A new Pew Research Center poll has found a stark partisan difference in views on the importance of the coronavirus pandemic in the days before the presidential election.
The poll, taken from October 6 to 12, found that only 24 percent of registered voters who support Trump view the pandemic as a “very important” voting issue in the 2020 election, compared to 82 percent of Biden supporters. The highest issue of concern for Trump voters, by far, was the economy — 84 percent named that as being “very important” (a reasonably high number of Biden supporters, 66 percent, agreed).
The poll asked registered voters about six issues — abortion, health care, foreign policy, the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, and Supreme Court appointments — and found that Biden and Trump supporters viewed most issues with relatively equal importance. Two interrelated issues were clear exceptions: health care, an issue Biden supporters were 38 percentage points more likely to view as “very important,” and the pandemic, which boasted an even larger 58 percentage point gap.
So far, more than 220,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and roughly 1,000 continue to die every day. States like Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida — all of which voted for Trump in 2016 — have experienced some of the worst outbreaks in the US. As my colleague German Lopez points out, if Republican-leaning states alone were a country, they’d be in the top 10 for Covid-19 deaths among developed nations.
And the worst may be yet to come: On Friday, the US reported a single-day record of confirmed coronavirus cases, over 85,000 — surpassing the previous high from July by over 10,000 cases. Saturday, the new confirmed case count nearly matched that record high, topping 83,000. With case loads and hospitalizations already at dangerously high levels, epidemiologists have expressed concern that this “third wave” of Covid-19 cases could be the most deadly yet.
Trump has stressed the economy over pandemic response
A second Pew poll, released earlier this month, may give some insight into why many Trump supporters don’t see the coronavirus as an important issue in the upcoming election.
The survey found that 68 percent of Republicans think the US has controlled the Covid-19 outbreak “as much as it could have” versus 11 percent of Democrats; it also found that 66 percent of Republicans think the Covid-19 outbreak has been made out to be a “bigger deal than it really is,” while just 15 percent of Democrats said the same.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has praised himself and his administration for having done a “phenomenal job” handling the crisis. In Thursday’s presidential debate, Trump cited a model that forecast US deaths if the country took no coronavirus prevention measures, claiming that “2.2 million people, modeled out, were expected to die,” misleadingly suggesting that his administration’s response had saved approximately 2 million lives.
In that same debate, he claimed that “700,000 people would be dead right now” under a Biden administration — a death toll that would have required Biden to do less to stop the virus than the Trump administration has (Biden’s coronavirus plan calls for doing more). Vice President Mike Pence pursued a similar line of attack at the vice presidential debate in early October.
Besides praising his response, Trump has also consistently played down the seriousness of the coronavirus. In the last presidential debate, he responded to a question about the virus by saying, “We’re learning to live with it.” On Saturday alone, Trump tweeted that the record-setting number of new cases in the US is being overhyped, claimed that the virus would magically disappear after the election, and pushed a baseless conspiracy theory that doctors and hospitals are inflating the Covid-19 death count for profit.
Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly pushed to completely reopen the US economy. Echoing a claim he’s been making since March, the president said at Thursday’s debate, “The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself, and that’s what’s happening. … We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy.”
From the outside, it’s easy to view Trump’s constant downplaying of the pandemic as political suicide — the sort of behavior that will entrench opposition to the president and potentially cause his supporters to abandon him come November. But the Pew polls released this month appear to tell a different story. Trump’s blatant denial of the coronavirus reality — and his focus on reopening the economy — isn’t turning his base off; to the contrary, it reflects what they already believe about the pandemic.
Political polarization affects views on Covid-19 — but it has its limits
The academic literature on political polarization points to a simple explanation for the massive divergence in public opinion on the coronavirus, Pew’s pollsters detected: Partisans don’t evaluate the world objectively; they take cues from the leaders and media sources who they trust. Drawing on the work of political scientist Sara Wallace Goodman, my colleague Ezra Klein explained this phenomenon with regard to partisan divergence on mask-wearing earlier this year:
Sara Wallace Goodman, a political scientist at the University of California Irvine, has been part of a team repeatedly surveying the same group of Americans to see how their behaviors and attitudes have changed over the course of the virus. Even controlling for factors like the prevalence of the disease in the place respondents live, Wallace Goodman and her colleagues find a significant and growing partisan gap in terms of fear of the disease, perceived safety of different behaviors, and preferred policy solutions.
The key to understanding this, Wallace Goodman says, is that “when people are operating in areas of high misinformation and lack of information, they take cues. We can only be rational if our leaders are rational. If you see the president not wearing a mask in meetings, you’re going to model what he does.”
The same goes for whether you think the importance of the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown, or whether you think the US did everything it could to control the virus. Because few Democrats or Republicans have personally conducted investigations into these issues, the differences in opinion between them hinge on which leaders and institutions they trust. Liberals tend to take their cues from epidemiologists and science journalists — or from political leaders and media outlets that defer to their expertise. Conservatives often take their cues from Fox News, Trump, and other leaders and news outlets who are often skeptical of — or downright hostile toward — those experts.
In fact, when the same Pew poll that evaluated partisan opinions on Covid-19’s seriousness asked respondents about their primary news sources, it unveiled some striking findings. Among Republicans whose primary news sources are Fox News or talk radio, 78 percent thought the seriousness of Covid-19 has been exaggerated, and 90 percent believed the US has done everything it can to control the virus. Republicans who consume a more diverse array of news sources have considerably lower numbers on both counts.
One reason for this appears to be that while Trump’s rhetoric on the coronavirus clearly appeals to Republican voters, it seems far less effective at winning over swing voters.
According to a September Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the coronavirus outbreak is the most important 2020 election issue for 15 percent of undecided voters. And recent polling across seven swing states — Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas — by the conservative polling firm CT Group found that 56 percent of former Trump voters who no longer planned to vote for the president cited his pandemic response as a major factor in reconsidering their support for him.
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