Personal experience with COVID-19 may sway partisanship. But only some of the time.

Personal experience with COVID-19 is connected to changes in partisan opinions and behaviors.

The author(s)

  • Sarah Feldman Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
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This week Dr. Fauci warned that the U.S faces “further suffering and further death" if the country doesn’t move to contain the coronavirus. America is averaging more than 1,000 deaths per day and there have been at least 4 million positive COVID-19 cases across the country.

And while some other countries have managed to get their outbreak under control, the response in the United States has been blown off course.

The coronavirus has become another front in partisan culture wars furthering America’s struggles to get the virus under control. Mask use, COVID-19 concern, and social distancing behaviors break down between Republican and Democratic camps seeing vastly different realities.

But as the coronavirus pandemic has spread beyond the ‘blue’ states initially impacted to ‘red’ America, does reality begin to seep through the partisan bubbles? Can personal experience with the virus supersede entrenched opinions? With almost one in five Americans now knowing someone who has died because of coronavirus, analysis into the varying levels of proximity to COVID-19 in the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index finds that the pandemic can influence opinion in ways that political rhetoric cannot—but only in certain instances.

For starters, mask use is heavily influenced by proximity to COVID-19. Only 38% of Republicans with no personal experience with the virus wear a mask all the time. That climbs to 52% among Republicans who know someone who died of the virus.

Proximity to COVID-19 correlates with mask use and concern

 

However, while proximity does appear correlated with behavior, it does not overcome the impact of partisanship. There is a 35-point gap between Republicans and Democrats who both know someone who has died from COVID-19. But those same Republicans are only 20-points behind Democrats with no experience and are on-par with Independents with no personal pandemic tragedies.

The same trend is true for Independents as well. Independents who know someone who died begin to look like Democrats when it comes to wearing a mask all the time. Two-thirds (65%) of Independents who know someone who died from COVID-19 wear a mask all the time, 13-points ahead of people of the same party with no personal experience.

Concerns about coronavirus rises among people with a COVID-19 death in their network. Worry shoots up by 16-points between Republicans with no personal experience and those who know someone who died. About a third of Republicans (35%) with no personal experience are concerned about COVID-19 while over half of Republicans who know someone who died share that fear.

Independents move 16-points up as well from only a bare majority concerned about COVID-19 among those with no personal experience to a solid majority among those who know someone who died. Democratic concern stays fairly stable as concern is already very high among this group.

Shana Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University found that people are more open to new information during moments of intense stress and anxiety. Experiencing a death could be an instance of that type of intense pain that could move partisan behavior.

Interestingly though, knowing someone who tests positive correlated with a greater likelihood to engage in some risky behavior. 48% of Democrats who knew someone who tested positive in their community visited friends or family, 13-points ahead of Democrats who know someone who died from the virus.

Knowing someone who tests positive is connected with leaving the home more

 

The same goes for Republicans. Knowing someone with a positive coronavirus test is connected to being more likely to go out and see friends or family. Two-thirds of Republicans who knew someone who tested positive generally or in their neighborhood saw friends or family recently, roughly 18-points behind Republicans who knew someone who died.

Republicans reacted in a similar fashion when it came to eating out. 52% of Republicans who knew someone who tested positive in their community reported going out to eat. Among Republicans who knew someone who died of COVID-19, only 39% reported eating out.

Social distancing was mostly stable across each party and not impacted by a person’s personal proximity to the virus. Democrats reported social distancing more, followed by Independents and then Republicans.

Unfortunately, people are getting more familiar with the virus as new cases and deaths surge across the country. Almost half of Americans know someone who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the most recent wave of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

More Americans are coming into contact with direct risks to their health and some of the ways people react to that risk don't always seem rational on the surface, particularly when human biases are at play in a hyper-partisan environment. But, understanding how people take in public health information, process political cues and make sense of their own personal experience through those lenses will become more crucial in the coming months as the virus and partisanship reaches a fever pitch.

The author(s)

  • Sarah Feldman Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs

Society