after adjusting for all of these other characteristics, counties within the same state where a greater share of residents do not agree that global warming is happening are substantially less likely to change their behavior in response to Covid-19,’ Sharkey writes.

Sharkey says his analysis shows that attitudes toward climate change are ‘one of the strongest and most robust predictors of social distancing behavior.’ 

‘In the places where residents don’t think global warming is real, where they don’t believe humans are responsible, where they don’t think citizens have a responsibility to act, residents are also failing to change their behavior during the coronavirus crisis,’ he writes.

As the crisis continues, cell phone location data is coming to the forefront as a key tool in the battle — raising privacy concerns and exposing just how much data is being collected on Americans by private advertising and technology companies.

On Friday, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to help public health agencies worldwide use smartphone data to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

New software the companies plan to add to phones would make it easier to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track down people who may have been infected by coronavirus carriers. 

Signs displaying directions for maintaining social distancing due to COVID-19 concerns are posted on a New York supermarket as customers wait outside on Friday

Signs displaying directions for maintaining social distancing due to COVID-19 concerns are posted on a New York supermarket as customers wait outside on Friday

The idea is to help national, state and local governments roll out apps for so-called ‘contact tracing’ that will run on iPhones and Android phones alike.

The technology works by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals. Using the Apple-Google technology, contact-tracing apps would gather a record of other phones with which they came into close proximity.

Such data can be used to alert others who might have been infected by known carriers of the novel coronavirus, typically when the phones’ owners have installed the apps and agreed to share data with public-health authorities.

Developers have already created such apps in countries including Singapore and China to try to contain the pandemic. 

In Europe, the Czech Republic says it will release an app after Easter. Britain, Germany and Italy are also developing their own tracing tools.

No such apps have yet been announced in the United States, but Governor Gavin Newsom of California said Friday that state officials have been in touch with the companies as they look ahead at how to reopen and lift stay-at-home orders. 

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