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Democrats, Republicans Agree on the Science, Disagree on the Politics of Covid-19

by Pavielle Haines

When alarm bells about the coronavirus pandemic began ringing in the United States in early March, polling showed that Republicans were only half as likely as Democrats to view it as a major public health threat. President Trump himself came across as nonchalant, largely ignoring the warnings and recommendations of his own public health officials. Americans seemed prepared to view even an infectious disease outbreak through the lens of unmitigated partisanship. But with the death toll rising and the economy spiraling downward, partisan differences seem to have narrowed. Apparently, no amount of partisan spin can withstand the stark reality of the coronavirus.

Several colleagues and I conducted a survey of 2,200 people in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and North Dakota to measure public opinion about the coronavirus in the Rocky Mountain West between April 10 and April 27, 2020.* We found that although Republicans and Democrats continue to have areas of significant disagreement, they hold surprisingly similar views on numerous aspects of the outbreak. These findings square with recent national polling. Drawing on our results, here are seven key takeaways about partisan attitudes and experiences at this point in the coronavirus crisis:

1. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats support stay-at-home orders.

Our survey shows that 88% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans support a stay-at-home order in their state. This indicates that although conservative anti-quarantine protestors have gained a great deal of media attention, they ultimately represent a small minority –– even within the Republican Party. Moreover, Republican and Democratic governors alike have a unique window of opportunity to implement sound coronavirus policy that also makes good political sense.

2. Republicans and Democrats are both practicing social distancing.

We asked people how many days in the last week they had engaged in various social activities and whether that was an increase or decrease compared to before the pandemic. On average, Democrats and Republicans alike reported going to a restaurant or bar less than 0.2 days per week; going to an in-person gathering less than 0.3 days per week; and going to in-person religious services less than 0.2 days per week. Most also indicated that these outings were less frequent than before the outbreak. For example, 83% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans reported going to fewer in-person gatherings than usual. Overall, Democrats and Republicans reported social distancing an average of 3.6 and 3.2 days per week, respectively.

3. Republicans and Democrats alike hold scientists and public health officials in high regard.

In our survey, 64% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats approved of how scientists and public health officials have handled the coronavirus response. When asked to indicate their top three most trusted sources of information about the coronavirus from a list of eleven choices, the most frequently selected options were health care providers and scientists. 72% of Republicans and 76% of Democrats selected health care providers as a most trusted source. 57% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats selected scientists. Despite the marked anti-intellectualism in American culture, people from both sides of the aisle seem prepared to listen to the experts during this crisis.

4. Similar shares of Republicans and Democrats have experienced economic disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Our results show that regardless of partisanship, the pandemic has caused roughly 30% of people to lose income; 18% to lose their job; 20% to suffer food insecurity; and 11% to miss bill payments. Overall, 34% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats indicated that the coronavirus has disrupted their life “a lot.” The socioeconomic fallout of the coronavirus transcends partisan affiliation.

5. Republicans and Democrats hold similar preferences for federal economic aid. There is widespread and bipartisan concern about the state of the economy. We find that among both Republicans and Democrats, upwards of 70% are at least moderately worried about the collapse of small businesses or an economic depression. Correspondingly, both groups support unprecedented federal economic intervention. 80% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats support federal assistance to individuals who have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus. Around 82% of Republicans and Democrats also support federal aid to small businesses. Minorities from both parties –– 32% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats –– support federal relief for large corporations.

6. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to regard the coronavirus as a serious health threat.

Widespread agreement about stay-at-home orders may obscure critical differences in how concerned partisans truly are about the coronavirus. In our survey, 59% of Democrats versus only 36% of Republicans indicated being at least moderately concerned about catching or getting seriously ill from the coronavirus. Similarly, 75% of Democrats but only 60% of Republicans indicated at least moderate concern that someone they knew would get seriously ill.

While 54% of Democrats expressed at least moderate worry that there wouldn’t be enough local healthcare services, only 32% of Republicans felt the same way. On the whole, Democrats are substantially more concerned about the personal and public health implications of the coronavirus than are Republicans.

7. There is a wide partisan gap in how Republicans and Democrats view Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Our survey shows 74% of Republicans approve of how Trump has handled the coronavirus response, compared to only 11% of Democrats. Pandemic or not, support for Trump continues to divide along partisan lines.

These takeaways are instructive as to how the political climate might evolve over the next few months of the pandemic. Since Democrats regard the coronavirus as a more serious threat, they will likely continue to support stringent social distancing policies. This will be coupled with demand for federal relief packages that allow people and small businesses to survive a prolonged period of economic shutdown. Although the majority of Republicans also currently support stay-at-home orders, their preferences are not as strongly moored to concern over the health effects of the coronavirus.

This may be partly because the initial outbreak hit Democratic urban centers hardest, largely sparing rural communities with Republican majorities. In the states we surveyed, rural counties with fewer than twenty cases were home to three times as many Republicans as Democrats. And even among Republicans who supported statewide stay-at-home orders, those living in rural counties were about ten points more likely to regard the coronavirus as a primarily urban issue. Thus, Republicans’ support for stay-at-home orders –– especially in rural communities –– could evaporate quickly once the coronavirus appears to be even somewhat contained. It is also likely they would be rapidly galvanized if Trump were to demand a widespread re-opening of the economy in advance of the election. At that point, it may be back to the business of partisan bickering as usual.

*The survey was conducted in collaboration with Dr. David Parker, Dr. Eric Raile, and Dr. Elizabeth Shanahan. It included 503 respondents in Colorado, 738 in Montana, 481 in North Dakota, and 498 in Utah. Data were weighted by age, gender, education, race, ethnicity, and urban versus rural residence to match the population of each state. Funding was provided by the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver and Montana State University – Bozeman. Pavielle Haines is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. She begins as an assistant professor of political science at Rollins College this fall.

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