United States vs. One Nation
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
A 10 1/2-hour drive to northeastern Indiana was a good reminder that our country is a collection of individual communities and not a monolithic nation. And that understanding has implications for how we process these crises, handicap elections and even treat one another.
One of the first things that stood out to me was the mask wearing, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. In our Washington, D.C., neighborhood, a clear majority of individuals wear masks or face coverings when they are out and about, and it’s required when entering stores. In Huntington, Indiana, I’ve seen a minority of folks wear masks, and it’s encouraged only in some establishments.
It was jarring to go from one place, where the peer pressure is to wear a mask, to another place, just hours later, where wearing a mask makes you feel like a liberal hypochondriac.
The immediate temptation is to declare that people are making a political statement. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters, conducted May 28-June 2, the 62% of respondents who said they always wear a mask plan to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden for president, 66% to 26%. The 15% of people who said they rarely or never wear a mask plan to vote for President Donald Trump, 83% to 7%.
This lines up neatly with the presidential results in 2016, when Trump lost the District of Columbia to Hillary Clinton, 91% to 4%, and won Huntington County, Indiana, 73% to 22%.
But I think current circumstances surrounding the coronavirus are driving behavior before partisanship.
As of June press time, Only two reported deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in Huntington County and there have been just 55 cases, total. That’s a stark contrast to Washington, D.C., where at least 10 people died each day in an 11-day stretch from late April to early May, and more than 500 have died from the coronavirus overall.
Population size (706,000 vs. 37,000) is almost certainly driving some of the disparity in numbers. But that doesn’t change the fact that those coronavirus numbers are driving attitudes and behavior, even though partisanship is strong and the president is extremely polarizing.
These varied experiences with the seemingly national coronavirus crisis are also driving tension with regard to the protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd. People in communities similar to Huntington don’t understand why they can’t have 100 people at a wedding or funeral while they watch hundreds of people gather indoors for memorial services in Minneapolis and Houston and thousands take to the streets for protests in larger cities across the country.
So what are we supposed to do with this information? It has been a good reminder that my experience isn’t a shared experience. Even though the entire country is dealing with the coronavirus, it’s in different ways and proportions depending on where you live. Maybe everyone else already wrapped their minds around this, but I admit I probably hadn’t taken it to heart until recently.
What does this have to do with elections?
Of course Washington, D.C., and Huntington are just two of many communities around the country, but they should be evidence and reminders that we don’t have national elections. There’s not a national election for president and certainly not national elections for the House and Senate. The fight for the White House and Congress is a collection of battles in individual states and districts that are all confronting the crises of the coronavirus and racial inequality in different ways.
That’s why it’s good to offer only a passing glance to national polls, including the recent NBC News/WSJ survey, which showed Biden ahead of Trump by 7 points, 49% to 42%.
The challenge for Republicans is that the news isn’t much better in individual states, considering the president trails Biden in Pennsylvania (3.3 points), Michigan (7.3 points) and Arizona (3.4 points), according to the Real Clear Politics averages as of June 8. Those states, along with the states Clinton won in 2016, would be enough to make Biden president. But Trump also trails in Wisconsin (3.4 points) and Florida (3.4 points), which he won four years ago.
I realize this isn’t a typical political analysis column. But maybe this is precisely the time to agree that our individual experiences with COVID-19 are different before casting judgment about others’ behavior.
Nathan Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs.
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