This story is a Traverse City Record-Eagle data reporting project.
Political tension surrounding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home Stay Safe order boiled over during protests in Michigan’s capitol this week.
But a Record-Eagle analysis of anonymized cellphone tracking data indicates politics may have influenced Michiganders’ travel habits for weeks.
Data made public by location intelligence firm Cuebiq shows between the weeks beginning Feb. 24 and March 30, Michiganders reduced their average movement by at least 35 percent.
The magnitude of change varied dramatically between counties. Residents in some areas decreased their movement by more than 70 percent as COVID-19 spread into Michigan.
The Record-Eagle used a multiple regression analysis to better understand what factors influenced the varying reductions. The results showed more than 40 percent of the variation in counties’ mobility decreases could be explained (at a statistically significant level) by two factors: how residents vote and how much money they make.
Politics and income are more strongly correlated with a county’s changes in movement than any other variable the Record-Eagle tested, including population older than 65, racial makeup, miles of freeway, and what share of a county’s households are in rural areas. The correlation between voting habits and travel was significantly stronger than a connection between income and movement.
The Record-Eagle found the higher percentage of a county’s residents that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the less that county’s residents reduced their movement during the first weeks of the pandemic. Consistently, the more a county’s residents voted for Gretchen Whitmer in 2018, the more they reduced their movement.
Overall, the link between changes in movement and the percentage of a county’s electorate that voted for Trump was slightly stronger than the connection between support for Whitmer and travel.
When presented with the Record-Eagle’s findings, Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, wondered if part of the correlation between politics and movement could be President Donald Trump’s popularity in rural counties.
“Travel distance to basic services like grocery stores, the doctor, gas stations, or the bank are generally going to be longer than they are in more urban counties,” Miller said in an email.
The Record-Eagle accounted for such relationships between variables in its analysis, and found politics are linked to movement patterns independently of how rural counties are.
Dr. Joe Eisenberg, Chair and Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said liberal voters tend to be more concerned about community health, while conservative voters are more concerned about the economy.
“When they see things like the stock market crash, they see the corporate structure being threatened and place a higher value on that,” he said.
Polls from the Pew Research Group show Republicans also don’t see COVID-19 as the same threat that Democrats do.
John DiGiacamo, a Traverse City-based lawyer, thinks the division has to do with how different groups consume media.
“I think there’s a tendency for conservatives to take data from experts not at face value, and to have some sense of skepticism as to whether or not the data should be trusted,” he said. “There’s already a distrust of traditional media sources, with that distrust comes a distrust of experts.”
Protesters in Lansing on Wednesday mostly called Whitmer’s order government overreach. Their vehicles packed the streets near the Capitol building in Lansing, many sporting flags that read “TRUMP 2020” or “Don’t Tread on Me.” Many stepped out of their cars.
Meanwhile, the sheriffs in multiple northern Michigan counties (Benzie, Manistee, Mason and Leelanau) issued a joint statement saying they wouldn’t strictly enforce Whitmer’s newly extended stay-at-home order, calling themselves the “last line of defense” for civil liberties.
Dianne Radloff, a retired hospital administrator who lives in Traverse City, thinks making the order a political issue does more harm than good. She fears the protests will make the Governor dig in her heels.
“I would like to see our local state representatives and senators get together and put together a real plan to present to Governor Whitmer,” she said. “I believe there are safe ways to open businesses and restaurants without jeopardizing the health and well being of our community.”
Nickole Cox lives nearby, in Mancelona. She leans Republican, voted for Trump, and agrees the order has taken away some freedoms. Still, she thinks it’s for the greater good.
“Even an overreaction is better than no action when it comes to saving lives,” she said.
Cox works as a phlebotomist at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, and has been isolating herself from everybody except her boyfriend.
But she also said the president is right that Americans need to get back to work, and soon.
The ability to stay at home can be a luxury, and low-income workers are sacrificing a lot to do so, Eisenberg said.
“If you’re wealthy and you have a safety net for two or three weeks, even if you don’t get a paycheck it might not be the end of the world,” he said. [For] other people that might mean the difference between going with or without food.”
The Record-Eagle’s analysis found a less strong, but still significant, correlation between a higher median household income and travel reduction.
This correlation exists even when considering other relationships between income and political affiliation, or income and rurality.
Some lower-income counties still managed to reduce their movement substantially. When ranking Michigan counties by median household income, Wayne County falls in the bottom third. But residents there decreased their mobility by 65 percent, more than most other counties.
Because Wayne County is one of the most liberal in the state, it’s an example of a place where data shows politics may have mattered more than income.
It’s also where the coronavirus hit hardest, killing nearly 1,000 people and disproportionately impacted African American communities, according to data recorded by the state.
“When [people] start seeing reports of their hospitals overwhelmed, when they start knowing people that are infected or die, that’s certainly a strong motivation to adhere,” Eisenberg said.
The Record-Eagle’s regression doesn’t account for the number of cases or deaths in a county, because the numbers change daily, and counties aren’t uniformly affected by the pandemic.
But early deaths from the disease appear to be connected to how much residents reduced movement.
In the week after Whitmer issued her stay-at-home executive order, mobility decreased by 54 percent on average in the five counties where residents had already died (Kent, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne). Other counties in the state reduced their mobility by 40 percent in the same time period.
Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it couldn’t comment on the Record-Eagle’s analysis without doing its own. In an email to the Record-Eagle, MDHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton simply stressed that people should stay home.
“Whether you’re in rural, urban or suburban areas, or from Up North or downstate, you need to stay home unless you are leaving for essential purposes such as to buy food or prescriptions for your family,” he said.
Whitmer’s order is set to expire on April 30, but experts say coronavirus likely will need to be managed for many months.
In a press conference Wednesday, Whitmer said her response to the pandemic is not political.
“I’m trying to save lives here,” she said. “I’m happy to work with people on both sides of the aisle, and we need to. We have to remember the enemy is the virus, not one another.”
Mobility Index: Cuebiq
Population, race, and age: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2018 5-year estimates
Rurality: U.S. Census Bureau 2010 census
Voting data: Michigan Secretary of State