The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic’s central political tension, in one poll question

A coronavirus patient on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) floor at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 31, 2022. (Allison Dinner/Bloomberg)
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Generally speaking, Americans have come to a cautious consensus on the coronavirus pandemic, now more than two years old. Polling from Ipsos conducted for Axios and published on Tuesday morning shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans think that the pandemic remains a problem, but a manageable one. That comports with other polling, as from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). It found that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans report doing very few of the activities they engaged in before the pandemic.

What’s interesting about the Axios-Ipsos poll, though, is that it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who are more likely to say that the pandemic is manageable. That’s because nearly a third of Republicans think the pandemic isn’t a problem at all. Republicans were 10 times as likely to hold that position as were Democrats.

This is the central tension of the pandemic.

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From the pandemic’s earliest days, President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to view the pandemic as a non-issue, as something that would fade with the arrival of summer or become inert thanks to therapeutic treatments (like hydroxychloroquine, he insisted) or vaccines. The solution was ever-changing, but the assurance was consistent: This was all just about over. And, even as waves of infection and death arrived and receded, Republicans believed that the worst was in the past.

Polling from YouGov conducted for the Economist makes this clear. By the summer of 2020, half of Republicans reported thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind the country, a view that collapsed once the winter surge arrived. With the broad roll-out of vaccines early last year, confidence that the corner had finally been turned was common across party identities. Then delta arrived, then omicron.

(On the top graph below, the lines indicate the three-week average of polling. Individual pol results are indicated with dots.)

How one defines “the worst of the pandemic” varies, certainly. Is it cases? Deaths? Economic impacts? How one views the thing that is most dire presumably influences when that thing has arrived or passed. But it’s clearly the case that people see the surges as bad, given the concomitant drops in confidence that the worst has receded as new surges arrive.

Since the beginning of March 2021, though, there’s a striking split between Republicans and Democrats. In 32 of 44 polls, a majority of Republicans have said that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. In only three polls have Democrats said the same thing.

This translates into how people approach the pandemic. During that same period, counties that voted for Joe Biden in November 2020 have seen higher rates of vaccination and — relatedly — lower rates of death than places that voted for Trump.

Vaccines are a useful benchmark, but this same partisan split shows up on other efforts to contain the worst of the virus. KFF finds that Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to say that they never stopped living their lives as they did before the pandemic. They also found that Republicans were more than four times more likely than Democrats to say that people should stop masking “so that things can get back to normal.”

That’s the irony that’s existed since the pandemic’s beginning. Pretending the virus would go away ensured it didn’t. Declining to wear a mask simply to grant the appearance of normalcy makes normalcy harder to achieve. Willing the virus to go away is no more effective now than it was when Trump tried to do it two years ago.