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American attitudes toward covid-19 are divided by party. The pandemic itself might undo that.

Partisanship is a strong drug, but it’s not as strong as the instinct to survive

- August 18, 2020

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, numerous polls have found U.S. public opinion seems to be polarizing along party lines over such issues as who fears the virus, wears masks, complies with social distancing and supports policies that help flatten the curve. We were concerned partisanship might be undermining the unified response required to fight the pandemic. But our research found the public health crisis itself might help to undo political polarization — at least, on issues related to the virus. We find fear of becoming seriously ill from covid-19 helps blunt knee-jerk partisan reactions, which suggests the most effective public messaging strategy to bring Americans together might be fear itself.

Public opinion polls document increasingly polarized views regarding covid-19

Public health experts say combating covid-19 requires near universal public compliance. But the United States, riven by partisanship, has been anything but unified. Compared with Democrats, Republicans have been reacting to the pandemic with less fear, less social distancing, less mask-wearing and less support for policies such as mask mandates and stay-at-home orders. With President Trump and other Republican leaders minimizing the crisis, polarization may threaten the country’s collective ability to respond.

What does this teach us about party politics and polarization?

Well, it actually confirms what we know about how party identification affects public opinion. Average citizens aren’t political experts, so they use shortcuts like party identification to make sense of politics. Most important, they take cues from their favored party leaders as to what political positions they should hold.

Polarization occurs when party leaders take clear and opposing positions on issues. But it is not inevitable. If party leaders take similar positions, ordinary Americans will, too.

Public opinion about the pandemic has followed this pattern. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats initially supported most initiatives to contain the pandemic because leaders on both sides endorsed them early on. But eventually President Trump signaled the threat had passed while Democratic leaders urged continued caution. As a result, the partisan divide on opinions and behavior increased dramatically between spring and summer.

Is it hopeless to imagine public unity over steps to slow the spread of the virus? Yes — unless something were to disrupt the relationship between party identification and attitudes toward public health policy. That something would need to make the costs of using party as a shortcut for policy position outweigh the benefits of not having to become a covid-19 expert.

We thought fear might have that potential. If following your party can make you or someone you love seriously ill, blindly following party leaders becomes very costly. Fear can make people more likely to think seriously about their political positions rather than to uncritically follow the party line.

How we did our research

At UNC-Chapel Hill, we contracted with Qualtrics to field two nationally representative online surveys in early April and in early June, in which the same 1,300 people answered both. This “panel” design allows us to observe how their attitudes changed and to what effect.

We asked people whether they supported policy measures to mitigate the effects of the virus and whether they were doing things like wearing masks. We also asked which party they identified with and how concerned they were about becoming seriously ill from covid-19.

Here’s what we found

Between April and June, the percentage of respondents saying they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about becoming seriously ill dropped from 67 percent to 53 percent, and party polarization increased. For example, in April, Democrats supported government mask mandates at a rate 11 percentage points higher than Republicans. By June, that difference in support had ballooned to 25 points.

But here’s the key finding: This polarization was almost entirely driven by Republicans who were becoming less concerned about the virus or who had never been concerned.

The chart below reveals the pattern. The left side tracks how support for mask mandates changed among those who were either never concerned about getting sick or got less concerned between April and June. In April, these Republicans and Democrats were 13 points apart. By June, they were 36 points apart.

The pattern among those who either always feared getting seriously ill or those who got more concerned, which appears on the right side of the chart, is different. In April, these Republicans and Democrats were only about 5 points apart, and in June they remained less than 10 points apart.

Fear also affects how individuals behave. In the chart below, we show the differences in the percentage of partisans who report wearing masks in public “very often.” Among those not concerned about getting sick or becoming less concerned, party differences grew from 18 points to 25 points. For those who remained fearful or became more fearful, polarization grew, but by less. Fear’s effect on Republicans was profound. More fearful Republicans were 25 points more likely than less fearful Republicans to report wearing masks “very often.”

The effect of fear persisted even when we took into account other important factors, like how strong a partisan someone was, what news they consumed, or how severe the outbreak was in their home county. When people are afraid of getting sick, they rely less on partisan shortcuts and take positions and actions to reduce the risk of what they fear.

This has implications for how the nation responds to the pandemic

If reducing concern resulted in more polarization, then increasing concern should help shrink it. In red states, as infections and deaths spike, fear of illness will probably increase. Public health messaging can help, too. Beyond the 170,000 people who have died, many more have suffered heart, lung, and neurological damage from covid-19. Harrowing first person accounts told by figures with whom skeptics might identify could affect attitudes and behavior. Antismoking advocates have employed this strategy for years.

Partisanship is a strong drug, but it’s not as strong as the human instinct to survive.

Marc J. Hetherington is Raymond Dawson Bicentennial Professor at the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill. His work on public opinion centers on polarization and trust in government.

Isaac D. Mehlhaff is a PhD student in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research investigates the psychology of polarization and its impact on democracy around the world.