Can political leaders put partisanship aside to govern in a crisis? The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a crucial test of politicians’ willingness to put state before party. Acting swiftly to slow the spread of a novel virus and cooperating with cross-partisans could mean the difference between life and death for many state residents.
The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was reported in Washington state in January 2020. New cases, including incidents of community spread, continued to be recorded across the country in February. However, federal-level efforts to “flatten the curve” did not begin in force until March. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was among the first governors to openly criticize the Trump administration’s slow response. Her criticism led to an open partisan feud on Twitter between the two leaders.
In the absence of a national order to limit the virus’ spread within the country, state governors took action. Leaders in states with some of the earliest-recorded cases – such as Washington, Illinois, and California – put stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders into effect shortly after the US closed its northern and southern borders to non-essential travel. In a matter of weeks, most states’ residents were under similar orders.
Did governors’ decisions to order their states’ residents to hunker down vary by party? In the figure below, I have plotted the date stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders went into effect (as of April 15, according to the New York Times) by the date of the state’s first reported confirmed case of COVID-19 (according to US News & World Report). States with Democratic governors are labeled in blue and Republican governors are labeled in red. As of April 15, no statewide stay-home orders had been issued in the Republican-governed states labeled in grey on the plot.
Of the 50 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, a total of 44 governors have issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. All Democratic-governed states were under similar orders after Governor Janet Mills called for Maine’s residents to stay home beginning April 2. By contrast, just over two-thirds of states led by Republican executives have mandated residents stay home. Eight states – all led by Republicans – had not issued such statewide orders as of April 15, 2020. States without stay-at-home orders have had substantial outbreaks of COVID-19, including in South Dakota where nearly 450 Smithfield Foods workers were infected in April causing the plant to close indefinitely.
Republican governors have generally been slower to issue restrictions on residents’ non-essential movement. Democrats and Republicans govern an equal number of states and territories on the above plot (26 each). Fifteen Democratic governors had issued statewide stay-home orders by March 26. The fifteenth Republican governor to mandate state residents stay home did not put this order into effect until April 3. This move came after all states with Democratic governors had announced similar orders and over two weeks after COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in all states.
The median number of days Democratic governors took to mandate their residents to stay home after their state’s first confirmed case was 21 days. By contrast, the median Republican governor took four additional days (25) to restrict residents’ non-essential movement, not accounting for states without stay-home orders as of April 15.
In short, the timing of governors’ decisions to mandate #stayhomesavelives appears to be partisan. However, there are select cases of governors putting public health before party. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has been heralded as one example. He was the first governor to order all schools to close, an action for which CNN described DeWine as the “anti-Trump on coronavirus.” These deviations from the norm suggest that divisive partisanship is not inevitable when governing a crisis.
Morgan C. Matthews is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies gender, partisanship, and U.S. political institutions.