President Trump has spent much of the past two months downplaying the novel coronavirus threat. Those statements, others have noted, are dramatically different from his comments about the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Back then, Trump repeatedly played up fears of Ebola to attack President Barack Obama. His many tweets included incorrect claims that “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting” and that a “single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum.”

Republicans in Congress also exploited Ebola fears during the 2014 midterm election campaign. Political scientist Lindsey Cormack’s November 2014 The Monkey Cage analysis showed congressional Republicans mentioned Ebola much more than their Democratic counterparts did in the two months before the midterms — but stopped talking about it immediately after the election.

The Ebola threat was, of course, enormously overstated. PolitiFact even named “exaggerations about Ebola” its 2014 Lie of the Year. The disease is far easier to contain than the coronavirus because it’s transmitted only through direct contact with symptomatic carriers’ bodily fluids. This is unlike covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Consequently, just four people in 2014 were infected with Ebola in the United States.

Nevertheless, everything we know about public opinion tells us that prominent Republicans’ differing partisan messages about those two viruses’ respective threats should have profoundly affected Americans’ concerns about each. And they certainly did.

Partisan opinions about Ebola and the coronavirus

So much so, in fact, that Republicans were more concerned about Ebola in 2014 than they have been about the coronavirus outbreak this past month.

Averaging across five weekly surveys conducted by YouGov-Economist between Oct. 4 and Nov. 3, 2014, the figure above shows that 28 percent of Republicans were very concerned “about an Ebola epidemic here in the United States,” with 78 percent of Republicans at least somewhat concerned.

But averaging four weekly YouGov-Economist surveys conducted this March shows that only 22 percent were very concerned “about a coronavirus epidemic here in the United States,” with just 65 percent at least somewhat concerned. Meanwhile, you can see that Democrats’ concern about the coronavirus outbreak has been much higher this month than it was about Ebola in 2014.

To be sure, the percentage of Republicans who are concerned about the coronavirus grew sharply over the past month, as the threat’s reality has increasingly broken through the partisan bubble. But even now, Republicans’ concern about the coronavirus pandemic is still slightly below where it was for Ebola during the first two weeks of October 2014.

The power of partisan messages

Why would Republicans be more concerned about Ebola than the coronavirus when the latter is obviously such a greater physical and economic threat? A lot of that can be explained by the power of partisan messages.

Political science research has long shown that partisan messages have a big influence on public opinion. When party leaders take diverging positions on issues, the public usually follows their lead — especially on new and complex issues like the respective threats from Ebola and covid-19.

Take the scientific issue of climate change, for example, where partisan elites’ influence over public opinion is particularly powerful. Public opinion about climate change shifts based on whether Democrats or Republicans in Congress are focusing more on the issue. Climate change opinions also polarized after the media began covering it as a partisan issue — with particularly pronounced polarization emerging between well-informed Democrats and Republicans who were seeing increasingly partisan messages about where their side stands.

The same partisan polarization pattern has emerged with the coronavirus pandemic. A recent analysis of NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist polls by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump showed that in February, Democrats and Republicans weren’t divided about the coronavirus. But after a month in which Trump told Americans that the coronavirus outbreak is under control, the share of Republicans who saw the virus as a real threat plummeted by mid-March.

YouGov-Economist polls also show that partisan polarization over the coronavirus closely tracks the president’s rhetoric. In February, those polls found only modest differences between Democrats and Republicans in how concerned they were about an epidemic in the United States; by early March, that had expanded into a large partisan divide. But now that the president and Fox News shifted their tone last week about the pandemic’s seriousness, that gap is again starting to close.

Those partisan patterns were even be found in Google search behavior. As I noted in an earlier TMC post, Republican areas of the countries were much less likely to Google “coronavirus” up until mid-March. Similarly, Google searches for “hand sanitizer” began to differ by political geography between March 1 and 12 — but disappeared again after Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak on March 13.

Taken together, then, these results strongly suggest that the president’s rhetoric is a major reason so many Americans didn’t take the coronavirus threat seriously earlier. That’s reinforced by a long line of academic research on the power of partisan messages.

At the same time, these findings suggest that Trump’s and other prominent Republicans’ renewed efforts to downplay the coronavirus threat will once again show up in some Americans’ opinions and behavior.