There are many reasons people might not be heeding experts’ advice, from the overconfidence of youth to psychological denial to exposure to misinformation. But several polls released over the past few weeks suggest that a partisan divide might be partly to blame. While Democrats across the country have been bracing for the impact of the pandemic, Republicans have been far less concerned. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted March 11 to 13, found that 68 percent of Democrats were worried that someone in their family could catch the virus, compared with just 40 percent of Republicans.
This partisan gap is mirrored in the results of several other polls. One found that Democrats were 18 percentage points more likely to avoid large crowds than Republicans; another, that Democrats were 10 percent more likely to say that they are “washing my hands or using disinfectant more frequently.” (In a noteworthy contrast, in 2014, when President Barack Obama was in office, Republicans were more concerned about Ebola than Democrats.)
“Partisan polarization” is hardly new: Republicans and Democrats tend to have markedly different reactions to news events, and they even disagree on questions that would seem to be basic matters of fact. But unlike debates about the size of an inauguration crowd, this time, the stakes are much higher. This time, partisan polarization could kill.
Recently, Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, suggested that reality might finally be “burst[ing] through the partisan bubble.” In an analysis of Google search trends, he found that, from Feb. 15 through March 15, people living in politically “red” states were significantly less likely to have searched for “coronavirus” over the previous month than residents of blue states. But over the last few days of the period examined — March 11 to 15 — there had been a noticeable change in behavior: People in Republican states were searching for the virus nearly as much as their Democratic counterparts. Unfortunately, this finding may not be as reassuring as it first appears.
Some obvious contributors to partisan polarization on the novel coronavirus have been the messages emanating from Republican leaders and media figures. Fox News host Sean Hannity called the coronavirus issue a “fraud” perpetuated by the “deep state,” and the same network’s Trish Regan accused Democrats of using the coronavirus crisis “to destroy and demonize this president.”
After a Republican with the coronavirus attended the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, however, several GOP leaders began to change their tune, albeit haltingly. President Trump shifted from calling the pandemic a “hoax” (Feb. 28) to saying, this week, “I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic.” And this shift was mirrored on Fox News.
But messages remain mixed. During news conferences detailing the federal response to the pandemic, officials have been standing in large groups and shaking hands as the cameras roll. While Mike DeWine, Republican governor from Ohio, is leading an aggressive response to mute the pandemic, his Republican colleague from Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, bragged about his family eating at a packed restaurant and encouraged state residents to follow his lead.
This may be why a more recent poll of registered voters, March 13 to 17, still found stark partisan differences on hand washing, social distancing, travel and other pandemic-related behavior. And a study I conducted last week at New York University with my fellow social psychologists, Anni Sternisko and Aleksandra Cichocka, found evidence of partisan differences in conspiracy theory beliefs. Our survey of 294 Americans found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe fictitious statements about the pandemic, such as, “The Chinese government deliberately spread the coronavirus (covid-19) as a bioweapon.” The effects were strong and could not be explained by a general tendency to believe in other conspiracy theories.
One reason these new results differ from the more promising Google search results is that red and blue “states” are not the same as “people.” It’s entirely possible that Democrats in red states might have grown concerned as they noticed their neighbors were relatively oblivious to the coming pandemic — and started searching online to prepare for the worst.
Another reason that searches on Google for “coronavirus” might not mirror the polls is because the Internet allows people to pick and choose which links to click and stories to read. If two people search for “coronavirus,” a Democrat might be looking for ways to deal with risk, while a Republican is reading commentary about how the threat is overblown. Just as partisans tune into MSNBC or Fox News because they believe the hosts share their partisan identity, the same process unfolds when we pick up the paper or search online. When a conservative encounters a collection of “liberal” and “conservative” articles, they are more likely to engage with the ones that affirm their political identity, and avoid stories that challenge them (and vice versa for liberals).
There is extensive evidence that we filter and absorb political news through our partisan brains. But there are limits to how far the mind can bend reality to match their partisan affiliation. In psychology, these are known as reality constraints.
We may not have reached those limits. But as the pandemic bears down on America and people start to see their friends and family hospitalized with life-threatening illness, you can expect to see the partisan-colored lenses start to clear up. You’ll likely see Republicans heed the advice of experts and hunker down to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Indeed, a new national poll released March 19, which “oversampled” residents of Washington state, where coronavirus hit early and hard, found a smaller gap between Republican and Democratic views on whether the news media was exaggerating the pandemic there than elsewhere. But the divide was still substantial: 37 percentage points vs. 49 nationally.
Still, staring at death tends to have a sobering effect on even the most committed partisans. The coronavirus pandemic will not completely close the partisan divide, but it can apparently shrink it, at least temporarily. If it doesn’t, we are in even deeper trouble than we think.